ttention to mass detention, forced labor and “reeducation” of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang is belatedly growing in the U.S. and other global North nations. In June 2022, for example, the U.S.’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect, curtailing imports linked to Xinjiang and shaking up supply chains for solar panels, clothing, floor tiles, and agricultural products, among others. A few months earlier, hundreds of thousands of documents, records and photographs hacked from police computer systems in Xinjiang, leaked to Dr. Adrien Zenz and the BBC, revealed a trove of fresh horror. Some observers have remarked that the origin of the historic November 2022 protests in China against “zero Covid” policies — a deadly fire in Urumqi — suggests similarities in regimes of digital surveillance and physical containment between Uyghur persecution and Covid containment.

What is the relationship between state digital surveillance, the detention and reeducation campaign, and Xinjiang’s economic productivity? While most accounts frame China’s actions in Xinjiang in terms of human rights abuses and cold-blooded central-state authoritarianism, Darren Byler has something more in mind in Terror Capitalism. Drawing on more than two years of ethnographic field research in Xinjiang between 2011 and 2018, primarily with male Uyghur urban migrants, Byler finds that what’s going on in Xinjiang is not only violation of rights, nor simply authoritarianism, racism or Islamophobia, but rather the production and conquering of a new frontier of ethno-racialized global capitalism. Byler terms this “terror capitalism,” “a distinct form of state capital, techno-political surveillance, and unfree labor” (pp.xiii), which works through processes of “digital enclosure,” devaluation, and dispossession.

The importance of Terror Capitalism plays on both empirical and theoretical levels: first, Byler offers revelatory ethnographic detail of Uyghur life in Xinjiang, rendered for English-language readers, emerging from a time of tightening police control when few other such reports are available. Byler has been extensively involved in this information dissemination project for some time (for example, here and here). Second, Terror Capitalism also takes the opportunity of a full-length book to meaningfully advance understandings of the relationships between global capitalism and social difference. Byler spurns the academic discourse of Chinese exceptionalism and its conclusions that “China’s just different” to untangle how processes in China are, yes, particular to their context, but also inextricably related to, and actively shaping, contemporary global systems. What emerges by centering, rather than excluding, China from our understanding of capitalism is a more nuanced and complete understanding of capitalism itself. In particular, I would like to draw out two theoretical areas of inquiry where Byler’s arguments about Xinjiang importantly contribute to this understanding.

The first concerns how digital surveillance reshapes spatialities of dispossession. One of Byler’s key arguments is that in Xinjiang new frontiers for capital accumulation are being produced not only from land and natural resource enclosure, but also from forms of “digital enclosure.” A techno-political system of digital surveillance in Xinjiang has served, Byler argues, the same end as Marx’s land enclosures – to create a new class of unfree laborers to be exploited in the service of capital accumulation. Importantly, state discourses of terrorism in and beyond China serve to justify the Chinese state’s particular targeting of Uyghurs to serve as this new class. Byler thus argues that the ethno-racialization of Uyghurs supports accumulation, and that terror capitalism is a system of racial capitalism, a la the likes of Cedric Robinson (1983) and Ruth Gilmore (2007). In considering the spatiality of this manifestation of racial capitalism, Byler’s focus on digital enclosure, which proceeds through technologies like biometric identification, smartphone surveillance, and location tracking systems, corrects any misconceptions that camps and factories are the only infrastructures that enclose. Byler pushes us instead to think beyond such physicalities to consider digital systems that span tangible and intangible spaces. Perhaps because of this transgressive quality, digital enclosure is remarkably complete, including not only people rounded up and held at camps and factories, but also those who are forced to work as low-level police contractor “data janitors” and those forced to trumpet the teachings of the reeducation campaign on social media to prove allegiance to the Chinese state.

Perhaps mirroring this physical/digital enclosure, Byler advances a conceptualization of dispossession that is material but also not merely so. This version of dispossession encompasses loss of property (fueling capital accumulation elsewhere, in the David Harvey [2014] sense) and also a loss of self-determination, where dispossession forms “a relationship of the mind to the self” (pp.111). Byler understands the self as a product of capitalist modernity, where a sense of freedom emerges from individual subjectivity, rather than collective, and the imperative to seek control over individual choices directs attention away from how the range of these are constrained by broader systems. This means the self offers an important site of articulation between the material-economic and affective dimensions of dispossession.

Byler walks the reader through three moments of Uyghur dispossession – the rise of industrial farming, the advent of TV and smartphones, and the People’s War on Terror – where we can trace not only processes of material and affective dispossession but also preceding promises of self-possession. Self-possession, as Nichols (2020) has argued, is confounding in that it establishes the preconditions for dispossession. In Xinjiang, a pattern emerges where a measure of self-determination is offered up in these historical moments, but when grasped, morphs into a tool for dispossession. Smartphones and the 3G network, for example, initially opened up possibilities for Uyghurs to claim the self in new ways through participation in online religious forums. Uyghur men in particular, facing material dispossession in rural villages, joined social media piety movements to gain some measure of possession of the self, if not of their farming lands. But this self-possession turned out to work as a “capitalist modality” (pp.111), where Uyghur engagements with those online forums became grounds for detention and incorporation into the camp system. This weaponization of self-possession results in both material expropriation of labor and in loss of the self, as Uyghurs find themselves compelled to spurn, rather than celebrate, religious pride on social media. For Byler, then, self-possession is double-edged, at once a pursuit necessary for well-being and a pathway to deepening dispossession. This emphasis on loss of self and dispossession-beyond-material, in the context of digital enclosure, provokes questions about the relationship between dispossession and digital space. Do surveillance technologies lead to particularly non-material (or perhaps more-than-material) forms of dispossession? When and how do experiences of dispossession move between digital and “real world” spaces, as processes of enclosure work across this divide?

This leads into the second area of inquiry: how this beyond-material understanding of dispossession refigures theories of how the production of social difference, including gender, sustains capitalism. Byler argues that key to the system of terror capitalism is a differential devaluation of social reproduction. Here Byler lines up a comparison between Han and Uyghur urban migrant men, and their experiences of life in the city. While Han migrants experience an opening up of their life possibilities, Uyghur migrants are stymied in their efforts to “make it” in urban life. The difference, Byler argues, is that Han efforts to cultivate value are supported, while Uyghur efforts to do so, including through engaging in “heritage trades,” are devalued. Because heritage trades support Uyghur identity and well-being, their devaluation thus amounts to devaluation of Uyghur social reproduction. Byler uses this term, defining social reproduction simply as “all the uncompensated forms of work and care that support market activities” (pp.5). This version of social reproduction, however, is not about a sexual division of labor that devalues and bounds women’s work to that of birthing, feeding, clothing and otherwise sustaining waged laborers within the home (Federici 2004). Instead the focus is on the social reproductive work necessary to reproduce Uyghur identity and resist ethno-racialized loss of selfhood.

This perhaps approaches what Katz (2001) distinguishes as cultural social reproduction, where people acquire and rework through everyday practice the knowledges that connect them to and constitute identities. As Katz points out, however, that boundary between political-economic and cultural social reproduction remains “blurry” (2001: 714). Commitment to heritage trades among Uyghur urban migrants seems like just this sort of work-identity interface, and it’s within this blurry space that Byler shows how these quite affective dimensions of selfhood are tied into the capitalist mode of production — a kind of re-materialization of non-material dispossession.  The implication, then, of Byler’s argument is that it expands the understanding of social reproduction to be tied more broadly to the production of social difference (here, Han/Uyghur difference), rather than solely gender.

Yet gender remains centrally involved: the need to perform social reproduction under oppression spurs a reshaping of gender among urban Uyghur men. Here friendship, and particularly homosocial “life and liver friendship,” a Uyghur concept connoting willingness to sacrifice, increasingly characterizes masculinity under the repressive conditions of devaluation. These friendships are animated by storytelling, a “powerful weapon in maintaining a sense of existential well-being” (pp.141). As a figure within the research sphere, Byler himself is very much present in the chapter on friendship. Here he addresses complexly the emancipatory possibilities and limits of ethnography itself, discussing his own friendships in the field and formulating a theory of anthropology as “the work of anticolonial friendship” (pp.160). Byler’s call to those of us who may aspire to “scholar-activism,” then, is less a call to exit the ivory tower and fill the streets (though I doubt Byler would oppose that), and more an imperative to refocus our research practice on making relations. Perhaps this suggests a mode of ethnography that itself may participate in social reproduction — of the researched and the ethnographer. Such an aim imposes no conflict with making knowledge; the book as a whole proves otherwise and indeed, Byler argues that friendship produces “its own forms of knowledge” (pp.161). These arguments are a far cry from a “data collection” approach to ethnography and build strongly on feminist critiques of fieldwork.

And yet the greater contribution may be Byler’s ruminations on the limits of anticolonial ethnography. The concept of “anticolonial friendship” could be critiqued as an unhelpful metaphorization of the material requirements of decolonization. But it should also be understood in light of Byler’s strong tempering that such friendships remain only anticolonial. Xinjiang’s systems of enclosure prevent the development of true decolonial politics, containing emancipatory practice to “life and liver” friendships, alongside the ones between Byler and those he researched with. In Xinjiang’s system of “subtraction,” rife with the disappearances of friends and family, Byler leaves us with really only a flicker of addition: ethnography is nothing, in the end, but “intimacy, sitting knee to knee,” in a way that, Byler hopes, “might restore some of their authorship over their own lives” (pp.219, my emphasis). When you represent others’ lives in writing, can it deliver them a measure of authorship as well? In what ways does authorship sustain life, and in what ways does it fall short of doing so? Byler delivers no clear answers here but does offer a piercing honesty that lays particularly bare the contradictions between the epistemic power of storytelling and the troubles of representation.

One group that remains underrepresented in Byler’s work is Uyghur women, along with their experiences of terror capitalism. This is necessarily the case – Byler notes that his male identity constrained opportunities to develop with women the kind of friendships described above with men. Byler does at one point offer an argument that Uyghur men’s devaluation in the urban marketplace deepens dispossession of Uyghur women, a kind of cascading of ethno-racialized dispossession to gendered dispossession, but overall, social difference along gender lines does not emerge as playing a strong role in the perpetuation of terror capitalism, though the work of care certainly does. Byler’s commitment to feminist critique of political economy throughout the book, given the empirical focus on Uyghur men, is remarkable, but also leaves the reader deeply curious about other-gendered experiences, and at times wondering whether the stretching of social reproduction risks losing sight of the foundational role of gender difference and the physical reproduction of the labor force in capitalism.

Throughout Terror Capitalism, Byler’s intimate, heartfelt, and extensive research serves to illuminate how ethno-racial capitalism digitally encloses, devalues, dispossesses and subtracts Uyghur lives in Xinjiang, and how practices of anticolonial practices like friendship refuse, limitedly, these conditions. The concept of “terror capitalism” compellingly demonstrates that Xinjiang and China have a lot to teach us about these global processes.

Note: A previous version of this review appeared in China Made.


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Emma Loizeaux is a PhD Student in Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on political economies of technical “fixes” to climate change in China and the U.S.