Douglas Todd: SFU prof targeted by China for groundbreaking Uyghur research

Not surprising but not acceptable:
SFU professor Darren Byler has been frequently attacked by China’s state media, which accuses him of being an agent of the U.S. government. Something he denies.
During four groundbreaking expeditions into China, the latest in 2018, Byler has witnessed many colleagues and research subjects disappear into the mass “re-education” camps and forced labour factories endured by more than 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims.

The author of In the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, was interviewed during a downtown Vancouver conference about the clampdown in Xinjiang. It was attended by 60 people, including Uyghur Canadians, international students from China, Muslim academics and activists.

Participants at the Simon Fraser University event required Postmedia’s commitment to protect their identities, so their families would not be harassed or threatened by police in China. There are about 400 ethnic Uyghurs in Metro Vancouver, the largest group of any Canadian city.

China’s authoritarian leaders are engaged in a planetary campaign to challenge and intimidate anyone who points to the incarceration, mass surveillance and draconian clampdown of the Uyghurs, which the Canadian government has called a “genocide.”

The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper arm of the Chinese Communist Party, has accused Byler of being an “anti-China figure” who makes “fabricated” allegations about “genocide and crimes against humanity” in the Xinjiang region of western China, which is inhabited by about 11 million Uyghur Muslims. The professor is sure China’s agents have attended his classes.

Byler has been with Uyghur people on the streets of China when police have stopped them, taken their mobile phones and demanded, “What is the password for your phone?” A specialist in high-tech surveillance, he says China uses 9,000 police surveillance hubs to routinely search personal data for evidence of resistance and what they consider a dangerous commitment to Islam.

Facial recognition technology is widely used in Xinjiang. Byler has first-hand knowledge of Uyghur students who have studied in North America being detained in China after omnipresent cameras found them walking outside their confinement. Families are often broken up when a Uyghur whom authorities deem suspicious is sent to a work camp, many of which produce textile goods for the West. The U.S. and Canada have laws banning such goods, but many argue they’re ineffective.

A prolific author and widely cited scholar, Byler, 40, is among the Western researchers who argue that China’s Han ethnic majority has in the past decade been escalating a colonialistic internal effort to smear the Uyghur people and systematically erase their Indigenous culture and faith. Chinese authorities often label the Uyghurs as “separatists” and “terrorists,” as well as lazy and slow.

One frequent tactic of the state-controlled Global Times is to try to silence Canadian criticism of the treatment of Uyghurs by condemning this country’s residential-school system for Indigenous children, which the federal government began in 1881 and for the most part ended by the 1970s.

This month, The Global Times enthusiastically reported on Pope Francisrecently referring to Canada’s attempt to assimilate First Nations through residential schools as “a genocide,” even while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has referred to it as “cultural genocide.”

The Global Times article cited how Canada’s Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also called it a “genocide,” while reporting that last year “more than 1,100 unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites.” Canadian media outlets now largely refer to them as “suspected” graves.

The Global Times and China’s diplomats are making a clear attempt to claim, “You in the West have no right to criticize us, because look what you did to Indigenous people,” Byler said. “They’re kind of saying, ‘You did it. So we are doing it, too.’”

While Byler believes Canada’s residential-school system was a colonialistic attempt at assimilation, he notes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has formalized a decades-long process of restitution in Canada, unlike in Australia and the U.S. And definitely unlike 21st-century China.

During the several years that Byler, a German American who is now a permanent resident of Canada, has spent living among Uyghur people in Xinjiang, he came to realize how outward-looking and sophisticated they were before China accelerated efforts to wipe out their culture.

One of many of his research papers that is drawing global attention explores how Uyghurs had been keenly taking courses from 2004 to 2014 in the English language, with students developing a special interest in novels about totalitarianism, like Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell.

Han Chinese prejudices often portray Uyghurs as “backward,” so the language students especially devoured books about Black Americans like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. The paper, co-written with an unnamed Stanford professor, reveals the Uyghur valued learning about a society in which members of a minority could hold power.

But the English-language schools were shut, and teachers Byler knew were detained, after a 2014 visit by President Xi Jinping.

Even though most attendees at the SFU conference demanded anonymity, Byler introduced one local Uyghur who was willing to be interviewed because he has already gone public as an activist. Now a high-school science teacher in Surrey, Kabir Qurban came to Canada with his family from Afghanistan as a refugee.

Since he has become a high-profile activist in Canada, including with his own websites, Qurban said that sometimes he has attended Uyghur events, such as weddings, where attendees have asked that he not sit at the same table with them.

In this era of facial recognition technology, the Uyghur Canadians fear Chinese authorities could catch them together in a photo with the staunch critic of China. That could easily lead to a brother, sister, mother or father back in Xinjiang getting harassed by police. Or worse.

“It’s unfortunate,” Qurban said, “but I have to respect their stance.”

Source: Douglas Todd: SFU prof targeted by China for groundbreaking Uyghur research