How “Terror Capitalism” Links Uyghur Oppression to the Global Economy

How “Terror Capitalism” Links Uyghur Oppression to the Global Economy

How “Terror Capitalism” Links Uyghur Oppression to the Global Economy

The camps in Xinjiang and undocumented work in the US are part of the same continuum of unfreedom.


Where is your ID!” the police contractor yelled at me in Uyghur. I looked up in surprise. I had been avoiding eye contact, trying to attract as little attention as possible. In April 2018, in the tourist areas of Kashgar—where there were checkpoints every 200 yards—contractors usually recognized a bespectacled white person as a foreigner. But over the years that I had lived and worked as an anthropologist in Xinjiang, a region in Northwest China, I had often been mistaken for a Uyghur.

“I don’t have a local ID. I’m a foreigner. I only have a passport,” I responded in Mandarin. At another checkpoint, a Uyghur police contractor had advised me to stop speaking Uyghur if I didn’t want to raise suspicion. So I had adopted the tactic of only speaking or writing Chinese at checkpoints.

“Oh! Well, show me your passport then,” he said, switching to Mandarin, his tones nearly as flat and imprecise as my own. He leafed through my passport, pausing at my picture. “That’s a big beard,” he commented. “That’s the style of a lot of young people in my hometown in the United States,” I responded. In 2014, the Religion Section of Xinjiang’s United Front Work Department had identified beards on men under the age of 55 as a possible sign of religious extremism and terrorism.

Eventually, a Han man, a “real” police officer who was allowed to carry a gun, showed up. He asked me about my background, why I was traveling, how I learned Chinese. He said they had looked me up in the system, so they knew all about me.

Despite this, I was allowed to leave. Unlike so many people I knew, I was not held in a camp or assigned a low-wage factory job. My data had been harvested, but I had the protection of my US passport to protect my property and labor from being legally stolen. In a general sense, just by living within a global capitalist economy and the imperial histories that built it, I was implicated in the system of control and “reeducation” that I was studying. The digitization of social life, the Global War on Terror, and the drive for low-cost commodities are facts of life almost everywhere. But, as a protected citizen, the fear I felt was a momentary glimpse of the surveillance systems that dominated the lives of the Uyghurs I saw at the checkpoints. For them, there was no way out.

“Terror capitalism”

Over the past few years, I have developed a conceptual framing that helps me explain the political and economic forces at work in the checkpoints, camps, and factories of Northwest China. I call the concept “terror capitalism”—a type of capitalist frontier-making that exploits the perceived threat of ethnic and racial differences to generate new forms of capital accumulation and state power. Building new frontiers of capitalism means turning things that were previously outside of the marketplace into commodities. In the past, this has involved mining natural resources, turning the lands of the colonized into property, and forcing racialized people to work for low wages or no payment at all as part of industrial production. In the contemporary moment, when breakthroughs in artificial intelligence are transforming human existence, previously uncommodified aspects of social life—like behavioral and biometric data—are being used to create products that can measure and predict things like efficiency, desire, and criminality. This “fourth industrial revolution” of technology-assisted data assessment highlights the pivotal role of military-industrial complexes in building technological innovation and national economies from China, United States, Israel, and elsewhere, and the way governments and corporations adapt military and policing tools to expand tech industries into new domains of life. Across the world, states and companies use information infrastructure—digital forensics tools, biometric checkpoints, and image-recognition systems—to control people and manipulate the workforce.

Terror capitalism links technological oppression to the global economy. The first form of capital that is created beyond the intellectual property inherent in systems of surveillance and policing infrastructure is data. Defining Xinjiang as a war zone has created a data-intensive environment that allows some of China’s largest private and state-managed technology companies to develop new tools in digital forensics, image and face recognition, and language recognition. From face portraits to iris scans to voice signatures to digital histories, the companies are continuously collecting patterned data from the 15 million Muslims in the region. This system mirrors and expands on data-harvesting done by private corporations in Europe and North America, from Google to Palantir, but in the case of the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim populations in Northwest China, the tacit consumer consent and legal rights available to protected citizens in the West have been stripped away.

The second form of capital is in the unfree human labor that is facilitated by the digital enclosure system. Since 2018, Xinjiang’s regional development authority has been describing the camp and reeducation system as a “carrier of the economy,” on the same scale as oil, natural gas, cotton, and tomato resources that had drawn Han Chinese settlers to the region in the 1990s. The internment camps hold hundreds of thousands of detainees in a camp-to-factory pipeline. A surveillance system—smartphone tracking, checkpoints, face scans, and so on—hold Uyghurs and Kazakhs in place, ensuring a docile workforce. Importantly, much of what is produced in this system is destined for export. This is why it is important to understand Uyghur coerced labor as a frontier of global capitalism.

Terror capitalism uses War on Terror rhetoric to justify state and private capital investment in data- and labor-intensive industries and produce detainable workers. The Chinese government used technological innovation to detect and produce an imagined Uyghur and Kazakh threat—an entire population of hundreds of thousands of terrorists in hiding, allowing the state and its Han citizens to legally appropriate their land and labor. In an ethnography called Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, I elaborate on the way colonial projects act as frontiers of capitalist expansion, arguing that colonialism and capitalism are co-constitutive. In a second nonfiction book titled In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, I examine how the systems that Uyghurs confront are linked to surveillance and how these systems open up the labor of unprotected populations to intensified forms of exploitation.

A history of structural antagonism

It was not until the 1990s, as China developed a market economy oriented to global capitalism, that the Uyghur majority areas of southern Xinjiang—where Uyghurs represented more than 90 percent of the population—became the target of an internal settler colonial project. While previously the state had established isolated settler colonies in the northern part of the region, it was only when global market and the state incentivized mass migration into Uyghur majority areas that the major features of a settler colony—dispossession of Uyghur land and way of life, domination of Uyghur institutions such as the mosque, schools, and banks, and settler occupation—began to emerge. It was during this period that the oil and natural gas reserves of the region became the focus of profit-oriented state-owned or -managed corporations. Since then, Xinjiang has become the source of around 20 percent of China’s oil and natural gas. It has an even higher percentage of China’s coal reserves and now produces around 20 percent of the world’s cotton and tomatoes. Uyghur scholars working within the Chinese academy have shown that as settlers began to take over local governments they created highly exploitative systems of tenant farming—which required Uyghur farmers to grow particular crops, sell them to state-arranged buyers, and pay exorbitant fees—and forced Uyghurs to migrate from rural areas to urban centers in search of work. All of this led to wide-scale under-employment among Uyghurs.

In 2009, following a lynching of two Uyghur workers at a factory in eastern China, these tensions escalated to large-scale Uyghur street protests, police violence, and rioting in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The local authorities responded with militarized “hard strike” campaigns across the region. At the same time, land seizures increased across southern Xinjiang as the state incentivized Han settlement. In late 2013 and early 2014, Uyghur civilians violently attacked Han civilians in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi. In response to these attacks, state authorities began to describe Muslim practices such as regular mosque attendance and fasting during Ramadan as signs of the spreading “mental illness” of religious extremism. A “People’s War on Terror” in effect became a program to prevent Uyghurs from being Muslim and, to a certain extent, from being Uyghur.

The state agencies outsourced authority to private companies and police contractors and built hundreds of massive internment camps. Private industrialists and Han settlers, who had benefited from the natural resource economy, were mobilized through a dramatic increase in public-private partnerships to create a surveillance industry at the cutting edge of contemporary technological systems. In 2016 and 2017, the state invested an estimated $7.2 billion in the Xinjiang information security industry as part of an increase of over 90 percent in public security spending. Over the same years, the state awarded an estimated $65 billion in private contracts to build infrastructure and $160 billion more to government entities in the region—an increase of nearly 50 percent. The majority of this spending increase was to build detention facilities, but it also was used to construct a grid of 9,000 facial-recognition checkpoints and hire more than 60,000 low-level grid-workers—who were given devices to scan the smart phones of Muslims for “micro-clues” of past religious and political behavior.

As University of Sydney scholar David Brophy has demonstrated, the system established in the region was grounded in the same counterterrorism strategies practiced by governments across the world, especially those of Israel and the United States. Chief among these influences was counter-insurgency theory or COIN. This dominant form of military and policing science is premised on three elements: full-spectrum intelligence of the entire population, fracturing the social network of those identified as insurgents, and “winning the hearts and minds” of the remaining population. Soon after the Petraeus Doctrine of COIN was introduced in Afghanistan and Iraq in the late 2000s, policing and military theorists in China began to think about how it could be applied in their country. They also started to consider how so-called preventive policing programs in Europe and North America—often called Countering Violent Extremism or CVE—could be used among Chinese Muslim populations. As scholars of critical terrorism studies such as Arun Kundnani have shown, these programs rely on the false idea that pious Islamic practice leads to violent action. In effect, COIN and CVE institutionalizes Islamophobia.

As I show in a recent article, in police academies across China and in Xinjiang in particular, theorists and state authorities began to combine both of these models and apply them to Chinese counterterrorism strategy. In China, counterterrorism really applies only to Turkic Muslims and primarily to Uyghurs. The Xinjiang Public Security Bureau adopted these frameworks to systematize intelligence operations and their assessments of the population. Even the use of camps mimics and expands on the way the US military reinvented the category of the detainee in Iraq and the “pre-criminal” spaces created by CVE programs.

Aside from its scale, what makes the camp system in Xinjiang different is the way it emphasizes “thought reform.” Here they are building on a Maoist legacy of reeducation camps. In the case of Iraq, “winning the hearts and minds” of the nation that the US armed forces had just destroyed and occupied was less about installing an American settler colony and more about installing a US franchise government that would protect the interests of US capital. As such, it was instituted by leaders drawn from the Iraqi population but with US military support. In contrast, in Xinjiang there is both a punitive and “transformational” aspect to the program, and it is imposed and managed by non-Muslim state authorities and their settler proxies.

The Re-education Labor Regime

What I have described so far is the way private technology companies expand their market share and harvest data in the service of state power and their own economic interests. But how do such systems of control work to extend capital accumulation in relation to labor?

Since 2017, factory owners from cities across Eastern China have arrived in Xinjiang to take advantage of newly built industrial parks associated with a reeducation camp system and the cheap labor and subsidies that accompany them. By relocating part of their manufacturing base to Xinjiang, factory owners ensure that the political standing of their businesses will be protected by state authorities in their home provinces, while at the same time they can safely expand their production with the assistance of camps and security systems. Xinjiang is home to around 85 percent of Chinese cotton, and is where the state hopes to relocate around 10 percent of garment-manufacturing jobs.

Most of the world of these workers takes place inside the factory complex. Like migrant workers in other parts of China, they are housed in the same compound as the production site. The labor scholars Pun Ngai and Chris Smith have described such an arrangement as a “dormitory labor regime.” Their work shows that this allows factory owners to more easily demand overtime and weekend work and garnish wages to compensate for housing costs. The same is true in the reeducation labor regime in Northwest China, but Uyghur and Kazakh workers are also prevented from leaving by surveillance systems, material barriers, and the threat of internment. Inside the factories, camera systems, tracking devices, and minders monitor the workers—applying the logics of “smart” factory and warehouse systems used around the world. The surveillance infrastructure in the factories means that all aspects of their lives are monitored. Factory authorities decide if and when workers can go to the toilet, what food they eat, if they are permitted to carry or use phones, what language they speak, when and how long they work, when and how long they sleep, and even what they’re allowed to do when they are not working.

Is Terror Capitalism Global?

While the system that is being implemented in Northwest China is unique in terms of its scale and the depth of its systemic cruelty, the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are not the only marginalized groups of people who are being partitioned by surveillance infrastructure and unfree labor systems. In many countries, these new forms of power are consistently aimed at controlling minorities and refugee populations, many of whom are Muslim. In the West Bank, for instance, Israel targets Palestinians with similar forms of infrastructural power—checkpoints, biometric surveillance, and data harvesting.

Over the past several years, I have collaborated with the anthropologist Carolina Sanchez Boe in seeking to understand the parallels and differences between these systems. Sanchez Boe shows that asylum seekers from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia who enter the United States at the southern border are being released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers with GPS monitors attached to their ankles, under an Intensive Supervision and Appearance Program. In a derivation of the no-fly lists used for terrorism suspects, they are placed on watch lists that prevent them from traveling. Increasingly, ICE requires them to submit face scans performed with an app developed by Behavioral Interventions Incorporated, with advanced mapping services provided by Google Maps and data services from Verizon.

In the United States, the surveillance infrastructures that arose after the attacks of 9/11 push unprotected refugee and immigrant populations into gray zones, at the margins of cities and into low-wage work. In Xinjiang, the goal of the surveillance system is to monitor Uyghurs in order to exploit them, rather than to push them out of public view.

Despite these differences, the reeducation labor system in China and contingent undocumented work in the United States are part of the same continuum of unfreedom. For asylum seekers in the US, the stigma associated with tracking devices is combined with the sense of threat that they feel from not knowing their movements are being tracked and how the data might be used. A Guatemalan asylum seeker told Sanchez Boe that she feared that the digital grillete (the Spanish for “shackle”) was allowing ICE agents to look “at where I meet with other people, to know where undocumented migrants congregate.” Three weeks after she said this, ICE conducted one of the largest immigration raids in a decade at a poultry manufacturing plant in Mississippi, arresting 680 workers, leaving their children to come home from school to empty houses. The affidavit of the arrests reveals that federal agents relied on surveillance data from GPS monitors strapped on the ankles of Latin American women who had found work at the factory.

The simultaneous occurrence of racialized surveillance and exploitation in Mississippi and Xinjiang reminds me of an older moment in racialized global capitalism. The historian Jason Moore once wrote that “behind Manchester stands Mississippi,” noting that what made Manchester the heart of global textile manufacturing in the 19th century were the enslaved people in Mississippi picking cotton. Perhaps, under conditions of “terror capitalism,” we might say that “behind Xinjiang stands Mississippi.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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