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Exploring China’s High-Tech Penal Colony

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

REVIEW — I grew up in a household of second-generation Hungarian immigrants, and though I was born in the 1990s, and out of the immediate shadow of the Cold War, the atrocities of the Soviet regimes loomed large over family gatherings and church picnics. As I got older, refugees from the 1956 Hungarian revolution or others who had fled Communism would tell real-life ghost stories of innocent people snatched in the middle of the night by dark, shadowy secret police and then hauled away in silent in black cars for real or imagined crimes against the State.

Dr. Darren Byler, an anthropologist and professor at Simon Fraser University, opens his new book, In the Camps: China’s High Tech Penal Colony with a similar story. He tells of a young college student, home to visit her boyfriend in Xinjiang Province, only to be whisked away to spend more than a year in a re-education camp for a singularly heinous “crime” of daring to download a VPN on her phone. Dr. Byler threads together this and other tales from the camps in China’s Xinjiang province, where ethnic and religious minorities have endured an increasingly draconian program of omnipresent surveillance, extrajudicial imprisonment, family separation, forced labor and other violations of basic human rights. Dr. Byler’s research combines interviews with dozens of individuals who were lucky enough to escape the system, his own fieldwork, and other reporting to convey a compelling, if cursory, look into life inside the camps and factories at the heart of the system.

The thesis of the book states that the activities of the PRC in the Uighur Autonomous Region exemplify a rise in “digital enclosures” around the world. Dr. Byler asserts that while the scale and cruelty gives the PRC exceptionally tremendous power over the minorities in the region, it’s “connected” (Dr. Byler’s word) to the use of automated surveillance systems and other technology used in the West Bank, the Southern Border of the US, and elsewhere.

The format of the book may frustrate some. Columbia Global Reports, which published In the Camps, is an imprint of the Columbia University Press that specializes in novella-length publications on pressing topical issues. This short length however, prevents Dr. Byler from sharing more. A general population reader who follows Xinjiang matters somewhat closely may come away eager for more information, more detail, and a more probing analysis of the social, ethnic, and political nuances at issue. The short length of the book also does a disservice to Dr. Byler’s more ambitious arguments regarding linkages between PRC’s practices and Silicon Valley and US government activities writ large.

Dr. Byler’s anthropological outlook does, however, clue the reader into an interesting ethnological dynamic at play in Northwest China. One view might compare what’s happening to the Uighurs similar to the PRC’s expansionist activities elsewhere, like in Hong Kong. But Dr. Byler describes in great detail, how the PRC’s activities have been calibrated to displace ethnic minorities, disenfranchise them, and ultimately re-settle ethnic Han Chinese to permanently shift the demographics in the region. In addition to the Uighurs, ethnic minorities like Kazakhs and Hui (a Chinese-speaking ethnic Muslim minority that the government re-settled to the region decades ago) have come under increasing scrutiny and detention for an absurdly wide range of “pre-crimes.” Instead of worrying about striking the right balance in the encryption debate, as our own U.S. government does here in America, Dr. Byler describes an approach whereby anyone with an encrypted messaging app or a VPN can wind up in a re-education camp or prison.

The narratives from various perspectives in the camp system show a troubling trend. The increased entrenchment of surveillance, data science, and omnipresent security forces (and an army of contractors) indicates that it will become more difficult for the outside world to understand what’s happening in the region. In one hotel, Dr. Byler describes how he prepared to have his face scanned by a facial recognition machine, only to be informed that it was not for foreigners. I wonder how long that will persist.

Dr. Byler was tenacious enough, and his interviewees were brave enough, to record what happened to them. I could not help but notice that, despite the terribly ill-treatment that these people suffered, this was the rehabilitative side of PRC penal policy. The PRC wants to “reform” these ordinary people (students, farmers, truck drivers) into factory workers or wear them down enough so they will eventually submit to the government. The reader wonders then, how bad is it in the prisons that are filled with dissidents and others who the PRC views as more threatening? Alas, the book provides only hints.

Dr. Byler claims that some of the victims of this system blame tech firms in Beijing but also in Silicon Valley. The final chapter of the book, which discusses the technology used in the camps in more detail, (like facial recognition algorithms) does not sufficiently support this contention, at least not fully. Certainly, some companies, as Dr. Byler explains, have direct involvement in the camp and the smart city system, but tying culpability to Silicon Valley writ large would require more of an argument in order to resonate. As it stands, such a claim would be similar to blaming Detroit automakers for the PRC’s use of trucks and vans to transport detainees.

Throughout the book, weakly-supported statements appear about the PRC’s treatment of Uighurs as part of the Global War on Terror and claims that the PRC’s use of facial recognition is like that of US law enforcement’s use of similar technology. What separates the PRC and the US is not the similarities, but the differences. The rule of law, Constitutional rights, and strong civil society (to include the media and academia) show how the experiences described in In the Camps are truly exceptional.

Book Review: In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony by Darren Byler / Columbia Global Reports

The Reviewer: Terence Check is an attorney in the federal government and works on critical infrastructure, cybersecurity, and other technology related matters. All opinions and statements are his own and do not reflect the official policy of the US government or any of its departments or agencies.

This book earns a mild two out of four trench coats.

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