My mother in China tells me about a new Xinjiang bakery near our place. Each time she passes by, there are lines outside. Once she asked those queuing if the flavor is authentic. Xinjiang, after all, is over 2,000 miles northwest of my hometown, where my mother still lives. Yes, the patrons told her, the bread and cakes tasted just like what they had enjoyed as tourists in Xinjiang.
Like 92 percent of the Chinese population, my family and I are Han. Before I moved to the United States for graduate school in 2009, I had never thought much about my ethnicity, or about race in general. Xinjiang had only come up in conversation when neighbors complimented my mother’s beauty: Her wide eyes and high nose “looked Uyghur”; too bad I had inherited none of those coveted features.
But these days, my mother brings up Xinjiang often. She has shared anecdotes from her friends who’ve traveled to the region and her impressions of a Uyghur student she once met at a bus stop. The stories are always punctuated by a warning: I must not allow myself to be “brainwashed” by anti-China rhetoric in the West, where fictitious charges of the ethnic oppression of the Uyghurs are being drummed up. However, according to the United Nations human rights commission, that is what’s happening in Xinjiang: The abuses inflicted on the region’s Turkic Muslim population “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” I do not want to upset my mother or cause her any trouble, so I bite my tongue and clench my teeth. A schism widens in the silence, not only between my mother and me but also between the Han and Uyghur peoples—whether in Xinjiang, the rest of China, or overseas.
Two new books offer a powerful corrective to the dominant Han perception of Xinjiang; they also help put Uyghur voices back in the center of the conversation and place what is happening in Xinjiang in a global as well as regional context. Perhat Tursun’s novel The Backstreets, rendered into English by Darren Byler and an anonymous Uyghur translator, follows a young Uyghur man as he struggles to navigate life and work in Xinjiang’s capital of Ürümqi. The first Uyghur-language novel translated into English, the book is a work of creative genius that takes as its theme the homelessness many Uyghurs feel as strangers in their own land.
Born in Xinjiang in 1969, Tursun was educated in Beijing before returning to his native region. The novel is inspired by a wide range of influences across cultures and continents. Ralph Ellison, J.M. Coetzee, and Albert Camus are among the many authors Tursun cites who helped shape his own understanding of literature and how it can probe the racial animosity and displacement that have plagued Xinjiang. “I used to imagine becoming a writer like Kafka, too,” Tursun wrote in a 2003 poem about his early literary ambitions, but instead, he realized, “I just became one of his characters.”
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The dehumanizing experience of being Uyghur in Xinjiang is at the center of The Backstreets, as well as much of Tursun’s other works of fiction and poetry. Sadly, the Kafkaesque nature of his predicament has only deepened since he completed the novel. In 2018, Tursun was detained by the Chinese authorities and reportedly sentenced to 16 years in prison. The anonymous co-translator of The Backstreets has also disappeared, most likely into the camp system that has imprisoned an estimated 1 million or more Uyghurs since 2017. Byler had initially withheld publishing its English translation—against the author’s wishes—in the hopes of protecting Tursun and his Uyghur co-translator. But in the wake of their detentions, Byler decided that “now was the time.”
Alongside The Backstreets, Byler has also published a new book of nonfiction about Xinjiang, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City. An assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, Byler is also the author of In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, and in his latest volume he moves beyond the camp walls to paint a bigger, more detailed picture of Uyghur life. A work that is part ethnography and part theory, Terror Capitalism offers vivid personal tales as well as a fine-grained analysis of China’s intensified oppression in the region. As the title implies, the book rejects the old Cold War binaries that falsely attribute the persecution of a predominantly Muslim population to the godlessness of a nominally communist ruling party. Instead, it places the plight of the Uyghurs in a long history of colonial dispossession and capitalist exploitation. Facilitated by the post-9/11 rhetoric of counterterrorism and the forces of global capital, Byler argues, the Chinese state has been engaged in “colonial-capitalist frontier making” in Xinjiang, producing “a distinct configuration of state capital, techno-political surveillance, and unfree labor” that he calls “terror capitalism.”
Anglophone discourse on the intermixing of colonialism, race, and capitalism has often overlooked the case of China. This void has been weaponized by the Chinese government, whose stories about an essentialized “China” as an ancient nation with an impermeable geography and a culture radically different from those of the West ignore the country’s own record of conquest and capitalist exploitation; Beijing relies on the convenient myth of a country that has been the victim of imperial aggression but never the aggressor, with territorial claims that stretch back to time immemorial and a mode of development described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The Backstreets and Terror Capitalism both refute this myth. By situating the root causes of Uyghur dispossession in both the context of Chinese history and a larger setting of globalization, racism, and capitalism, the books also puncture the West’s self-exculpatory narrative. If what is happening in China is connected to what has and continues to happen elsewhere in the world, the crisis in Xinjiang is not so much proof of a unique “Chinese threat” against a US-led order as it is an indictment of all the major world powers.
From the outset of The Backstreets, the retrospective nature of the story is apparent: The nameless protagonist talks about his life and describes the world around him in the past tense. Like Tursun, he grew up in a small mountain village in Xinjiang and went to college in Beijing. After graduation, he finds a tedious office job in the city of Ürümqi, where his employment is conditioned on his waiving the housing benefits he is entitled to.
Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, the novel follows this unnamed protagonist in the early 1990s over the course of one evening as he stumbles through a hostile city and has flashbacks of incidents at work and recollections of a rural childhood filled with heartbreak and longing. His search for a safe place to spend the night leads to his eventual descent into madness.
Tursun completed his first draft of The Backstreets in 1991 and finalized it in 2015. In the novel, one hears echoes not only of a recent past but also of centuries of dislocation imposed on the Uyghur people. This history isn’t told directly in The Backstreets, but it haunts almost every page of the book. Having fallen under the rule of the Manchu Qing empire in 1759, the Uyghur homeland was mostly autonomous until the late 19th century, when a series of Islamic rebellions broke out in the region. Then the Qing empire struck back: Declaring the region an official Chinese province and naming it Xinjiang (“new frontier”), the Qing court sought to “civilize” this borderland with Han Chinese settlements, Chinese-language education, and other assimilation policies.
The Qing empire was overthrown in 1911. Succeeding Chinese governments struggled to hold on to its vast territory, especially in non-Han regions like Xinjiang. Local forces and neighboring powers, including the Soviet Union, competed for control of Xinjiang and left lasting legacies. After the Communist takeover in 1949, the area became part of the People’s Republic of China as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but autonomy, like the grand promise of communism, existed in name only. The party that assumed power under the banner of anti-imperialism ruled as an empire by another name.
Things only got worse: As Byler summarizes in Terror Capitalism, during the Mao years, Uyghur dispossession continued under the guise of socialist construction. Native farmlands were consolidated into communes, and Han people from all over China were sent to the northwestern frontier. After Mao died in 1976, economic reforms and political liberalization ushered in a brief “Golden Era” of opportunities for Uyghurs—it was during this time that Tursun first encountered Western literature—but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian republics, Beijing saw the need to tighten control over its western frontier. As the Chinese economy transitioned out of central planning and embraced the capitalist market, the Uyghur homeland faced another form of extraction and exploitation, becoming a peripheral Chinese colony that supplied metropoles in the east, as well as consumers in other countries, with products and raw materials. The main plotline in The Backstreets—a search for a safe spot to lay one’s head for just one night—is not merely a gripping narrative. For Tursun and for many Uyghurs, it is a parable for the plight that they have faced for centuries.
The Backstreets is peppered with subtle references to this history. In one fragmented memory of a tragic night in his youth, the protagonist recalls a giant portrait of Mao at home, whose imposing image gradually merges with the looming shadows of his abusive father. The waves of political persecutions under Mao that tore Chinese society apart also swept through Xinjiang. In another example of the paternalistic overlord embedded in the history of colonization, a Han supervisor at work repeatedly asks our nameless protagonist to pen a letter of guarantee in Chinese to promise that he will not ask for the housing benefits he deserves. The young Uyghur man takes it all in with a sense of irony: “Who knows,” he wonders, “perhaps a hundred years ago his grandfather had forced my grandfather to write the same kind of letter.”
For the protagonist in The Backstreets, Ürümqi before the age of surveillance cameras is one already filled with watchful eyes. To be racialized as an other renders one’s humanity invisible, while making one’s arbitrary physical characteristics hyper-visible. Walking down the streets of Ürümqi, the protagonist imagines himself as a rat: If he were hit by a car, the people inside the vehicle wouldn’t even notice. Yet whenever he asks a passerby for directions, suspicion ensues: One Han man grills him about his workplace; another dashes away upon his approach; a woman accuses him of being a thief. Struggling to find his way, the protagonist—who had studied math at university—turns to a random assortment of numbers for clues as to where he should go and who he truly is. Early in the novel, he spots a scrap of paper by his office door that contains a series of seemingly random digits. Believing that the paper holds the key to his life, he stares at the strange figures for a long time and finally finds familiarity. Before him is his biometric data: The numbers on the paper are his height, weight, birth year, and age, even the distance in steps between his room and the front gate of the building. He has an epiphany: “Maybe I myself was composed of numbers.”
The Backstreets is set in the early 1990s, but reading it from the vantage point of the 21st century, one can appreciate the novel’s eerie sense of foreshadowing. As Byler explains in Terror Capitalism, by the 2010s, the surveillance infrastructure in Xinjiang had expanded into a complex high-tech web that often turned people into numbers, marking out a “digital enclosure” of an already enclosed people. The bodies of these colonized subjects, people alienated from their land, constitute another site of extraction beyond just a source of cheap labor. The smartphones, search engines, and other communication tools they use work as “conversion devices,” turning Uyghur lives into code and data that feed China’s surveillance industry, whose rapid growth has relied on private investments and a global market, in addition to Chinese state objectives to control the population in Xinjiang and beyond.
The first half of Terror Capitalism offers a detailed account of these chilling elements of the 21st-century Chinese police state. Byler also explores how many of the policies and much of the rhetoric that Beijing uses to justify its actions in Xinjiang and toward Uyghurs mirror those found in the United States’ so-called War on Terror. Chinese officials, he notes, studied David Petraeus’s handbook on counterinsurgency and political transformation, which includes such methods as systematic detention and mass intelligence gathering, and they also enlisted former Blackwater head Erik Prince’s security company, which announced plans to open a “training center” in Xinjiang in 2019.
The surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang, Byler explains, is a product of racism, but it is also productive of it: It produces racialized subjects and reproduces existing race relations. The ubiquitous security cameras and checkpoints reconfigure space and accentuate ethno-racial differences, but they also repeat a pattern that Tursun’s unnamed protagonist well knows not only he but his grandfather experienced. While the systems track Uyghur and Han movements alike, the latter’s experience, as Byler puts it, is “largely frictionless.” For Turkic minorities, life is suspended in terror; any encounter with the state can result in imprisonment.
More than a human warehouse or indoctrination center, the “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang are also, Byler documents, sites and means of labor stratification and capital accumulation—the product of a state that seeks political control as well as profit-making, and where both goals are aided by imposing terror. The region produces about one-fifth of the world’s cotton, over a third of its tomato paste, and half of the polysilicon used for solar panels, much of which relies on the labor of imprisoned Uyghurs. As Byler notes, “factories have flocked to Xinjiang” since 2017 to take advantage of the new camp system, which doubles as a system of “industrial parks.” Capital and goods flow across borders, while toiling bodies are fixed in place. By deeming non-Han characteristics criminally suspect and subject to erasure, the systems of scrutiny and enclosure, physical or digital, reinforce a Han-centric hierarchy. In the name of security and national unity, a complex web of oppression is weaved that aims to “turn Kazakhs and Uyghurs into a deeply controlled proletariat, a docile yet productive underclass.”
In the most intimate chapter of Terror Capitalism, Byler describes Uyghur homosocial relationships as a form of empowerment and “palliative care,” a gentle yet firm resistance against totalitarian state terror and colonial-capitalist deprivation. He calls it “anticolonial friendship.” Byler tells the story of Ablikim, whom he befriended while doing fieldwork in Xinjiang as a doctoral student in the mid-2010s. He and Ablikim read The Backstreets together in its original Uyghur. “I feel as though this book was written just for me,” Ablikim told Byler. There are “striking parallels” between the life of the protagonist and his own, Ablikim added, with one crucial difference: The former “has no friends, that is why he goes crazy.” For young Uyghur men like Ablikim, friendship can be life-affirming and lifesaving, at times literally.
Byler also explores other relationships forged out of the violence and suppression of the region. In the next chapter we meet Chen Ye, a Han photographer whose family had settled in Xinjiang in the 1950s as part of Mao’s political mobilization. Eschewing a life of stability and comfort, Chen Ye spends his time documenting the precarity of Uyghur migrants. He often turned down Chinese state agencies and other media outlets who sought to co-opt his work, as he did not want his pictures to be used as proof of the “backwardness” of the Uyghurs, who then must be saved by the superior Han race.
At an exhibition of Chen Ye’s photography, held at a private coffee shop to bypass government censorship, Byler invited Ablikim, who was the only Uyghur in the audience. The three of them chatted at length after the show. Later, Ablikim told Byler that, despite his deep admiration for Chen Ye’s “personal ethics,” he sensed a gap between them: “Whenever Han people talk to Uyghurs something always gets a little bit lost in translation.”
The distance between Chen Ye and Ablikim is not the fault of any individual but a reflection of the disparity in their positions of power. Byler is careful to note that in a space of colonization, not all relationships are created equal. However well-intentioned a person may be, not everyone can be an anticolonial friend. Despite writing so sharply about these imbalances, Byler does not always apply the same rigor when it comes to his own position. “Writing this book,” he asserts, “is in its own partial way a practice of anticolonial friendship,” and so is the work of anthropology.
Yet who is the colonizer in this “anticolonial friendship” between a white American anthropologist and his Uyghur interviewees in China? The obvious answer would be the Chinese state. But as the earlier chapters of Terror Capitalism masterfully elucidate, racial subjugation and colonization are not exclusive to China but rather are embedded in a global system; the West is complicit in and has benefited from Uyghur dispossession.
The tension within the concept of “anticolonial friendship” points to a larger limitation in Byler’s otherwise brilliant volume. I wish that, in addition to confronting the roles that the United States and global capital play in Xinjiang, Byler had reflected more on how his race and nationality enabled his access in the region and shaped his interactions with locals. Chen Ye tells Byler how being Han has led many Uyghurs to treat him with suspicion at first when he tries to photograph them: “They wanted to figure out if he was a Korean Christian missionary or government worker.” As a white American in a Chinese colony, Byler enjoyed the presumption of neutrality by the colonized. This presumed impartiality that facilitated Byler’s work also stems from and reinforces the worldview Byler’s book criticizes: that the United States is an innocent—even a morally superior—outsider to Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.
This paradox, which Byler does not fully interrogate, also afflicts the discipline of anthropology more generally. The academy is embedded in relations of power and prone to reproduce these imbalances. At the end of the day, the American anthropologist returns to his country and publishes books using the stories he has heard; the natives who shared and lived the stories are left in their predicament. Several of Byler’s Uyghur friends, including Ablikim, have disappeared into the camps. Despite its noble intentions, the work of anthropology can also become another form of extraction, in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
On November 24, 2022, a fire broke out in a majority-Uyghur neighborhood in Ürümqi. Trapped in the building because of China’s “Zero Covid” policy, at least 10 people perished; all of them, as far as it’s been reported, were Uyghur. In the following days, protests erupted in different parts of Xinjiang and across the country and quickly spread to overseas Chinese communities. For the Han majority, the blaze evoked a shared anguish between them and Uyghurs, even if the years of mass incarceration and cultural erasure of Uyghurs had not.
Many in the Uyghur diaspora and academic circles have questioned the extent of this fledgling solidarity. The pre-pandemic normal that many Han people yearn for never included freedom or justice for Uyghurs. The draconian lockdowns implemented across China were manifestations of imperialism’s “boomerang effect,” in which techniques of policing and oppression that had been pioneered in the colonies were deployed in the metropole: A plethora of health codes collected biometric data and tracked daily movements; migrant workers were confined to their factories under the “closed loop” system to ensure production continued despite Covid outbreaks.
As the Chinese government lifts its pandemic restrictions and the country battles a tsunami of infections, the stirring cries for freedom seem to be an echo of the past. As in The Backstreets, history’s unwelcome patterns of division and exploitation are hard to escape. Recently, however, there have been inklings of transnational and inter-ethnic solidarity among labor organizers, feminists, and queer activists in China and beyond, offering flickers of hope toward an alternative future. We are all children of empire and prisoners of capitalism. In a moment of planetary disasters, the suffering of one group of people is far more clearly the suffering of all.
In The Backstreets, the protagonist’s search for a home ends in tragedy. More than a decade after I left the land of my birth, and with the country I now live in—the United States—becoming increasingly hostile to my existence as a Chinese immigrant, home for me has become an elusive concept, too, an idea rather than a place. But I’m not alone in the hinterland of exile. On nights thick with grief, I find solace and companionship in Tursun’s words. As he writes in his 2006 poem “Elegy” (translated by Joshua L. Freeman): “When they force me to accept the massacre as love / Do you know that I am with you…. / When they search the streets and cannot find my vanished figure / Do you know that I am with you…. / In that endlessly mystical drunkenness’s farthest, deepest chambers / Do you know that I am with you.”