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book review

Monitors display a video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii, in Beijing, May 10, 2018.GILLES SABRIE/The New York Times News Service

· Title: Terror Capitalism

· Author: Darren Byler

· Genre: Anthropology/Sociology

· Publisher: Duke University Press

· Pages: 296 pages

· Price: $33.85


· Title: China Unbound

· Author: Joanna Chiu

· Genre: Politics/Journalism

· Publisher: House of Anansi Press

· Pages: 304 pages

· Price: $24.99

In early April a coalition of human-rights groups called on the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise to investigate a claim that numerous products sold by Canadian companies are being made in forced labour camps in China. Among those groups that filed the complaint is the Ottawa-based NGO Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project.

They accuse the Chinese government of detaining more than a million Muslims in re-education camps in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of the world’s most populous country. Some detainees come from Kazakh and Hui ethnic minorities. But most are Uyghur, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group of 12 million people residing in Xinjiang. In February, 2021, Canada’s House of Commons voted to declare China’s treatment of its Uyghur population a “genocide”. China refutes these allegations, claiming it’s carrying out a “vocational training program.”

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“The Uyghur reeducation camp system is now being described by regional [Chinese] authorities as a carrier of economy stability, with unlimited market potential,” Darren Byler writes in the opening pages of Terror Capitalism. The assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University is careful not to use the phrases “crimes against humanity” or “genocide.” He does admit, however, that China’s persecution of its Muslim minority is a state-sponsored totalitarian system of prison camps and workhouses that intentionally seeks to demonize and subjugate one specific ethnic group. Byler has already documented part of this story in a book he published last October, In the Camps, which primarily focused on how the Chinese state has employed pernicious sophisticated technological systems – such as algorithm tinkerers, face recognition designers, DNA mappers and smartphone tracking systems – to separate Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities from the broader Han population.

Byler has identified more than 300 camps that are presently in operation across the Xinjiang region, where detainees are regularly beaten and deprived of fundamental human rights and basic human dignity. He has also explored how women of child-bearing age are forced to have “surgical sterilization” in Xinjiang camps. Those reproductive restrictions have seen birth rates among Uyghurs drop by as much as 80 per cent in some areas of southern Xinjiang. Technically, this qualifies as both crimes against humanity, and “genocide” – at least according to their definitions in the International Criminal Court. A sociocultural-anthropologist, Byler avoids any discussion of this legal terminology in Terror Capitalism. The book is primarily concerned with how these detention camps have affected social relations and daily life for ordinary citizens in Xinjiang. We also get a brief history lesson about the broader Xinjiang region.

Darren Byler.Handout

During the 1990s, China’s shift toward an export-driven market economy drew millions of Han settlers seeking work in factories specializing in cotton and tomatoes into the Uyghur-majority areas of Xinjiang. This meant social and economic privileges (and religious freedom) the Uyghur population previously enjoyed in Xinjiang was gradually eroded. A small number of Uyghur extremists then responded with terrorist attacks in cities such as Beijing, Kunming and Urumchi. By 2017, China’s President, Xi Jinping, publicly declared a “People’s War on Terror” against 15 million Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang. The entire Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui populations were suddenly being described by Chinese state media as “disease-carrying insects who needed to be exterminated.”

Some of the stories Byler’s book recalls read like a scene straight out of Kafka’s The Trial. “The majority of those who had been detained [in these camps] did not know what crime they had committed prior to their detention and re-education,” he explains. The author’s attention to detail and commitment to thorough research is excellent. He speaks fluent Uyghur, has visited the region several times and some of his close friends have even gone missing in the camps. The book draws on an ethnographic research study Byler carried out in the Xinjiang region between 2011 and 2018. He also examines government documents and reports from tech workers in China as well as internal Chinese police reports from after that period.

Terror Capitalism can be frustrating to read at times. Though it might appeal to students writing a doctoral thesis about the evils of global trade, using postcolonial-Marxist theory as a guide, a mainstream reading audience will find Byler’s convoluted, complicated and clunky prose style challenging to digest. He generalizes and moralizes with broad brush strokes – at least in certain parts of the book. His abstract, far-left agenda isn’t very convincing. It claims that global capitalism, as an economic system, is inherently violent and racist. He therefore concludes that the international community must shoulder some responsibility for how the Uyghur population is presently being persecuted in Xinjiang today. It’s all rather Leninist, in both its tone and delivery.

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Joanna Chiu sees Chinese authoritarianism in simpler terms. She says it stems from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) obsession for total control and power. The Vancouver-based journalist currently covers Canada-China relations for the Toronto Star. Chiu cut her teeth as a rookie freelance foreign correspondent in Beijing and Hong Kong in the mid-2000s, learning how and why the People’s Republic is obsessed with secrecy and censorship. The origins of that closed and overtly paranoid system of government date back to a hard left revolution, led by Mao Zedong, in 1949. It paved the wave for the founding of the modern Chinese state. Instead of rule of law in China, there is rule by law, Chiu explains. Now aided by high-tech surveillance, it helps the Chinese state maintain absolute control over its 1.4 billion citizens. “Laws and regulations govern virtually every aspect of a person’s life, [in China including] whether you can post a satirical meme on the internet,” the journalist writes in China Unbound.

A native of Hong Kong, who then moved to Canada, Chiu begins the book by explaining how her journey back to China as a professional journalist began with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm. She initially believed her reporting work would chronicle China’s rapid economic development. Indeed, it was a time when many in the west believed the country had the potential to open itself up something akin to liberal reform, if not liberal democracy.

Joanna Chiu.Handout

But the rise of Xi as general secretary of the CCP in 2012 saw China sliding further and further back toward authoritarianism. The country got richer. But the politics got poorer. “Under Xi’s leadership, China has imprisoned thousands of people for even mild social criticism as the country’s censorship and surveillance apparatus becomes ever more sophisticated,” Chiu explains. She notes how torture and forced confessions are the glue that hold China’s legal system together. The number of executions that take place each year in China is a state secret, mainly because journalists are prevented from properly reporting from inside the country’s strictly guarded legal system, something Chiu has witnessed first-hand.

That Orwellian system of government is no longer restricted to inside China either. It also affects Chinese citizens currently living in Canada. We read a detailed interview with one Chinese law student from the University of Quebec, who retweeted a short satirical video about Xi. The man had a mere two followers on Twitter, but his father was subsequently contacted by one of China’s public security bureaus – these are police stations that also oversee some migration matters. They sometimes work with the United Front Work Department, who act as the CCP’s arm for dealing with overseas Chinese, as well as an array of groups inside China. Chiu says the United Front Work Department’s aims are unequivocal: to ensure that Chinese citizens living abroad act in accordance with CCP’s objectives. The United Front Work Department has no qualms about intimidating members of academia, businesses, civil society groups and Chinese diaspora communities, who speak out against human-rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere in China.

Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, China Unbound spends significant ink carefully examining Canada’s complex diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic. Chiu notes how they plunged to an all-time low after a hostage diplomatic saga known as the Meng Wanzhou-two Michaels affair. It began in December, 2018, when Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver International Airport. The arrest was an extradition request from the U.S. Department of Justice, which accused Meng of lying to HSBC Bank about her company’s relationship with an Iran-based affiliate. Chiu points out why Meng’s arrest on Canadian soil had significant political implications, both for Canada and China. Huawei has received an estimated US$75-billion from Chinese government tax breaks: This gives the CCP significant power over the world’s largest supplier of network equipment for telecommunications firms.

December, 2018, also saw the arrest of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadian citizens living in China. The Chinese government alleged they were holding state secrets, and both men were accused of espionage. Beijing denied detaining the Canadians in retaliation for Meng’s arrest. But Chiu points out that China used both men as political bargaining chips. The case showed people around the world “the consequences of angering a technologically advanced and increasingly authoritarian world power,” she writes. The two men maintained their innocence throughout, were eventually released in October of last year and returned to Canada.

So what steps is the Canadian government taking to deal with China’s aggressive foreign policy and abysmal record on human rights? There has been a new comprehensive strategy to deal with an increasingly authoritarian Beijing, Chiu explains. “But several years later, no shift in policy has been announced,” she stresses. In fact, some small steps have been taken. In March, 2021, the Canadian government announced it was imposing sanctions against Chinese officials and a Chinese entity in response to gross and systematic human-rights violations that have been committed in China.

The stark reality, though, is that Canada is a middle power country. As Chiu points out: It simply does not possess the hard power and political muscle to threaten the world’s most populous nation. Certainly not in a manner of, say, economic sanctions the United States can impose, which have the potential to cause serious havoc in the Chinese economy. In mid-April, Mélanie Joly, told The Canadian Press about a private phone call she had with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, which discussed Canada’s position on Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister was at the time embarking on a two-country trip in Asia hoping to deliver on the Liberal government’s long-promised Indo-Pacific strategy: It’s diplomatic shorthand the West uses with other strategic Western partners and allies in the region, to address how it might deal with China.

“We think that China has an opportunity to make sure that it plays a constructive role to end the war,” Joly told The Canadian Press after that phone call. It sounds like naive, wishful thinking though. Numerous articles that appeared in the British press in early April claimed that cyberhackers based in China began targeting Ukrainian websites on Feb. 23, the day before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Stories like these suggest Beijing had advance notice of Moscow’s plans to invade Ukraine. Keeping schtum was a stoic way of China saying: it doesn’t concern us. But the jury is still out on how long that chummy relationship between China and Russia can last. Clearly, both countries have authoritarian strongmen in charge who tolerate no political dissent internally whatsoever. But in other ways the respective leaders seem to have rather different aims. Vladimir Putin’s intransigent political vision appears to be obsessed with trying to eliminate any potential threats abroad by military force alone. The current war in Ukraine, however, shows that such a strategy isn’t effective, either militarily or economically. Xi, conversely, seems more concerned with raising China’s status globally through measured diplomacy, and expanding trade routes that guarantee massive loans to other countries across the world, via the Belt and Road Initiative. “If China clearly rises above Russia to become a dominant world power, experts are divided on how Moscow would react,” Chiu concludes. We may be about to find out, very soon.

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