China’s high-tech repression of Uyghurs is more sinister — and lucrative — than it seems, anthropologist says

Keeps on getting worse:

When people started to disappear in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang in 2014, then-PhD student Darren Byler was living there, with a rare, ground-level view of events that would eventually be labelled by some as a modern-day genocide.

The American anthropologist, who learned Chinese and Uyghur languages, witnessed a digital police state rise up around him, as mass detention and surveillance became a feature of life in Xinjiang. He spent years experiencing and gathering testimony on the impact.

“It’s affected all of society,” he told CBC’s Ideas.

Since those early days of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s so-called “People’s War on Terror,”Human Rights Watch says at least one million Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained in what China calls “re-education” or “vocational training” camps, in prisons or “pre-trial detention” facilities. 

Survivors have recounted being tortured and raped in the camps, scruitinized by the gaze of cameras 24/7, and perhaps most crucially, forced to learn how to be Chinese and unlearn what it is to be Uyghur. 

Countless of their children, says HRW, are forced to do the same in residential boarding schools. 

China — currently in the Olympic spotlight and steering clear of such topics — routinely denies accusations, including from Canada’s House of Commons, that its treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide. 

China declared its campaign in 2014 after a series of violent attacks that it blamed on Uyghur extremists or separatists. 

But what all Uyghurs are now facing is more sinister and lucrative than that, said Byler, now an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

It is, he said, a modern-day colonial project that operates at the nexus of state surveillance, mass detention and huge profits, and is enabled by high tech companies using ideas and technology first developed in the West.

Byler calls it “terror capitalism,” a new frontier of global capitalism that is fuelled by the labelling of a people as dangerous, and then using their labour and most private personal data to generate wealth.

“When we’re talking about a frontier of capitalism, you’re talking about turning something that previously was not a commodity into a commodity,” he said. 

“So in this context, it’s Uyghur social life, Uyghur behaviour, Uyghur digital histories that are being extracted and then quantified, measured and assessed and turned into this pattern data that is then made predictable.”

The process Byler describes involves forced harvesting of people’s data and then using it to improve predictive artificial intelligence technology. It also involves using the same population as test subjects for companies developing new tech. In other words, Xinjiang serves as an incubator for new tech.

Also critical is using those populations as unpaid or cheap labour in a resource-rich area considered a strategic corridor for China’s economic ambitions.

“As I started to think more about the technology systems that were being built and understand the money that was flowing into this space, I started to think about it as more of a kind of security industrial complex that was funding technology development and research in the region,” Byler told CBC’s Ideas.

Byler said research shows that tech companies working with Chinese state security tend to flourish and innovate, thanks largely to access to the huge troves of data collected by various levels of government.

David Yang, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, conducted such research using thousands of publicly available contracts specifically for facial recognition technology procured by mostly municipal governments all over China. 

A contracted firm with access to government data “steadily increased its product innovation not just for the government, but also for the commercial market,” for the next two years, said Yang. 

‘Health check’

Surveillance is a feature of everyday life in Xinjiang, so the personal data crucial to the profits is constantly being collected.

Central to the harvesting is a biometric ID system introduced there in 2017 requiring citizens to provide fingerprints, facial imagery, iris scans and DNA samples.

There are also turnstiles, checkpoints and cameras everywhere, and citizens are required to carry smartphones with specific apps.

“It’s the technology that really pervades all moments of life,” said Byler. “It’s so intimate. There’s no real outside to it.”

It was in 2017 that Alim (not his real name) returned to Xinjiang from abroad to see his ailing mother. His arrest upon landing in China was the start of what he said was a descent into powerlessness — and the involuntary harvesting of his data. 

Alim, now in his 30s, spoke to IDEAS on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals against remaining family in Xinjiang.

At the police station at home, as part of what he was told was a “health check,” Alim had a DNA sample taken and “multiple pictures of my face from different sides … they made me read a passage from a book” to record his voice.

“Right before the voice recording, I had an anxiety attack, realizing that I’m possibly going to be detained for a very long time,” Alim said.

The warrant for Alim’s arrest said he was “under suspicion of disrupting the societal order.” 

In a crowded and airless pre-trial detention facility, he said he was forced to march and chant Communist Party slogans. 

“I was just a student visiting home, but in the eyes of the Chinese government, my sheer identity, being a male Uyghur born after the 1980s, is enough for them to detain me.” 

Once released through the help of a relative, Alim found that his data haunted him wherever he went, setting off police alarms whenever he swiped his ID. 

“I basically realized I was in a form of house arrest. I felt trapped.”

Global connections

While the Xinjiang example is extreme, it is still an extension of surveillance that has become the norm in the West, too, but where consent is at least implicitly given when we shop online or use social media.

And just as the artificial intelligence technology used for surveillance in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China has roots in the computer labs of Silicon Valley and Big Tech companies in the West, new Chinese iterations of such technology are also being exported back into the world, selling in countries like Zimbabwe and the Philippines, said Byler.

China may be the site of “some of the sharpest, most egregious manifestations of tech oppression, but it’s by no means the only place in the world,” said lawyer and anthropologist Petra Molnar, who is associate director with the Refugee Law Lab at  York University in Toronto.

One such place is the modern international border, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, where Molnar is studying how surveillance technology affects migrant crossings.

Molnar said China’s avid investment in artificial intelligence is creating an “arms race” that carries risks of “normalizing surveillance” in competing countries with stricter human rights laws. 

“How is this going to then impact average individuals who are concerned about the growing role of Big Tech in our society?” she said from Athens.

“It seems like we’ve skipped a few steps in terms of the kind of conversations that we need to have as a public, as a society, and especially including the perspectives of communities and groups who are the ones experiencing this.” 

‘A lot more nuance to this story’

Despite human rights concerns, other countries are loath to condemn China over Xinjiang because it is such an important part of the global economy, said Byler.

But he points out that he focuses on the economics of Xinjiang partly “to destabilize this easy binary of ‘China is bad and the West is good.'”

China’s “People’s War on Terror” should be seen as an extension of the “war on terror” that originated in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks and is now a global phenomenon, said Byler.

“If we want to criticize China, we also have to criticize the ‘war on terror.’ We have to criticize or think carefully about capitalism and how it exploits people in multiple contexts,” he said. 

“There’s actually a lot more nuance to the story.”

The West’s complicity, he said, begins with “building these kinds of technologies without really thinking about the consequences.” 

Byler’s observations on the ground form the basis of two books he’s authored on the situation in Xinjiang — and of his policy suggestions to lawmakers, including Canadian MPs, about the repression in Xinjiang. 

He’s called on lawmakers to demand China’s leaders immediately abolish the re-education detention system and release all detainees. He’s also called for economic sanctions on Chinese authorities and technology companies that benefit from that process and for expediting asylum for Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims from China.

“I am a scholar at the end of the day,” said the Vancouver-based anthropologist.

“Maybe I can nudge people to think in ways that advocate for change. It takes many, many voices and I’m just trying to do my best with what I know how.”

Source: China’s high-tech repression of Uyghurs is more sinister — and lucrative — than it seems, anthropologist says

Stop poisonous prejudice against Canadians of Chinese descent

Sigh. The inability, deliberate or not, to recognize that legitimate criticism of Chinese regime policies and practices is not anti-Chinese Canadians, by people who should know better is disappointing. And rather striking that none of the authors have strongly condemned publicly Chinese government repression of Uighurs or Hong Kong (Google search):
The rising tide of hatred against Asians is a matter of urgent concern and deserves to be condemned by all Canadians. In this context, we are especially perturbed by blatant personal attacks against prominent Canadians of Chinese origin who have soberly expressed views on China and Canada-China relations, as with the case of Senator Yuen Pau Woo. As Canadian academics and China experts, we deeply value freedom of opinion. However some public commentators have gone well beyond debating the issues and descended to distorted and racially tainted xenophobic slurs that not only further poison the discourse on China and Canada-China relations, but give rise to unalloyed McCarthyism in a contemporary racialized form. News reports and commentary distorted what Senator Woo actually said. His Senate speech on the genocide resolution never whitewashed Beijing, nor did it draw equivalence between Canada’s current contrition over residential schools and the treatment of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Instead, Senator Woo rued the day when Chinese, like Canadians, may come to realize the damage caused by their own policies in Xinjiang. In his response to news reports and biased attacks, Senator Woo rightly pointed out how the public had been misled about his views. More egregiously, critics, in particular Derek Burney, Canada’s former ambassador to Washington, singled out Senator Woo’s immigrant background and lashed out at him for “living in the wrong country” simply because Senator Woo dared to express views on China different from his own. Other critics of China have darkly insinuated about ‘captured elites’ with respect to Canadians who express views on China different from their own. To these Sinophobic forces, denouncing China and its government is now a litmus test of loyalty for every bona fide Canadian. There are no second class Canadians, and those who would insinuate that have a whiff of the dark days of “Oriental Exclusion” and the Head Tax. Further, Senator Woo is an acknowledged China expert and former president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. His reasoned, balanced and moderate views on China, always with Canada’s best interests in sight, are well respected in the academic and policy community. During his many years of leadership, APF produced excellent analyses of China and the Asia Pacific region to assist decision-making by Canadian governments, corporations, and other institutions. But in those prejudiced mind, Senator Woo’s position is reduced to his Chinese ethnicity and none of these stellar professional qualifications therefore matter. The logic behind the vicious call for Senator Woo to resign from the Senate and register as a Chinese government lobbyist suggests that anyone having a different opinion on China than a particular group’s must not be allowed to hold a post in Canada, be it a Senator, or an academic, or whatever job they hold. This is more than dangerous. Our questions are: What is their agenda? What is the purpose of questioning the loyalty of Canadians? Is it to railroad Canadians of Chinese origin out of public life if they demur with the demonization of China? It is sad to see that our society is forging a toxic environment of discourse on China, with racist innuendo lurking just beneath the surface. This attack is part of a broader distortion effort. Thirty-three Senators voted against the Senate motion labelling current Chinese policy in Xinjiang as genocide. Most media reports used a particular phrase to report Senator Woo’s speech as “echoing the argument by Chinese officials,” which implies either Senator Woo was speaking for the Chinese government, or he is simply not able to form his own opinions. No such insinuation was made when Senator Peter Harder expressed similar views in his speech against the motion. No wonder anti-Asian hate crimes are rising in this country. When prominent Canadians express intolerant views, the result at the street level is to attack those who look Asian as communist China sympathizers or even agents. This is unworthy of our liberal and multicultural heritage and moreover is deeply misguided, as it both apes Stalinist tropes targeting dissent as disloyalty and seeks to discredit those who have expertise on China at a time when the challenges of dealing with a powerful China have made such expertise more important than ever. How to characterize the ongoing repressive policies in Xinjiang is beyond the point here. Senator Woo, and for that matter, any Canadian has the right to express their views about Xinjiang without being subjected to deliberate personal attack. We call on everyone, especially his Senate colleagues, who may or may not agree with his views, to support Senator Woo against such a character assassination. Jeremy Paltiel is professor of political science at Carleton University. Daniel A Bell is Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University in China. Xiaobei Chen is professor of sociology at Carleton University. Wenran Jiang is retired political science professor and founding director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
Source: Stop poisonous prejudice against Canadians of Chinese descent And in the China Daily:
A professor at one of Canada’s major universities has written a column for a state-run newspaper in China in which she defends Beijing’s record on ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs and argues Canadians are being thoughtless and self-righteous in accusing the Chinese government of genocide in Xinjiang. Yuezhi Zhao holds the Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Global Communication at Simon Fraser University. Her column, titled Canada Should Reflect On Its Struggle With Racism and dated July 29, ran in China Daily. The Beijing-based English-language media outlet describes itself as a government agency on LinkedIn, and it is a central fixture of the Chinese government’s efforts to disseminate its views abroad. The Chinese government has come under intense criticism for its repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. It has rejected calls for an independent investigation into documented reports of abuses, including torture, forced sterilization, forced abortions and involuntary separation of children from their parents. The Canadian, British, Dutch and Lithuanian parliaments, among others, have this year passed motions declaring China’s abuse of Muslim minorities to constitute genocide. Chinese officials have acknowledged that the birth rate across Xinjiang fell by nearly a third in 2018. Prof. Zhao says in her China Daily column that people should consider how the population of Uyghurs has flourished over the long term, particularly since the Chinese Communist Party took power more than 70 years ago. “Contrary to the genocidal decline of the aboriginal population in North America over the past 500 years, minority populations such as Tibetans and Uyghurs [in China] have grown significantly, and that has especially been the case since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949,” she writes. Prof. Zhao also takes aim at what she calls the “moral high ground that Canadian politicians have assumed in critiquing the Chinese state.” The Chinese government in June locked horns with the Canadian government after Canada led more than 40 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in expressing “grave concerns” over China’s conduct in Xinjiang. In response, Beijing confronted Canada about its own mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the discovery of what appeared to be the remains of more than 200 children at a former residential school in Kamloops. China countered the Canadian criticism by calling for a “thorough and impartial investigation” into crimes against Indigenous peoples, which it said were instigated by racism and xenophobia in Canada. In a similar vein, Prof. Zhao accuses Canada of genocide, saying “the genocide of the aboriginal population has been at the very core of the founding of Canada.” She argues Canadians are mistakenly assuming that Beijing is trying to assimilate the Uyghurs. “When Canadian politicians, media outlets and scholars attack China for alleged human rights abuses, especially when they accuse China of genocidal treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, we are witnessing the same unreflective application to China of a home-based paradigm based on the genocidal assimilation of aboriginal people,” she writes. She contrasts the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 with “disbelief and shock” in Canada at historical mistreatment of Indigenous children at residential schools. The Communist Party, she writes, “despite all the trials and tribulations, even grave mistakes, is in a position to tell the proud history of national liberation, a history in which the Chinese nation overthrew the ‘three mountains’ of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.” Prof. Zhao could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Simon Fraser University, Melissa Shaw, said “all faculty members have the right to academic freedom” when asked to comment on Prof. Zhao’s column. Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur-Canadian and executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said he’s shocked to hear the long-term increase in the Uyghur population since 1949 invoked as a counterargument to concern over Xinjiang. He said it’s rare to hear this kind of argument from Canada’s academic ranks, and that dismissing criticism of China’s record in Xinjiang ignores the “concentration camps and the massive internment of people and the forced labour” of recent years. Mr. Tohti said that, as a Uyghur-Canadian, he found it disappointing to hear “whataboutism” arguments that redirect debate over China’s current mistreatment of Uyghurs to past wrongs committed by Canada. He said it would make sense for China to establish an independent truth and reconciliation commission for Xinjiang. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which ran for more than six years until 2015, documented the history and effect of the residential school system on Indigenous students and their families. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said while residential schools were part of a “cruel and deeply flawed policy,” any comparison with what China is doing in Xinjiang is “almost certainly designed to diminish awareness of Beijing’s vast, ambitious and technologically sophisticated destruction of a people and a culture.” Darren Byler, an assistant professor with the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser, and an expert in China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, said that for more than 70 years Beijing has sought to transform Xinjiang into an “internal settler colony” by transferring the Han Chinese ethnic majority into the region. “Over the past four years, this process has dramatically intensified with the implementation of a widespread residential boarding school system, where Uyghur and Kazakh children are instructed in Chinese and not permitted to practice their faith traditions,” he said. “A mass incarceration and internment system has resulted in 533,000 criminal prosecutions and the internment of hundreds of thousands more who have been deemed untrustworthy,” he added. “Because genocidal violence is just now emergent in China, it is particularly crucial that people of conscience demand that it be stopped.”