Interview: The decimation of Uyghurs is an 'egregious form of settler colonialism'

Anthropologist Darren Byler discusses his book on ‘terror capitalism’ in Xinjiang.
By Nuriman Abdurashid
2022.02.15
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Anthropolgist Darren Byler in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Darren Byler

Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained about 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in hundreds of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang in an effort to prevent possible religious extremism and terrorism among the mostly Muslim groups.

As anthropologist Darren Byler sees it, the mass detentions are part of China’s settler colonialism and resource extraction in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where about 12 million Uyghurs. His latest book Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City examines how China’s settler colonization of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) has led to “terror capitalism” — a system that justifies oppression by branding Uyghurs a security threat to generate state investment in policing and surveillance technologies to monitor and control them.

Byler’s ethnographic fieldwork in Urumqi shows how the Chinese government’s imposition of ethnic majority Han Chinese values along with efforts to increase the number of Han settlers in the area have perpetuated Uyghur dispossession and expulsion from the city. He focuses on young Uyghur men, the main target of state brutality, and their development of tight social bonds as a protective measure.

Byler’s other book on Xinjiang, In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, also published in 2021, examines China’s pervasive surveillance network in Xinjiang and is based on thousands of government documents and interviews with camp detainees and workers. The assistant professor of international studies at Canada’s Simon Fraser University discussed his books with reporter Nuriman Abdurashid from RFA’s Uyghur Service. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: You’ve written two books about the Uyghurs. Briefly summarize them.

Byler: One is called In the Camps. It’s about what has happened since 2017, when over a million people were put into camps, and what that has done to Uyghur and Kazakh society. This is a book that's written for a general audience to help them understand what has happened. I’ve also written a longer book called Terror Capitalism, which is about the economic and political systems that led to the camp system, so it’s mostly about the beginning of the People’s War on Terror which started in 2014 and how that led to the camps.

RFA: Why were you interested in writing about the Uyghurs?

Byler: The second book [Terror Capitalism] is focused on the rise of an economic formation of a kind of security-industrial complex where the state has hired over 1,000 contractors — private companies — to build forms of surveillance that will begin to sort through Uyghur and Kazakh behavior and diagnose who is potentially a criminal. They are using Chinese counterterrorism laws, which are very broad and define things as terrorism that are not terrorism, that in any other context in the world would not be thought of as that. It is things like having WhatsApp on your phone, using a VPN, and having relatives who live abroad and sending them money — things that you know anyone would do in any other context and they wouldn’t be considered a crime for Muslims like those things now are. The technology systems are being used to determine if people have done those things. That’s what I'm looking at. I’m interested in how the companies benefit from those things. They benefit [not only] by receiving money, but also by receiving data which they can use to develop other products. There’s also the forced labor element that is built into the system as well, where the camps are used to control who is sent to work in factories.

RFA: What do you expect Terror Capitalism to accomplish?

Byler: The first three chapters focus on processes of enclosure devaluation and dispossession, which are all of the ways in which Uyghurs have been systematically targeted by this system. Two of the last three chapters focus on ways that Uyghurs survive [and] how they find where to live even as these things are being done to them. One of the things I found was that Uyghurs can really care for each other by sharing friendship [and] by telling their stories and remaining the author of their own history. By saying out loud what’s happened to you, you reclaim that knowledge as yours. That’s really powerful. I learned so much from the Uyghurs I met when I was living in Urumqi. They taught me what is really important about being a human because many of them were [living] in very precarious conditions. Some of them were being called on a daily [or] weekly basis to come back to their villages because the police were visiting their families and saying they must come back. Then if they did go back, they would disappear. But they felt like in the end that God would protect them. They also understood that they and their families and their friends cared for them, so that it wasn’t their burden alone. By sharing their pain, sharing their suffering with each other, they made each other stronger. I found that to be really beautiful. It was also very sad because I can write these stories, but in the end I can’t protect my friends. All we can do is to appeal to the world to say that this should never happen. … We can help people to tell their own stories and translate them for the world to understand that this is what’s happening to these people. A crime against humanity, which is what this is, is a crime against all of our humanity, so this should really hurt all of us, and we should grieve together and support each other as we respond to it.

RFA: What do you expect your readers to gain from your latest book?

Byler: What I want my readers to take away from the book is that what’s happening to the Uyghurs is similar to and related to older forms of settler colonialism that occurred in other places like in North America where Native Americans were colonized or in contemporary forms of colonialism like in Kashmir [and] Palestine. Even the technologies and tactics are being shared. It’s in many places. In the two places I mentioned, the Global War on Terror is being utilized as a tool to put those colonial systems in place. The same thing is happening in northwest China. That’s what I want readers to take away from this.… The decimation of Uyghur society is the most egregious form of settler colonialism that’s in the world right now. It also can be seen as a warning of the kind of things that could happen with the colonial systems in other places like Kashmir or Palestine. … I also want [readers] to understand that mass incarceration systems produce forms of dehumanization, that they have a logic and an economic logic that drives them. We see that happening in North America. We see it happening in China now. There are many places in the world where prisons are used to warehouse people that are unwanted. This is another example, an extreme example, of how those things happen and what effects they have.

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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