- The detention camps where the Chinese government has interned more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs serves a dual purpose.
- It not only oppresses what the Chinese government considers a troublesome minority on its western frontier but also serves as a lab for the development of surveillance technology by Chinese companies.
- China must export these tools as part of its plan to transform its economy into a world leader in technological development.
- “It’s not unusual that colonies on the periphery become laboratories of surveillance and control that are then applied elsewhere,” Philip Thai, a historian of modern China at Northeastern University, said. “They’re doing a lot of testing in an area that is remote and against a people who are not as politically organized or connected.”
In some ways, what’s happening in Xinjiang is a throwback to the terrors of Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong. Mao believed the CCP could mold people into the perfect citizen, that they could be “reeducated” in labor camps.
Xi Jinping has given this idea a new life, but there are two key ways the new brand of horror is unlike anything China has seen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For one thing, Xi’s violence is racially driven. Mao believed that CCP should avoid “Han chauvinism,” the repression of China’s racial minorities by its Han Chinese ethnic majority. Xi doesn’t see it that way. He’s obsessed with the fall of the USSR and, according to Thai, believes that the kind of diversity Mao borrowed from that erstwhile empire helped contribute its downfall. Xi’s understanding of the ideal Chinese citizen demands more homogeneity, more secularism.
Put that racism together with the other new feature of Xi’s violence — an economic imperative to develop surveillance technology as rapidly as possible — and you have what James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, called “machine-learning-powered discrimination.”
Research by Victor Shih, a professor of political economy at the University of California, shows that in the past two years, the Chinese Communist Party all but stopped meeting about reforming China’s massive state-owned enterprises, something advanced economies — and especially the Trump administration — have been pushing for years. Instead the government is focused on marshaling the resources of the state to achieve specific political and economic aims. And what’s happened in Xinjiang figures into those aims.
“A decade ago the financial system threw resources at state firms so that they could generate growth,” Dinny McMahon, a researcher at the Paulson Institute, a think tank dedicated to US-China relations, told Business Insider.
“Today, state firms can still access financial resources, but they’re expected to generate growth in ways that serve the national interest (i.e., by moving up the value-added chain and into tech), and by ensuring their internal working culture is politically correct. The role of state companies is now as much about the Party’s control over society as much as it is about the structure of the economy.”
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