Published in Mekong Review, Volume 6, number 4, August – October 2021
In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony
Columbia Global Reports: 2021
The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future
On 6 February 2021, the full story of what is happening to minorities in Xinjiang was briefly available to a small number of people in China. The audio chat room Clubhouse held a discussion on the detention of Muslim minorities. Moderated by Uyghurs and eventually including about 4,000 people, the discussion centred on the question ‘Are there concentration camps in Xinjiang?’ With what one commentator described as ‘an absence of … “Hansplaining”: Chinese-language discussions of Xinjiang which privilege Han perspectives’, the group had a mostly open discussion of the abuses against fellow Chinese citizens. A number of Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang described the environment there, with one calling the prisons for Uyghurs ‘smaller concentration camps inside a larger concentration camp that encompassed the entire province’. Other Chinese from across the country described their horror at what they learned from their compatriots. Two days later, Beijing blocked Clubhouse.
You can still access the site using a virtual private network, but doing that in Xinjiang is enough for you to disappear into a high-tech gulag. Having an old-fashioned Nokia phone is sufficient for you to end up there too. Unsmart phones are more difficult for the state to monitor, and so they are now discouraged. Not submitting to the panopticon culture might mean you end up in a camp; being off the grid is in itself a cause of suspicion. The Clubhouse episode showed how any emerging form of social media has only the briefest life before the government shuts it down. Anything that exposes the brutality of the Chinese state against its Uyghur citizens is rapidly closed off or countered by the vast and dedicated propaganda force protecting the Chinese Communist Party. Continue