“The principal purpose of Uyghur life is to generate data.” Darren T. Byler, University of Washington
“E-carceration of a surplus population is now transformed into a resource or source of profit created by dissolving the social world in this acid bath of securitizing surveillance and rendering human life the raw material for control technology… Data is the new oil.” Jeffrey Martin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) brought thousands of university professors, field researchers and Asian specialists from around the globe to Denver, Colorado. It was a unique opportunity to learn from academics working in Xinjiang in western China about the Chinese government’s campaign to erase the traditional culture, identity, and family life of its Muslim minority peoples.
Several panels at the Denver conference focused on the Chinese government’s violations of human rights, the rewriting of history, and deliberate destruction of the heritage of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minority communities in Xinjiang. The academics who spoke acknowledged that the Chinese government’s likely response to their criticism would be to cut off their ability to do field research, making continued work in their chosen area of study very difficult, if not impossible.
They had no choice. It was incumbent on them to raise their voices against the horrors taking place in Xinjiang, even if they had to work from a distance – gathering information through analysis of every available Chinese government report, comparing data from the fields of economics, technology, urban development and environmental studies. And trying to do nothing to imperil the lives of former contacts and acquaintances.
Their chief concern was to document the truth about Xinjiang without harming its people. There was good reason to worry. At the close of one panel, several academics in the audience stood and told the panelists that they had graduate students who had gone home to visit family and disappeared into the camps – and one had been tortured to death. An elderly audience member, a professor emeritus from Harvard, got up from his chair and said, “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is the 1930’s all over again.”
The Cultural Heritage Bureau at the Department of State’s Shameful Response
In January 2019, the State Department completed and signed a 5-year renewal of a cultural property agreement with the Peoples Republic of China. Under this agreement, the U.S. has voluntarily closed its borders to the importation of Chinese art and antiquities, including art from Tibet and Xinjiang, ostensibly to stop looting and illegal trade that the Chinese government is too ‘weak’ to control. If Tibetan or Uyghur antiques come to the U.S., we will give them back – to the Chinese government.
In fact, China has a billion-dollar annual internal market in art of all periods that includes the same kinds of antiques barred from US import. There is no doubt that China has more than adequate internal enforcement resources.
Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars in legal, documented art and antiquities sales made annually within China flow into the pockets of auctioneers tied to the Chinese government, such as the POLY Group (formerly the PLA, Peoples Liberation Army) and other arts and entertainment businesses run by the elite children of former Communist leaders. This, and other agreements on cultural property, have been misused by the Department of State to allow dictatorships in totalitarian regimes to play a political cultural property card, both in domestic policy and for diplomatic purposes.
These cultural property agreements are premised upon mandatory criteria set by Congress under the Cultural Property Implementation Act. They require evidence that the country is doing its best to protect its own heritage. They require that import restrictions are consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes.
It is the most blatant hypocrisy to claim, as the State Department does, that a government is protecting its cultural heritage when it acknowledges destroying over 5000 mosques in Xinjiang, many of them ancient, in just the last few years, when participating in religious activities is enough to send innocent people to prison camps, and where children are denied an education in their own languages.
In 2018, the US Senate passed resolution S. 429 condemning the Chinese government for engaging in “the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage” and for “gross violations of human rights in Tibet, including extrajudicial detentions, disappearances, and torture.” Congress’ source for this information was the State Department itself.
There are now two more bills before Congress demanding a response to the mass arbitrary detention of persons on the basis of their religious or ethnic background and the gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang. Three House Resolutions also specifically condemn China’s violations of human rights and press freedoms there.
There is an obvious contradiction between the Department of State’s designation of China’s government as systemically violating international norms of cultural tolerance, and the repeated renewal of US-China agreements on cultural property that grant China’s government absolute control over the same cultural heritage that it has sought to destroy. Unless the U.S. State Department disavows its agreement with China, it will remain accountable for ignoring China’s abuse of human and religious rights and for allowing murderers and torturers to use this agreement to camouflage the destruction of the cultural heritage of its persecuted minorities.
Below, Cultural Property News summarizes some of the Denver presentations, in which the speakers laid out the deliberate, meticulous dismemberment of culture, using both technology and people power, by a government that does not bother to hide its purpose: the destruction of a peoples’ religious heritage and their history.
Urban Authoritarianism: Social Control, Development and Security in Xinjiang, China, organized by Sarah Tynen from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Universal surveillance and ‘social sorting’
Dr. James Leibold, from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia is an expert on the politics of ethnicity, race, and national identity with a focus on Tibet and Xinjiang. He said that in Xinjiang, surveillance is a State project that brings together Chinese government, domestic and international private investment, and the prospect of international marketing to foreign governments for the purpose of population management and control. Ultimately, Leibold speculated, the end goal for China is regime survival. He cited the practice of “stability maintenance” which emerged in the post-Cultural Revolution era and became institutionalized in post-1989 China. The Chinese see this state policy as a model for the world to emulate. The goal is to preserve the current Chinese regime and to quash any ethnic autonomy and dreams of independence, but the arguments for it (and excuses for its excesses) are hidden within the rhetoric of counter-terrorism.
Conformity and repression have long characterized the Communist Chinese state, as does a focus on loyalty to the state and its concomitant proliferation of informers. What the 21st century has added to the mix is an ubiquitous surveillance technology. In Xinjiang, the State began piecing together a “surveillance assemblage” for its non-Han citizens even before 2009.
China is now the world leader in collecting surveillance data on its citizens. According to Leibold, Xinjiang began a covert campaign in 2016 of collecting biometric data under a campaign called, “Free physicals for all.” Officials went into remote parts of Xinjiang to collect data that included iris scans, blood draws to obtain DNA samples, voiceprints, and high definition photos for facial recognition. The information was paired with a unique ID card.
At the same time officials were developing a “grid style social management” of social surveillance. Urban centers and rural villages are divided into grids under the control of a captain and local officials who have the responsibility to uphold social stability and harmony in their sector. In urban centers, these grids can be as small as 100 sq. meters and contain about two hundred families.
The grid systems use a geographic information system (GIS) and tens of thousands of cameras in a single urban area, paired with wireless Internet surveillance technologies including facial recognition, voice recognition, iris scans, chips in biometric ID cards, and other identifying data. All are fed into a database that can be used for ‘predictive policing’ – identifying potential ‘criminals.’ In Xinjiang, the data was managed on an Integrative Joint Operations Platform, which collects information from multiples sources including biometric data, CCT video feeds, and Wi-Fi 3G & 4G data scraping information.
Leibold said that despite the extensive use of data gathering and tagging of citizens through biometric data, the majority of surveillance in Xinjiang is taking place through “people power” rather than technology. In 2013, the central government announced that 200,000 party cadres would be sent into about 9000 villages and communities, primarily in the rural south, where most of the Uyghur population lives. They sent five to seven person teams, including at least one Uyghur speaker, to live and work among the people of these villages and hamlets – inserting them into homes as so-called ‘relatives’ for three years. This was a $1 billion dollar project on a scale unseen since the Cultural Revolution.
Officials claimed that the teams were there to “investigate the people’s condition, benefit the people’s livelihoods, and fuse with the people’s sentiments.” By inserting themselves into communities, they learned about people’s daily life and religious practices. Specific interview questions were used to compile detailed records rating each household as safe, unsafe, or ambiguous. This program has been extended indefinitely and paired with another program to connect an additional 1 million Han cadres with Uyghur “kin” to ‘form a kinship.’
Leibold said that the work teams’ aim was social sorting according to class, gender, religion, and culture, but that the ultimate goal was “social transformation; the remaking and remolding of Uyghur subjectivities into Han citizens.”
The policing system is also about entitlement, punishment, and protection.
“Social sorting assigns worth and risk in ways that have real life effects on peoples’ life chances… In Xinjiang the surveillance assemblage works on a system of rewards and punishments. It rewards the adoption of Han linguistic and cultural norms while marking anyone who does not lean that direction in an undesirable category of social deviance or “abnormality”. Those who are in the category of social deviance or abnormality, or thought to be exposed to extremist thought, are subject to “transformation through re-education.”” James Liebold
These measures resulted in mass round-ups of large groups of Muslim men and women for internment in what officials describe as “re-education centers,” but which are actually concentration camps in which people are subject to both physical and psychological torture. The Chinese party line is that the camps are not prisons; “these are free educational centers where people infected by religious extremism can receive free skills training to facilitate their return to “normal” society.”
The next presenter, Darren T. Byler, of the University of Washington, has written an extraordinary PhD thesis, Spirit Breaking: Uyghur Dispossession, Culture Work and Terror Capitalism in a Chinese Global City, University of Washington, 2018. In his thesis, Byler describes the nightmarish daily experience of the “People’s War on Terror” on young Uyghur men in Ürümqi, many of whom had unusual intelligence and skills that enabled them to come to the city from the rural south and take on higher education or ‘modern’ technical jobs. In the course of Byler’s research, the friendships he develops reveal how every one of them is trapped by the ravages of family members disappeared, taken away, tortured and even killed, young women imprisoned and repeatedly raped, grandmothers and grandfathers left bereft of grandchildren who have been taken away to orphanages and never seen again, and the relatives, friends and neighbors remaining in the villages forced into public condemnation of the family members they have lost – all in a constant state of fear. Byler also studies the reverse-image of this loss of self among Han migrants to Ürümqi, their overall success in moving into middle-class lives, their comfortable sense of “political-social leverage,” and lack of consciousness that the upward mobility for Han people in Ürümqi is predicated on the dispossession and removal of Uyghurs from their position on the social ladder. Byler’s thesis is the more terrifying in that it is not a Kafkaesque novel, despite its tortured characters. These are the real-life subjects of straight field research, and although his Uyghur subjects embrace his friendship and human support, it is forbidden by the state, and may prove toxic, and even deadly to them.
At the Denver Conference, Byler discussed the development of what he called “terror capitalism” in Xinjiang. He began by describing the conditions in the camps and the reasons why individuals were detained. Almost all the detainees were Uyghur and Turkic minorities, many held in cells crowded with up to 50 prisoners. Since 2017, 1.5 million individuals have been held in the reeducation camps until they “disavow their Muslim heritage.”
He cited examples of middle-aged women “guilty” of having other women in the detention center as contacts in their WeChat accounts, and young women “guilty” of having images of Muslim heritage in their phones, such as a photo of someone praying or in a veil. Even long-deleted photos were tracked down through social media apps on smart phones. One Uyghur business man told Byler that, “The system has turned Uyghur communities into hollowed out worlds behind check points, cameras and the apps on their phones.”
“From the perspective of the state most forms of Islamic faith when performed by Uyghurs are signs of potential religious extremism and ethnic separatism under China’s vaguely defined antiterrorism laws.” Darren T. Byler
Byler said that even Uyghurs that have made it out of the reeducation camps “find that their “digital footprint” continues to haunt them.” He described a well-connected former detainee, “Ali,” who managed to obtain release from a camp. Soon after, he went into a mall to meet a friend for dumplings. When he passed through a facial recognition scan there, police approached him and told him to stay at home if he didn’t want trouble. So although Ali was “free” he was in fact under a virtual house arrest: “Biometrics held him in place.”
Byler described the technological surveillance and predictive profiling that targets “extremism suspects” as the product of a new security industrial complex that has emerged over the last decade. When first introduced, technological tools and apps like 3G networks, smart phones and WeChat enabled Uyghur religious culture to flourish, along with movements for greater autonomy. There was an increase in violent protests against Han dispossession of what had been majority Uyghur cities and relegation of Muslims to the lowest ranks in society. Police brutality resulting in thousands of Uyghur deaths, was followed by a rise in Uyghur suicide attacks against Han Chinese in both Xinjiang and Beijing.
“The loss of hundreds of Han lives allows the [creation of a] narrative of Uyghur and Islamic evil, but there is an economic logic as well to the security apparatus.”
“Chinese state and private tech industries are utilizing the global discourse on Muslim terror to position themselves at the cutting edge of what they frame as a new type of counter-insurgency; population re-education.”
In 2014, the Chinese government’s “Peoples’ War on Terror” demanded that Muslim minorities center their lives around secular ideals, submit to non-religious authorities and become politically docile, economically productive members of Chinese society. In order to enforce this agenda, Uyghur regions have become “incubators” for the Chinese techno security industry. In the last two years 7.2 billion was spent on techno-security in Xinjiang alone. Says Byler, “Chinese tech firms are building and marketing technology for a global war on terror… “The terrorists are a domestic minority population who appear to threaten the dominance of authoritarian leaders and make state directed capitalist expansion more difficult.”
This development is most evident at the China Eurasia Security Expo in Ürümqi, one of the largest security technology fairs in China. The Expo includes companies from nearly two-dozen countries and 100 agencies, including representatives from the U.S., France, and Israel. According to Byler, a spokesman for China’s Leon Technology Company said in 2017, “60% of the world’s Muslim nations are part of the initiative ‘One Belt, One Road’ so [there is] unlimited market potential for the type of computer aided population control technology that they are developing in Xinjiang.”
Ossifying Minority Space
Lauren Hansen Restrepo, an associate professor at Bryn Mawr College, is a specialist in the relationship between urbanization and social change in authoritarian states. She described how urban planning in Ürümqi, Xinjiang has evolved for the purpose of controlling its population.
Dr. Restrepo noted that master plans in China are usually of a 20-year duration, but this pattern has been disrupted for political reasons in Xinjiang. The plan for Ürümqi has been scrapped and rewritten twice, in 2010, and then again in 2016. For almost a year after the 2009 riots, the city was isolated: phone service was cut, Internet was cut, and development stopped. “It’s obvious in Xinjiang that planning is less about a technical exercise in meeting national economic and social goals than it is a political exercise in controlling territory and population at the regional, urban and down to the street level,” she stated.
“What we are witnessing in the present day is a doubling and tripling down of something that began after the 2009 riots. There was an abrupt halt to what was a tentative and short-lived experiment in liberalizing the largest and capital city in Xinjiang. Resurgence of illiberal governance simultaneously at two levels: In terms of state society relations, post-riot spatial planning is about “control the south/expand the north.” It calls on planners and developers to shift the allocation of public goods toward the Han majority north while ossifying minority space as a sort of living museum.” Lauren Hansen Restrepo
Later, Dr. Restrepo expounded on the development of natural resources in the Xinjiang Autonomous region, which she described as a “really valuable chunk of land” with oil, natural gas, and coal resources. She placed China’s politicized development in Xinjiang as part of a far lengthier historical phenomenon, saying that it would be a mistake to see Xinjiang’s development as beginning with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road, his signature transnational/national vision, because the concept in fact predates Xi’s rise to power by years. Restrepo noted that, “In 2003 and 2004, the Asian Development Bank began working with the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) on transnational road construction between China, Central Asia, Azerbaijan to the Middle East.” The roads were created for the transport of natural resources and trade. Xinjiang would be center of export manufacturing. Restrepo says that, “Xinjiang is China’s mechanism for gaining regional hegemony in Central Asia.” But the numbers show that the cost benefit analysis in Central Asian development was abysmal. Restrepo described the Uyghur population as a “deeply and existentially offensive puzzle” for the dominant Han in the Peoples Republic of China, because the “good faith effort to trade material development for political buy in” that has worked in the rest of China hasn’t worked there.
Dr. Restrepo is a frequent presenter at academic conferences. Her next publication will be “Where Chinese Planning Practices meet Local Ethnopolitics: Securitized Development in Urumqi since 1755.” Look for it in the Journal of Planning History.
State Authority Manifested at the Corner Store
Sarah Tynen, a PhD candidate and Instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, organized the panel presentation. Ms. Tynen focuses on state-society relations, development, migration and ethno-cultural nationalism in China’s autonomous regions and borderlands. She discussed her ethnographic field research on state authoritarianism, done in Ürümqi from 2014 -2017. Ms. Tynen’s presentation used numerous examples from her experience and that of her neighbors to show that bureaucracy was used as a form of control – often through the confusion created by the rapid proliferation of rules that ordinary families need to follow. Much of the surveillance took place through small local stores that collected information on all neighborhood activities, while at the same time selling inexpensive or subsidized products.
(Imagine if when you went to your local grocery store, you knew that the friendly clerk might interrogate you about what you and your family were doing, or make you write down your request for a job or a pass to use some social service on a multiplicity of forms.)
Ms. Tynen said that officials meant to confuse individuals with red tape that created barriers to entry and access, especially for the poor, uneducated and illiterate.
She described a “convenience station” system in every little neighborhood that subsidized free vegetables, but which doubled as the center of an arbitrary and confusing bureaucracy that limited citizens’ freedoms. The “convenience stations” were connected with local authorities. They were the place that people had to go to get social services. They were built about every 100 meters in 2016, primarily in poor neighborhoods. Provision of certain social services was connected with the police stations, requiring residents to come under frequent police scrutiny in order to receive basic services.
Ms. Tynen said that the propaganda about the services was primarily positive in tone. There was a message of joining hearts and hands, and an endlessly repeated assertion that “we are serving the people.” However, approximately 15% of the texts were more negative; they warned about the dangers of “terrorism, extremism, and separatism.” The small print of announcements read:
“According to the law, let’s punish all those who start and spread rumors.” And, “It is prohibited for anyone to use a cell phone, computer, USB drive, text message, or WeChat to start and spread rumors.”
This law justified the scanning of Uyghurs’ cellphones, a form of surveillance that increased especially in 2017. Computers were also required to be scanned. Authorities were looking for specific files containing ISIS videos and images, but they scanned all files. Ms. Tynen herself was subjected to this surveillance.
Tynen described how the bureaucratic processes were frequently altered and how the changes produced confusion and gave authorities more and more control:
“Every few months [the authorities] would come out with a new list of Universal administrative [rules and] responsibilities for renters and migrants.”
There was extensive paperwork that the landlord and everyone in the house had to sign. Tynen argues that the changes were both to make people feel unstable and to enable authorities to make rapid changes to how neighborhoods and Urumchi itself was constituted: “As the rules began escalating, minorities who came to the city after 2012 were not allowed to rent,” she said.
The regulations needed to be posted in everyone’s home, and police would come to investigate the residence to make sure everyone was registered.
Tynen interviewed equal numbers of Han Chinese residents and people from Muslim minorities regarding the way in which their lives were affected by the documentation requirements and multiplicity of rules. The Han Chinese that she interviewed experienced the system differently; they also were not subject to as many documentation and reporting requirements. Uyghurs and other minorities had to show more extensive documentation.
The Uyghurs and other minorities were “not thrilled” by the controls they were subject to. They hated going to the police or convenience stations to fill out forms and be questioned, and found the lines long and the process confusing. People felt like there was not a good reason for the process and that it was irrational.
A dystopian dynamic. The police are your friends and family.
At the close of the panel, Jeffrey Martin, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed the presenters’ papers from the context of Chinese policing. He spoke to, “the historical continuities in Chinese policing and governance, how new technologies are consolidating and changing this established approach to Chinese policing, and the cultural implications that this continuity and change may have for our understanding of policing, both in China and worldwide.”
“The utility of surveillance technology is a cheap and easy mechanism for illiberal securitization [and] seems guaranteed to have effects far beyond Xinjiang.”
Dr. Martin discussed three “vectors of historical continuity.” The first, “registry-based bureaucracy for collective responsibility,” addressed the questions, “Who are the police? And where do they do their policing work?”
He said, “Chinese governance has been organized for thousands of years by a distinctive way of answering this question, a way of projecting elements of police work through the field of intimate sociology by using a status-based system for organizing collective responsibility, anchored in the project of family registration.”
“To live in Xinjiang is to live in a world where family and neighborhood have been constricted by the state into a collective politics of mutual policing. People are compelled to rely on their family and friends to keep their papers in order.”
The second vector of historical continuity Dr. Martin discussed is the “use of administrative powers to enact moral correction.” This is seen historically and currently in the use of reeducation camps.
He discussed Mao’s 1957 essay on “the correct handling of contradictions among the people.” Mao differentiated between antagonistic and non-antagonistic “contradictions” within groups and individuals. Under Mao, China’s government devised extreme methods of correction, such as reeducation camps and labor camps, to bring people in line with good citizenship. “A hallmark of Chinese policing throughout the post war period, this mass internment [in Xinjiang] can be seen as a resurgence of this.”
In preface to the third vector of continuity, Martin discussed the differences between liberal and illiberal policing and China’s strategic concern with the disruption and the “preemptive disaggregation of heterodox forms of solidarity.” China is forcing control by disrupting the ordinary fabric of society, fragmenting families, and eliminating the socially reinforcing traditional spaces where people can come together.
Liberal policing “euphemistically calls the police ‘law enforcement’” and “is a theory of policing connected to a democratic ideal of political community in which the best of all possible worlds is one constituted by the spontaneous solidarity of free individuals.”
In contrast, he said, “Illiberal policing operates on a cultural terrain where individual behavior is considered a secondary effect of prior causes which are located in the field of collective life. The dignity or autonomy of the individual is secondary to concerns about social and moral order and quality.”
“In this illiberal paradigm the end or objective, to which the field of police governance serves as a means, is the construction of collective political will; will to excellence, will to national prosperity, will to civilizational progress and refinement, … The project of policing is just one end of a spectrum of mechanisms designed as means for the production of this political will such as spectacle and campaigns, education and reeducation, punishment, reward, etc. The entire field of governmentality is aligned with this project of cultivating this sentimental quality of ‘the people’ as the seat of collective national will.”
In the context of the third vector, non-Han Chinese groups like the devout Uyghurs, with strong extended family and village obligations based on traditional Uyghur cultural norms, are the “heterodox forms of solidarity” that the Chinese are applying illiberal policing techniques to in order to bring the group in line with the collective national and political will.
In this environment, “technology is a new means of production.” Martin described the goal of technology as: “A system of automated control over human movement through biometric authenticating sluice gates connected to learning algorithms constantly being fed full spectrum surveillance. It ultimately turns a city from a machine for living into a machine for control.”
He said that when considered through the lens of surveillance capitalism, the situation in Xinjiang is a dystopian dynamic.
“It consists of technologies of control that circulate as commodities. The commodity is control. It completely disrupts the association that liberalism tries to make between the market and freedom. It’s a market in un-freedom.”
Martin noted that the situation in Xinjiang is not the same as cultural genocide that we see in colonial states. The Chinese government had deemed Uyghur life as inherently antagonistic to the cultural norms was using control, surveillance, and fear tactics to disrupt their culture to bring them into line with cultural norms.
The panel concluded with important additional comments:
First, they noted, the situation in the countryside is much worse than in the cities. Surveillance in rural areas is more intense and more repressive. There is actually more religious freedom in the city, despite the literally thousands of cameras that surround mosques. So many people have been taken away, tortured, and incarcerated that farming in some communities is no longer viable.
They noted that the Chinese Communist Party defines the camps in which approximately one million Uyghurs are now being held, for the most part incommunicado, as “free vocational training schools,” so there is no reason why they need to justify their existence. According to the Party, the Uyghurs are people they are helping through education.
Byler also said that China is actively pursuing surveillance technology as a major international market. CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based developer of facial recognition software, has signed a contract with Zimbabwe to create a national level face recognition database with checkpoints like those built in Xinjiang. People in Zimbabwe feel that this is being created to control them.
Finally, they said, “people must not look away from the situation in Xinjiang.”
 The bills are the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019, S. 178 and HR 649; the UIGHUR Act of 2019, aka the Uighur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response Act of 2019, HR 1025.
 The resolutions are House Resolutions 393 and 345, and Senate Resolution 221.