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ithin a week of her release from a Muslim “reeducation camp” in Northwest China, Gulzira Auehlkhan was forced by officials in her village to work in a textile factory near the camp where she had been held for the previous year. In an interview with her in January 2020, months after she had fled across the Chinese border to Kazakhstan, Gulzira, a middle-aged Kazakh mother of two, told me that at night she was held in a walled factory dormitory and not permitted to leave. There were checkpoints at the entrance of the dormitory and factory where her ID and face were scanned. She said, “We would have our bodies and phones checked when we arrived and in the middle of the day. When we were leaving for the dormitory at the end of the day they would check again, because they were worried we might take a (sewing) needle. After we got to know (the police contractors) we asked them, ‘why are you still here watching us?’” She said she knew that the response to this unanswered question was that the security workers were monitoring whether or not they were acting like submissive “reeducated” industrial workers.
The goal of the broad digital enclosure system that surrounded her and 13.5 million Kazakhs and Uyghurs was to turn them into a deeply-controlled proletariat, a new docile yet productive lumpen class—those without the social welfare afforded to the formally recognized rights bearing working class. According to state officials, this system of controlled labor is “carried” forward by the massive reeducation system. A complex digital enclosure held detainees, former detainees, and potential detainees in place and monitored their productivity, ensuring that this new class of interned laborers remained a permanent ethno-racial underclass. As in other capitalist-colonial frontier contexts, worker protections centered on state and corporate “investment” in the quality of Turkic Muslim worker productivity, while their bodies and social reproduction itself was viewed as disposable.
In this short essay I use the conceptual framing of a digital enclosure to consider the way Turkic Muslim society in Northwest China has been enveloped by a surveillance system over the past decade. I show how novel enclosures are produced and, in turn, construct new frontiers in capital accumulation and state power. The Turkic Muslim digital enclosure system began with the construction of 3-G cellular wireless networks which provided Uyghurs and Kazakhs with interactive smart-phone enabled capabilities across time and space. But over time the system also gave technology companies and state authorities abilities to watch and control the movements and behavior of Muslims in increasingly intimate ways. As Mark Andrejevic notes regarding similar systems in North America, “Such networks might be described as physical enclosures to the extent that they define a particular space and are able to both provide functionality and gather information within the confines of the geographically delimited area they cover” (2007: 300). These enclosure systems are not exclusive to the range of the pinging tower of the 3-G cellular network. Instead as GPS tracking capacity are built into smartphones and automated biometric systems begin to assess patterns of movement, digital enclosures become multi-dimensional. They become a complex matrix of overlaid enclosures with a wide range of spatial scales and information analytics.
Only very long sentences with multiple clauses can show how the system in Northwest China enveloped and enclosed Uyghur and Kazakh societies: China Mobile cellular networks overlapped Alibaba Wi-Fi networks; the social network of Tencent WeChat groups could be compared with keyword assessments of QQ email; GPS movement analysis of Baidu mapping systems combined with the jurisdictional boundary checkpoint face scans, ID checks, unique media access control addresses captured by China Electronic Technology Company data doors; and the real-time license and face tracking of Sensetime-enabled camera systems made citizens identified and misidentified by ethnicity searchable in real time. These always-on, interacting surveillance systems were supplemented by compulsory data collection through Meiya Pico plug-in automated assessments of smartphone software and content history by police contractors, metal detector manual scans for unauthorized electronic devices in Turkic Muslim homes, and biographical assessments that drew on banking histories, medical histories and household registration data. Taken together, all of these various forms of information produced a digital enclosure of unprecedented scale and depth.
Thought of in an economic sense, digital enclosures evoke a conceptual framing of “original accumulation” (as previously defined by Marx 1978, Byrd, Goldstein, Melamed and Reddy 2018, and Hayward 2019). Following Byrd, Goldstein, Melamed and Reddy (2018) and other scholars of decolonization, I translate the German term ursprünglich used by Marx as “original accumulation” rather than the less accurate “primitive accumulation”. Land enclosure is central to the history of capitalism because it marks a shift from expropriation—a kind of state-authorized theft—of land and labor from marginalized, often Indigenous or ethno-racialized, populations and the imposition of a new contract-based legal regime of property ownership and wage labor. In a classical Marxist account, this is described as an enforced separation of laborers land that was previously held in common, making them rent dependent, and eliminating their possession of the “means of production” (Marx 1978). Yet as numerous other scholars have noted (Robinson 1983, Harvey 2005, Fraser and Jaeggi 2018), this process did not stop after pivotal moments in European capitalism. Instead, capitalism as an institutionalized, and now, global, social order continues to expand through forms of accumulation through the dispossession of ethno-racial others in order to reproduce this order. This means that minoritized people, their way of life, and their ancestral lands, are continually and more fully enclosed to serve resource extraction and new labor regimes (Robinson 1983).
Importantly, land enclosure is but one example of the more general form of “original accumulation,” understood as an accumulation of claims over existing forms of life and material which previously have not been put to work in the expansion of capital and empire (Byrd, Goldstein, Melamed & Reddy 2018). This process of expropriation can move into any domain seen as potentially productive. One of the integral achievements of capitalist systems has been the ability of those who benefit from the system to normalize enclosures and the new distribution of property, knowledge, and power that is created by them (Andrejevic 2007: 303). The same can be said of the ethos of enclosure in Northwest China. The expropriation of Turkic Muslim social networks and biometrics by companies like Tencent and Sensetime in service to a new counter-terrorism surveillance economy, places state contractors and the police in control of the means of social interaction, information and, ultimately, economic productivity and social reproduction. As digital enclosures began to shape the conditions of Turkic Muslim social life, it opened Muslims to a process of devaluation—ultimately criminalizing native forms of Uyghur and Kazakh knowledge and Islamic behavior—and expropriation through dispossession.
This process, something I have called “terror capitalism” elsewhere, extends the logic of the prison and factory “to encompass spaces of leisure, consumption, domesticity, and perhaps all of these together” (Andrejevic 2007, 301; see also Jefferson 2020). In the context of terror capitalism in Northwest China, the “second enclosure” movement of digital expropriation—defined by James Boyle as an “enclosure of the intangible commons of the mind” (2003: 37)—produces a systemic extraction of lucrative social data from minoritized “bad Muslim” populations who have been deemed outside of civil rights protections. To this point, the model of enclosure resembles models of carceral urbanism and banishment of ethnoracial minorities described by Christopher Chen, Ananya Roy and Brian Jordan Jefferson around the world and in North America. The outsourced domestic, yet global, “wars” on crime, drugs, and terror enables technology firms to build data-intensive public infrastructure projects while developing a wide range of computer vision applications. What makes the case in Northwest China unique is that the digital enclosure of Uyghur and Kazakh space also harnesses state power and private textile manufacturers to hold them in place in factories—producing a permanent underclass of ethno-racial minority industrial workers. Rather than banishing populations to human warehousing spaces such as peripheral ghettos or prisons, in this context terror capitalism works to explicitly “reeducate” the population as industrial workers and implement a forced labor regime. In this version of digital enclosure, state authorities and Chinese corporations want not just Turkic Muslim natural resources and the biometric data of their bodies, they want their disciplined, laboring bodies as well. From the perspective of state authorities, this system intensifies sovereign power over spaces that previously had been partially outside its grasp while at the same time it creates new frontiers for the investment of surplus state capital.
Implementing the Digital Enclosure
As the ethnographer Lilly Irani (2019) has noted, cutting-edge technology systems everywhere in the world are nearly always trained by low-wage technicians. In European and North American contexts much of this work is done through platforms such as Crowdflower. Many of these “data janitors,” as Irani calls them, are tasked with training AI algorithms by identifying objects and behaviors. Often they are pushed by class, race, gender devaluation and citizenship status into these jobs. As a result, it is difficult for them to opt out or demand better working conditions. In a similar way those who enforce state violence come from ethno-racial minority and lower-class positions. They are in fact placed in service to what Chandan Reddy (2011) describes as practices of subjectification, or subject-making, in which ethno-racially heterogeneous workers are mobilized through processes of disidentification with their own interests to expand frontiers of capital accumulation and state power. In Northwest China, Turkic Muslim young men, who are the most deeply vulnerable population in the reeducation project, are coerced through economic and policing pressure into “freely” contracting with surveillance system employers that impose the general enclosure system over their own societies and workers like Gulzira. These policing contractors are responsible for such tasks as monitoring face-scanning machines and metal detectors at fixed checkpoints.
An army of higher level officers and “older brother and sister volunteers” or “relatives” most of whom are Han, were given the job of conducting qualitative assessments of the Muslim population—providing the more complex interview-based data for the development of an integrated region-wide platform. Neighborhood police officers, contractors and “relative” assistants assessed individual Muslims to determine a rating of “trustworthy,” “average,” or “untrustworthy.” These assessors determined this by applying ten or more categories: whether or not the person was of military age, if they were Uyghur, if they were underemployed, if they prayed regularly, if they possessed unauthorized religious knowledge, if they had a passport, if they had traveled to one of 26 Muslim-majority countries, if they had overstayed their visa, if they had an immediate relative living abroad, or if they had taught their children about Islam in their home. Those that were determined to be “untrustworthy”, were then sent to detention centers where they were interrogated, asked to confess such “pre-crime” violations and asked to name others who were also “untrustworthy.” This information was then fed back into the data archive. In this manner, and with the help of tech-enabled cyber violation detections of past digital media activity that was now criminalized, the parameters of the techno-political system determined which individuals should be slotted for the “transformation through education” internment camps. This data gave intelligence workers and police contractors a way of tracking, reporting, and analyzing their “progress” in reeducation. Scanning Uyghur and Kazakh faces and phones for reasons to take them away became a numbers-based calculus.
Digital Enclosure and Capital Accumulation
Over the past decade the widespread outsourcing of public services has produced a market structure in the technology sector in China in which the majority of profits and company growth come not from consumer products and services, but from state-driven techno-political infrastructure projects. In 2016 approximately $52 billion of the security technology market in China was structured around such projects—over 60 percent of the total. As the scholars Martin Beraja, David Y. Yang and Noam Yuchtman have shown through a large-scale study of privately-made technologies used in public policing in China, state capital investment in data-intensive technologies is essential for the success of these computer-vision companies. They show that public policing systems, particularly in Xinjiang, generate far more data than similar systems in non-public environments such as corporate office buildings. This is precisely why Chinese tech firms have been able to surpass their competitors in Europe and North America when it comes to face recognition technologies. In their work, Beraja et. al. demonstrate a “causal effect of access to more government data on new commercial software production” and, in turn, the economic effects of this market structure. Ultimately, they show that the Chinese technology industry is shaped via state capital used in surveillance projects in Xinjiang in particular, and in an iterative process, by surveillance systems built elsewhere in China and on the New Silk Road.
In the Turkic Muslim digital enclosure the human data of the surveilled, including their cultural production, or digital “content,” and the very existence of Uyghur and Kazakh life have become the primary drivers of a contemporary digital capitalist system. Uyghurs and Kazakhs have become an unfree “servant class” who have no choice but to feed the system by producing data and coerced economic productivity. The Turkic Muslim reeducation system is now being described by regional authorities as a “carrier of the economy,” and by private technology industry leaders as a space with “unlimited market potential.” The economic value of the reeducation system comes from the way it acts as an incubator for the research and development of new predictive policing products, providing hundreds of thousands of security and education-related jobs, and through the flexible enclosure of checkpoints and continuous behavior tracking, producing unfree Uyghur laborers who are regulated and compelled to work for low wages in textile industries.
Darren Byler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He researches the dispossession of ethno-racial Muslim minorities through forms of surveillance and digital capitalism in China and Southeast Asia. His forthcoming book Terror Capitalism (Duke University Press 2021) examines emerging forms of digital media, infrastructure, capitalism and state power in the Uyghur region in Chinese Central Asia.