‘Terror Capitalism’ in Xinjiang

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Darren Byler, Dr. Ivan Franceschini, and Dr. Nicholas Loubere – co-editors of “Xinjiang Year Zero” (ANU Press 2022) – is the 312th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the concept of “terror capitalism” in relation to China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

In this context the term terror capitalism refers to the way the category of the “terrorist” has been produced by Chinese counterterrorism laws, as well as by state worker and private contractor law enforcement, to render large portions of the Uyghur population “untrustworthy” and place them under largely privatized regimes of surveillance, reeducation, and coerced labor. This has justified billions of dollars of investment in technology companies, camps, and factories, which accrue value by collecting data, researching, and developing new technologies, and, ultimately, a new population of hundreds of thousands of productive, underpaid, servile workers, detainees, and prisoners who are held in place by the legal and technological system. Terror capitalism is a frontier of global capital that combines state and corporate interests in data and cheap labor in the name of security.

Describe the correlation between China’s mass detention of Uyghurs and the rise of a high-tech surveillance state in Xinjiang.

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The mass internment coincides directly with new data analytics tools that were used to evaluate the past digital behavior of Uyghurs. Breakthroughs in the mid-2010s in AI focused on data analytics and surveillance allowed an army of newly hired security workers to scan smartphones for probabilities of terrorist or extremist activities. Through such scans, state documents show that over 1.5 million people were determined to have used illegalized file-sharing apps. While it is likely that not all these people were detained, there is a great deal of evidence showing that technological assessments led to the detention of hundreds of thousands and were the basis for investigations of many others. Without the technology it is likely that much of this previously normal, legal behavior would not have been detected, and many fewer people would have been detained.

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Analyze China’s systemized “social credit system,” financialized inclusion, and social control.

China’s emerging “social credit system” and the high-tech surveillance/internment regime in Xinjiang are separate phenomena that are nevertheless underpinned by similar aspirations and which represent the vanguard of more efficient means of socioeconomic control that are being taken up around the globe. Through the development of the social credit system, the Chinese government aims to achieve at least two things. First, as China does not have the same type of credit rating infrastructure that exists in most advanced capitalist countries, they aspire to create a more comprehensive means of monitoring and assessing socioeconomic activity by drawing on big and alternative data to facilitate the integration of previously excluded actors into the formal economy.

Second, social credit is a means of social engineering to create a “trustworthy” citizenry and society. In this context, “trustworthiness” is conflated with “creditworthiness,” with the goal being to transform the citizenry into a “civilized” (and “credit conscious”) population through the imposition of a system of incentives and disincentives that can mold “logical” profit-maximizing citizens into “civilized” subjects. In this respect, the goals of social credit mirror the digital surveillance and internment regime in Xinjiang, which also seeks to reengineer the Uyghur population into a subservient proletariat class able to provide the necessary labor for Xinjiang’s integration into global supply chains.

What is the role of the global security industry in China’s system of social control?

To be clear, the vast majority of technologies used in Xinjiang were built by Chinese companies. In fact, one of the issues this book shows is that state capital invested in private technology companies, and citizen data that is provided to these companies as a result of these contracts, has a direct effect on the dramatic growth of the Chinese technology industry in general. The role of the global security industry in this system is primarily in the base technologies such as Intel processing chips and Oracle open-source software, which is used in Chinese technology systems.

Many of the leaders of these companies were trained in North American institutions and worked at U.S. firms in the past. As they were building their companies, they drew from this training and connections, and exploited the open-source, rapid-prototyping model of technology development that is intrinsic to Silicon Valley. They mirrored the data-scraping and integration efforts of U.S. state contractors such as Palantir. Our sense is that most Chinese technologists see their work as nearly identical to the work of security contractors in Europe and North America.

Identify three policy implications from your book that U.S., European, and Asian policymakers, business leaders and civil society entities should understand.

We think that the main contribution of our book is first and foremost theoretical: As a whole, the chapters included in the volume offer a theoretical blueprint that helps us to make sense of what is happening in Northwest China – which is the precondition to develop more effective policies. In particular, we challenge two frames that in recent years have become dominant in discussions of Xinjiang: the essentialist view that interprets the camps as the result of the exceptional, innate evil of the Chinese Communist Party, and the whataboutist view that seeks to minimize what is happening in light of similar atrocities that have taken place elsewhere in history and today. By highlighting seepages and linkages, we argue for an understanding of the camps at a systemic level, as part and parcel of broader global trends and dynamics in counterterrorism and labor outsourcing.

At a more concrete level, the most obvious policy implication is that the situation in Xinjiang alerts us to situations that are taking place closer to home, for instance in our companies and universities. In this sense, if we had to choose three policy implications, we would say that: a) manufacturers should seek to extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang labor, and develop robust ethical design protocols to protect vulnerable populations from harmful forms of surveillance; b) universities should likewise review their investment portfolios and address the failure in ethics instructions that pervades university computer engineering and design schools; and, more broadly, c) the term “terrorism” and associated military and policing theories should be deeply reexamined as a contemporary global racial and colonial phenomenon.