Research by anthropologist Darren Byler provides a rare look inside the surveillance state China has created to control the Uyghur population of Xinjiang province, where every move is tracked, people are forced to carry cell phones, and "re-education camps" await anyone suspected of trying to break free.
With the release of police files and internal documents from Xinjiang's re-education camps, as well as testimonies from exiles in Xinjiang, the world has been able to get a better grasp of the reality of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) control over the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and its human rights abuses.
Since the end of last year, a number of testimonies and publications have been revealed describing the experiences of people who have endured the re-education camps.
Research by anthropologist Darren Byler, assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, provides an insightful, raw look at the experiences of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Byler is an internationally recognized researcher on Uyghur society and China's surveillance system, and has been active in advocating for Uyghur human rights as a witness to the re-education system and surveillance governance in Xinjiang.
Singapore-based media news outlet Initium Media interviewed Byler during a recent visit to Taiwan. He presents his insights on technological surveillance in Xinjiang and the lives of Uyghurs there, and emphasized that what has happened to the Uyghurs could happen to anyone.
First police encounter
When Byler was doing field research in Xinjiang in early 2015, he was invited by a young advertising producer, Mahmoud, to visit his family's home in a Uyghur village in southern Xinjiang.
Byler warned Mahmoud that things wouldn’t go as smoothly as he'd hoped, but Mahmoud wasn't concerned and asked Byler to stay the night in his remote village.
After Byler enjoyed dinner with the family, two men in police uniforms and six local farmers with sticks, working as police volunteers, burst into the house. After shaking hands and greeting the visitors, the family explained to the police who Byler was and what he was doing. The police checked Byler’s phone and took pictures of his passport and allowed him to stay.
Neighbors say that now, Uyghur men can be arrested even if they commit petty crimes. "If they tell you to laugh and you don't laugh, if they tell you to dance and you don't dance, they'll say you're a 'religious extremist.'"
Despite this experience, Mahmoud felt it was worthwhile for Byler to see the real state of the Uyghur population after the "People's War on Terror" began in 2014. He says, "The police come around all day and check on us almost every night."
If it can't be traced, it's suspicious
The so-called "People's War on Terror" followed Uyghur terrorist attacks in Southwest China in 2013 and 2014, which authorities considered "China's 9/11." Thus began the formation of re-education camps and mass arrests.
Technology has been used as a tool by the military, to deal with Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Hui people, whom they deem the "fountainheads of terrorism," in order to detect terrorist attacks through mobile phones.
The public security system initially looked at the content of locals’ mobile phones — mostly just photos and WeChat accounts, but also illegal applications like WhatsApp, Zapya and VPNs. Such applications are labeled "problematic" and could be grounds for arrest.
People don't typically imagine themselves to be in a state where they have no privacy.
"The Chinese Communist Party’s logic is that if it can't be traced, it's suspicious," Bayler explains. In other words, someone who tries to avoid the censorship system is disloyal. "Xinjiang is also the only place in the world where you are required to carry a smartphone with you," he notes.
In fact, Xinjiang is one of the slowest modernizing regions in China, where mobile communications were not available until 2005, and fixed-line telephones were rolled out even later. New 3G networks came in 2011, allowing millions of Uyghur villagers across the region to go online.
Low electricity rates and inexpensive cell phones have made it easy for uneducated farmers to get started, especially with WeChat, where people can use voice messaging, which is easy to use for those who cannot type or write.
At first, the CCP was unable to comprehend the Uyghur language, so Uyghurs who used WeChat's voice messaging and talked in Uyghur could more or less avoid censorship by the Chinese government. This is still the case today.
"Including myself, I don't think anyone who is just starting to learn about technology thinks about privacy," says Baylor. People don't typically imagine themselves to be in a state where they have no privacy, yet China's telecom operators actually control all of the content of cell phone users. Authorities are always improving their technological surveillance capabilities.
Arrested for listening to voice messages
A young Uyghur who fled China described to Bayler what was happening around him: "Many of my neighbors have been detained for listening to or reading messages containing Islamic content on their phones, or for sharing stories that authorities identify as 'separatist'. Most of the young people who have been detained have been detained for attending religious gatherings, praying, or listening to messages on their phones."
In a very short period of time, surveillance systems have evolved from small police check-ins, to smart phone scanning technology that locks up and takes family members to 're-education camps' using their phones’ facial ID recognizers.
Alim, a Uyghur man in his 20s, was arrested before going on a study abroad program — just because he was going overseas and was on a suspicious list of suspicious people.
Afterwards, police and medical personnel carried out a "universal medical examination" including collecting his DNA and recording his blood type, fingerprints, face and retinas. Only after this biometric data was recorded could Alim leave the country.
When Uyghurs like Alim go to public places, they have to scan their ID cards at the entrance checkpoint, and then stand in front of a security camera equipped with facial recognition software to verify their identity. A few weeks after his return to China, he had to go through these hurdles before he could walk into a store with a friend for lunch. But just as he passed through the barriers, an alarm sounded; while guards didn't react at first, a police officer then approached and arrested him.
Sept. 11, 2023 : A tourist takes photos at the ancient city of Kashgar scenic area in Kashgar, China.
Police stations and checkpoints
In Xinjiang, the total number of so-called civilian police stations is about 7,700, at a density of one every 200-300 meters in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. There are hundreds of so-called shelters spread across Northwest China, where since 2017, millions of Muslims have been detained. Their next stop is either prison or detention in the continuously expanding network of re-education camps.
Thanks to a relative, Alim was released after just two weeks. It was only after he was arrested at the market that he realized he had been blacklisted by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, which is a surveillance system and police application that uses tens of thousands of checkpoints in Xinjiang to collect information. With the system, any Uyghur or person labeled as suspicious who is in a public place such as a bank, hospital or park, or otherwise captured by the vast system of surveillance, may be blacklisted just for attempting to cross a checkpoint.
Arrested for checking an email
A student at the University of Washington encountered a similar issue. Zhou Yue Ming, a first-year geography student, was interrogated in her hometown in 2017 for using a VPN to log into her university Gmail account. Authorities claimed that it was a "sign of religious extremism" and that she had to be sent to a re-education camp.
She was released on bail after a few months of incarceration, thanks to the intervention of Byler and Zhou's mother.
In 2019, while listening to music with headphones on, Zhou was tapped on the shoulder at a market intersection by a man in a black police uniform, who asked her to enter a nearby civilian police station, triggering an alert because she had stepped out of the community-controlled police grid. People like her who had been in re-education camps have to apply for permission from the residents' committee and the public security if they want to travel to other districts.
There is only one kind of life recognized by state authorities and co-policemen: the computerized life.
Zhou's experience and testimony is the beginning of Byler's book Xinjiang Re-education Camp. For Bayler, the testimony of this Muslim girl, whose father and boyfriend were both Han Chinese, was informative: "Compared to other Uyghurs or Kazakhs held in re-education camps, her Chinese language skills were excellent, and she was fully able to understand the internal notices, slogans and all kinds of instructions, which she could describe clearly."
Byler said that the fact that this girl, who lived and studied with her mother in the United States, was sent to a re-education camp after merely returning to Xinjiang with a cell phone equipped with a VPN, "is incredible and dramatic. But it can happen to you and me."
A hollowed community
While most people think of Nazi concentration camps when they think of re-education camps, Bayler believes that the Soviet Union's Gulag labor camps are a better comparison, except that he prefers the name "exile" to "gulag," which is strongly associated with the Soviet Union.
The development of surveillance technology translates into powerful self-policing in those who are being watched. The damage done to the community is extensive. The system has hollowed out the Uyghur community, creating a nothingness behind checkpoints, surveillance cameras and always-watching cell phone apps.
In the "re-educated Uyghur security system," Uyghurs' every move is recorded and controlled, and there is only one kind of life recognized by state authorities and co-policemen: the computerized life. Government officials, public servants and police officers, the creators or enforcers of the surveillance system, do not believe that Uyghurs have a real, independent identity that exists outside of their system.
Some Uyghurs believe that their lives exist only in terms of the value of the data, and that they are nothing more than program codes on a screen or numbers in a camp, and that they have adapted their behavior and thinking to fit the system. A Uyghur businessman told Byler that the Uyghurs are alive, "but they live like ghosts in a different world."
Dec. 4, 2019: Imin climbs on a tree for better phone reception in Darya Boyi Town in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
Various technologies used by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are actually American technologies, some of which were used in Iraq or elsewhere by the military.
The facial recognition system was based on tech from Microsoft and the University of Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. In addition to contracts with U.S. states, Microsoft has also partnered with China's police system to build security systems in public places like airports, while Xinjiang has fully rolled out such surveillance systems.
Most of the people who have developed voice and face recognition systems are start-ups, private companies with engineers and scientists trained in Europe and the U.S., who are independent of the government but can fill in the gaps in the government's technological capabilities. As a result, there is a tendency for states and countries to work with private enterprises.
Though Byler's research was conducted in Xinjiang, he also points out that the Chinese government's use of technology to control social life is not limited to Xinjiang and the personal freedom of Muslims. In 2020, for example, authorities used similar tools to implement a comprehensive law enforcement and community surveillance program in China in an attempt to track the COVID-19 outbreak, which ended up being a tool for political control as well.
In addition, the Hong Kong police have also taken lessons from Xinjiang, and a number of key Xinjiang public security and armed police officers have been sent to Hong Kong to assist in the counter-insurgency and preventive law enforcement. The official Chinese media has labeled Hong Kong democracy activists as "terrorists."
Both the victimizer and the victim
Technological surveillance techniques have become a new type of contemporary apartheid.
Before the mass arrests, many Kazakhs and Hui viewed Uyghurs as a problem, Byler says. Many tried their best to be 'model minorities' and Muslims, and believed that if the authorities went around arresting people, it was because of what the Uyghurs were doing. "But they now understand that just being a Muslim is enough of a reason for arrest, so the way to be able to get rid of this threat is to way is only to join them and become a police officer," Byler explains.
No Kazakh or Uyghur was immune, and no one was safe from the surveillance system.
According to statistics, some 60,000 to 70,000 Kazakhs, Hui or Uyghurs have joined the police.
In Xinjiang, the vast majority of monitoring, inspection and custodial work is carried out by 90,000 "auxiliary police" who do not have official police status. To work as a police assistant, one needs only two weeks of training, and they are required to watch monitors, stand at checkpoints to scan Uyghur cell phones and documents and write weekly reports.
Kazakhs and Hui who escaped from their workplaces and re-education camps also endure suffering. These participants, who are forced into the system, are ostensibly victimizers, but in fact are also victims.
For example, Baimurat, a young Kazakh man with a university degree, was recognized by the authorities as "highly qualified" to work as a police officer. For Baimurat, who had difficulty finding work at the time, this was an option he could not refuse, not only to support his family, but also to protect them from the re-education camp system.
As he watched his colleagues being arrested and sent to the camps for minor reasons, he realized that no Kazakh or Uyghur was immune, and that no one was safe from the surveillance system. The pressure built up over time and became so unbearable that he could not sleep at night and often cried.
Another Muslim teacher in a re-education camp was so distressed that she considered suicide. For her and Baimurat, the most distressing moments in the camps were when they realized that they had become accomplices and were forced to betray their own dignity.
Forgiveness is possible
"These people often join the system to protect themselves and their families, but fall into the trap of targeting their neighbors, loved ones, or others," Byler says. He sees this as a "dehumanizing" ordeal for anyone; but if they hesitate, they are labeled as "two-faced" by the authorities, and so sometimes they have to be even more brutal and violent than the Han Chinese police in order to show their loyalty.
Based on Byler's field interviews, he found that non-Uyghur Muslims are often both victimizers and victims at the bottom of the hierarchy, serving as guards or teachers in the re-education camps. If they go into exile, the community is willing to recognize them and allow them to return to the community, because they understand that these people have no choice but to become part of the system because of circumstances.
If Kazakhs working in the re-education camps would speak out, people would basically be willing to accept them and forgive them, he says: "In the exile community, I can see a certain amount of truth and reconciliation happening."