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Reviewed by:
  • In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony by Darren Byler, and: Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City by Darren Byler
  • Christopher P. Atwood (bio)
Darren Byler. In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony. Columbia Global Reports. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 159 pp. $15.99, isbn 9-781735-913629.
Darren Byler. Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. 296 pp. $26.95, isbn 9-781478-017646.

The on-going mass internment in Xinjiang that began in force in 2017, primarily targeting Uyghurs, but sucking in other Muslims in Xinjiang as well, is now generating a slew of books. They aim to illustrate the horrors, define the scope, and clarify the reasons behind this systematic destruction of the Uyghur people's mind and culture. Sean Robert's The War on the Uyghurs (Princeton UP, 2020) and the Xinjiang Emergency (Manchester UP, 2022), a volume edited by Michael Clark, are two efforts to systematically introduce this war, this emergency, to English-speaking readers.

Darren Byler, anthropologist and assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has also authored two new valuable books on the catastrophe. The earlier book, In the Camps, is an entry in the genre of public-facing scholarship designed to raise the alarm and, potentially, to put pressure on the perpetrators. The other, Terror Capitalism is an ethnography in which Byler uses conceptual tools of decolonial, feminist, and existential anthropology to analyze how progressively more strict digital enclosure and progressively more systematic dispossession culminated in the final subtraction of urban Uyghur social life in Xinjiang from 2009 to 2017.

Although not reviewed here, readers may also be interested in Byler's translation, done together with "Anonymous," of Perhat Tursun's novel Backstreets. Discussing together and translating this novel with Anonymous was part of Byler's fieldwork. When Byler returned in 2018, Anonymous and author Tursun had both disappeared; Anonymous was said to be in a camp near his rural hometown and the author Tursun to be serving a sixteen-year sentence somewhere in prison. Byler and Anonymous' translation, published by Columbia University Press in 2021, gives a powerful literary representation of Uyghur alienation in the smog-ridden city of Ürümchi. [End Page 167]

In the Camps provides a relatively brief, readable, and jargon-free introduction to the internment camps in Xinjiang, the brutalizing regime within them, the all-encompassing system of surveillance that selects people for detention as "pre-criminal," and the Silicon Valley-inspired tech companies that supply the artificial intelligence (AI) to run this surveillance. The key point to which he leads readers is that the companies and technologies that power China's High-Tech Penal Colony (as he calls it in his subtitle) are deeply rooted in the trans-Pacific linkages between China and the United States. As he points out, the same technology is used by police forces in the United States in ways that likewise target marginalized races. Without diminishing the unique scope and impunity of the Chinese system as it applies on the colonial frontier in Xinjiang, he concludes, "The world, not China alone, has a problem with surveillance" (p. 135).

To humanize this story of dehumanization, he focuses on several persons caught in the maw of the system:

Vera Zhou, a Hui (Sino-Muslim) student from Xinjiang, who was on vacation from studies at the University of Washington;

Qeyser, a Uyghur student whose brother was detained, but who was able to escape to study in the United States;

Baimurat, an ethnic Kazakh, who worked the checkpoints as one of the "data janitors" that do the menial tasks that kept the digital enclosures functioning;

Qelbinur Sedik, a Uyghur teacher of Chinese language, assigned to participate in the reeducation of detainees;

Adilbek, a Kazakh farmer, who grew up in Xinjiang, migrated to Kazakhstan, and returned for a family visit;

Erbaqyt Otarbai, a Kazakh trucker, who had visited Kazakhstan and was detained; and Gulzira Aeulkhan, a Kazakh mother, who had briefly visited Kazakhstan.

Apart from Qeyser, whose story illustrates the growing use of cell phone-based surveillance over the course of...