Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 3 November 2021

We watch as China plays mind games with Uighurs

Five years ago the Chinese authorities invited British counterterrorism experts to a round-table session on how best to tackle violent extremism in Xinjiang province. Ostensibly, the local bosses wanted to hear about the successes of the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism program.

Later it became clear that the regime was looking for ways of masking the creation of a sprawling hi-tech penal colony. The well-meaning logic of a democratic state seeking to head off a future challenge from isolated would-be jihadists has been subsumed by an authoritarian regime that is using its vast, expanding data bank to arrest people en masse for crimes that haven’t been committed.

Now a 21st-century version of Philip K Dick’s 1956 sci-fi novella The Minority Report is being played out by China as it develops the idea of “pre-crime”, the identification and detention of Muslims who could one day act against the state, the Communist Party or even cast doubt on the infallible wisdom of the leader Xi Jinping.

Dick’s book, written during the Cold War, was a warning against preventive government. Now the West and, deplorably, many Muslim-majority states are looking on as China plays these mind games with its citizens.

Actors Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton in the 2002 film Minority Report, based on Philip K Dick’s 1956 sci-fi novella.

Actors Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton in the 2002 film Minority Report, based on Philip K Dick’s 1956 sci-fi novella.

China’s version of The Gulag Archipelago may be dressed up in the jargon of “re-education” and vocational training, and it may declare itself to be part of a legitimate global war against the “three viruses” of terrorism, extremism and separatism, but it is every bit as harrowing as the Stalinist system described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

There are now 300 camps spread across the Chinese province that borders Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and, according to an astonishingly detailed new book by the anthropologist Darren Byler, more than a million Muslims, Uighurs and other minorities have been locked up, brainwashed and abused there over the past five years.

The combination of state-of-the-art surveillance technology and systemic cruelty is what makes it so difficult to deal with China as an orderly partner, a regime that can supposedly be brought into a constructive strategic dialogue while we simultaneously deter it from hostile actions abroad or towards its minorities. It reserves the right to bully its own people and terrify its neighbours.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Reuters

We respect that “right” because we don’t want to lose China’s business and because we don’t want it to turn its brawn against us. And we dignify this policy by calling it realpolitik.

So when British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss privately let slip the other day that she considered China’s treatment of the Uighurs to be genocidal, some warning flags were hoisted at home. She was echoing a Trump-era judgment, her critics said. She was out of touch with her own department’s analyses. Reporting out of Xinjiang province doesn’t suggest a slaughter is under way. There have been reports of forced sterilisation of some Uighur women but nothing (as yet) to support Holocaust comparisons. But here’s the thing: what China is doing is dehumanising a whole ethnic community. Byler calls it the largest internment of a religious minority since World War II.

The scale of the operation is breathtaking. In five years the regime has built a system of checkpoints across northwest China, first between counties and then within cities. A pass-card system restricts Uighurs from moving within the region. Byler calculates that 1.1 million workers have been recruited from outside the province to go into rural communities and assess “untrustworthy” Muslims. Meanwhile 90,000 have been signed up as private assistant police to scan Muslim phones and IDs.

Chinese flags on a road leading to a facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan in Xinjiang. Picture: AFP

Chinese flags on a road leading to a facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan in Xinjiang. Picture: AFP

For a while, between 10 and 20 per cent of the adult population were being held in detention centres. Uighurs or other minorities are tracked by live-monitored surveillance cameras, their faces held and then checked against their known and recent contacts.

At checkpoints Uighurs have their smartphones inspected using an app made by digital forensics companies.

Interrogations typically range over the frequency of mosque attendance, whether the suspect (everyone is a suspect) drinks or smokes, whether he or she has installed WhatsApp. Essentially, all Uighurs are suspects in a cybercrime they have yet to commit. Children of detainees are put into state orphanages. When the Uighurs are released after many months they remain on the database as potential criminals and can be picked up at any time. Young adults find that their parents have been assigned a state minder lest they slip back into the bad habits of going to the mosque.

Some Uighurs have become terrorists, a few joined the jihadist campaign in Syria, yet the Chinese authorities have used these fighters as a way of asserting a kind of Stalinist control over millions. In the process, they have turned many hundreds of thousands into husks of their former selves.

The East German Stasi used to be the model for this kind of oppression, collecting and classifying the secretly gathered smells of anyone called in for interrogation. In those early Cold War days, one out of every 6.5 citizens was a snitch. That wasn’t good enough for Beijing when it came down to the repression of Xinjiang, and Chinese tech companies queued up to help the rulers.

What can we do about it, apart from keeping an eye on Chinese advances in surveillance as they test their latest spy kit on the Uighurs? It boils down, as it has in every atrocity of modern times, to keeping one’s gaze on what the regime is doing. That means not just Western states who prefer to look away but also the Uighurs’ co-believers across the Islamic world. The silence has been deafening.

The Times

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