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Inside China's high-tech penal colony with Darren Byler: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author Darren Byler about a high-tech form of colonization that has been rapidly growing in Xinjiang, China.

Since 2017, a high-tech form of colonization has been rapidly growing in Xinjiang, China. As many as 1.5 million Muslim Uyghurs have vanished into high-security camps and factories. The Chinese regime describes these sites as “vocational education and training centers” that are utilized to counter terrorism. But what actually goes on inside of these internment camps? That’s the subject of Darren Byler’s new book, “In The Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony.” In it, Byler draws on a decade of research on the region. He joins to discuss his findings and the role of various forms of technology including facial recognition, smartphones and apps like WeChat, in government surveillance.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Darren Byler: --A lot of what's happening, though, is not actually education. In terms of knowledge, it's about discipline, about forcing these people to recognize the power of the state and to submit to it. There's a lot of physical violence that's happening as well. You know, if you violate the rules, getting up from your stool, taking too long in the bathroom, you will be beaten, often with nonlethal weapons.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why is This Happening with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Let's start today with a little Foucault. Why not? A French theorist, philosopher, incredibly influential, interesting. Has had kind of a renaissance among the American right recently which actually makes some sense because though I think coded as a leftist in his life, he was an extremely subversive thinker in many ways.

There's lots of ways in which his thinking is I think quite reactionary. But never mind that for the moment. He's got a very famous book about criminology, about the theory of crime but more deeply about the sort of birth of the prison. It's called Discipline and Punish. And in this book, he talks about this structure called the Panopticon.

The Panopticon, which is actually an actual real thing that was constructed, but also a theoretical model for how he viewed the process of industrialized detention and penitentiary is if you imagine a single guard tower in the middle and then around it a circle, multiple floors, of prison cells, that are open with bars such that a single guard tower can look into every one of those cells.

And the idea about the Panopticon is that A) it reduces the humanity, the dignity, of the people who are watched because they know they're always being watched. It's incredibly efficient because only one guard is necessary to watch over this incredible number of prisoners, or a few guards in a guard tower.

And to Foucault, it sort of represents the sort of, like, tyrannical, authoritarian and terrifying rationalization of the project of surveillance and capture and prison. And that notion of the Panopticon obviously spawns a million theoretical conversations.

If you read Foucault or read the lineage after Foucault, you're familiar with those. If this is new to you, trust me on that. (LAUGH) If you google Panopticon, you'll see lots of references to it. But the reason that I'm introducing this notion of Foucault and the Panopticon and the kind of surveillance imperative of a state at its most sort of, like, brutally, quote, unquote, "Rational," is that, to some extent, there's an argument to be made that the Chinese government is the 21st century version of that.

We think about surveillance and privacy incursions in the U.S. in two different spheres. I think we tend to think of the NSA and the war on terror and the ways in which the state has all sorts of access to kinds of information. And then we think of private actors who have access to all kinds of information they sell to advertisers.

And some of that is given over freely. Some of it is taken without us really consenting, or maybe in the background of a end user license agreement, we consent. You know, in China, I think that distinction matters a lot less. And I think in China, what the argument that one can make (and many people are making) is that they're sort of constructing a kind of synthesis of that in which the forms of surveillance that we associate with a kind of capitalist surveillance in the U.S., which is Facebook spying on our every like to figure out which kind of, like, summer shorts to sell us, which, by the way, advertisers, yes, I got your messages about shorts being shorter this summer.

I got that. I bought your shorts. I bought your shorter shorts because you told me that was what was in and that happened. So, you win. Okay? Relatively low stakes stuff. They're creepy in its own way. But you know, in China, that kind of power to see into your desires and your communications is being fused with just straight-up, old-school, authoritarian repression, particularly on certain populations and particularly among a population we've talked to on this program before, which are the Uyghurs, which is a predominantly Muslim ethnic group.

It's a both sort of ethnic and religious culture within Xinjiang, in China, where this ethnic group has come under what the Chinese government calls just sort of our own war on terror. They were religious extremists and jihadis and we need to get rid of them. And now, the people in Xinjiang are happy.

We've talked before on the program about what's happening there. It is I think a humanitarian disaster and truly unnerving and dysoptian. And there's a new book out about Xinjiang, but particularly this aspect of it. It's called In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony.

And in it, an anthropologist named Darren Byler, who's an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University School of International Studies and who studies Uyghurs and who studies the Chinese state, has unwound this truly bone-chilling story about the methods the Chinese state is using to construct essentially a city that is a prison; an entire region under surveillance both in the formal and outside the formal camps themselves. And it's really important work because I think it might give an indication in the direction that many governments are headed. Darren, it's great to have you on the program.

Darren Byler: Oh, it's great to be here.

Chris Hayes: It's incredible work, Darren. Just tell me, first of all, you're an anthropologist. How did you get into this topic?

Darren Byler: It became what I did my dissertation work in. I started going to northwest China because I was interested in the life of migrant workers, people that were coming from rural areas to the city, and how they organized their life. And as I started my work, they had just got 3G networks in their space, in northwest China.

And so, people were using smartphones, were using an app called WeChat to really organize their life. And so, I was interested in the generative possibilities of using social media, how it can help migrants to find jobs and learn about the world. But then, over time, because this is a contested space, it became a way of tracking that same population. And so, the project turned from looking at the migrant to looking at how the state was looking at the migrants.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting you say that because what you just said in the last 60 seconds is kind of the narrative arc of American tech coverage in the last 15 years. Like, oh, this is so cool. Anyone's got a phone. The migrants can find jobs. Like, they can talk to each other. They moved from their hometown but now they can talk to their aunt, to the government is tracking your every movement with the same data that you're using in your WeChat app.

Darren Byler: Right, exactly. I mean, one of the things that the migrants were interested in was the Arab Spring which was happening in, you know, 2012 or '13. And the discourse then was, like, oh, everyone in Egypt is using Facebook to protest the government.

And Uyghurs weren't using Facebook but they interested in those movements. Not that they were organizing their own but I think that is what sort of set off the alarm bells in the Chinese security apparatus as the potential of a population of people to organize using social media.

And so, that's when they really began to ramp up efforts to control and surveil Uyghur speech. I started my research in 2011 and then did another year of research in 2014 and '15. 2014 was the start of the People's War on Terror, which was a response to violent incidents carried out by Uyghurs.

And some of the markers of Islamic state-inspired attacks, vehicle attacks into crowds of civilians and all that, but then it became something much more. It became about transforming the entire population who weren't responsible for those attacks but had become more pious in their religious practice, which was actually also connected to their smartphone use and messages about religious teaching that were coming from Turkey, from south Asia, piety movements; just normal Muslim stuff.

What does it mean to be a good Muslim? How should you pray? Those sorts of things. But Uyghurs had become more pious in how they carried out their practice. And that's why the state said, oh, they're becoming like the Taliban. They're becoming radicalized. And they conflated religious behavior with political violence.

Chris Hayes: And that's fascinating, that what you call piety or the increase in piety. You think the vector for that was actually internet connection, social media; like, having access to this information.

Darren Byler: Yeah, for sure. I mean, the Uyghur migrants I was interviewing in 2011 and for sure by 2014 would talk about being part of a prayer group on WeChat, which is like a closed, like, WhatsApp group kind of type thing, where they would be following a teacher who was leading the group. And he would, you know, have weekly messages that he would post on there. Then there'd be, like, a discussion board and they talk about them. But mostly what they were talking about is just regular Muslim stuff, as far as I could tell.

Chris Hayes: You also said this, but it's just worth pointing out, because I certainly don't want to make this be exculpatory. But just a little bit of throwing stones and glass houses. Like, there were actual violent incidents, violent attacks on civilians, by people who's avowed purpose was, you know, essentially a kind of Jihadi worldview. That was part of what precipitated what they call the war on terror. I mean, it's not like this is like, oh, these crazy Chinese government. Like, what the hell is going on? Like, it's actually somewhat of a familiar script.

Darren Byler: Yeah, absolutely. So, there were violent acts that were carried out. The sort of landmark events were this knife attack in Kunming at a train station which is another city outside of the Uyghur region. And then in Tiananmen Square, which is, you know, the symbolic capital of Chinese civilization at this point, there was a truck (an SUV) driven into tourists. Another incident in the capital of the Uyghur region; another SUV driven into tourists.

And you know, those are violent acts that every state should protect their citizens from, for sure. The main issue here is that, you know, this may be several hundred people that were involved in planning or carrying out those incidents. And the camp and surveillance system that was rolled out over the next several years began to target hundreds of thousands of people. So, the crime really doesn't meet with the punishment in any sort of equitable way.

Chris Hayes: And in some ways, what I have learned from your book in some of the reading I've done on this is that in a bizarre way (and the Chinese will tell you this), they don't view it as punishment. They actually view it as a project of what we would call, like, deradicalization or something. The way they describe it is not as a punitive project. They describe it as a project of essentially, like, ideological hygiene; that they are essentially washing the bad ideas out of the minds of a populace, proactively, right--

Darren Byler: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, there's at least two things we should pull on here. One is there's a kind of colonial discourse of civilizing this backward population, these people that don't speak Chinese, who aren't really part of the Chinese market economy.

You know, they're mostly subsistence farmers. They're viewed as ignorant and as backward. And if they become radicalized, it's, in some ways, not a fault of their own. They just didn't know any better. The other discourse, though, that's a part of this and that's coming from the government and from the policing is discourses around CVE, or countering violent extremism, which is something that is done in Europe and North America; a kind of preventative policing.

If you see something, say something. But it's at the level of the mosque, at the level of the school, where teachers should report on students that they think are becoming radicalized. That's something that the Chinese state thinks that they're doing.

They think that they're doing countering violent extremism, a kind of preventative policing; stopping people from being radicalized or becoming terrorists before they even get there. So, it's more about thought crime, just at a different scale, and using technology to do the assessment rather than people within the community, like imams in a mosque, who might actually know if someone is being radicalized. Instead, they're using technology. They're using algorithms to predict who might have potential to be a terrorist. And it's cutting a huge swath across the entire population.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, the reason that I bring this up, even you saying CVE, you know, we had Spencer Ackerman on the program recently to talk about his book about the reign of terror, the war on terror, and there's a lot of reflection on that. And it is really striking.

I think I used to think that the Chinese, in their English language explanations of their project in Xinjiang were intentionally trolling Americans in this kind of what-about-us (PH) way, which was, you know, we're speaking to an American audience in English.

And you know, you guys had a war on terror. You know what it's like to struggle against this Islamo-fascism. That's what we're doing. But I think in reading your book, like, I come to think that they think they're undertaking a parallel project. It's not a troll. There's, like, actual symmetry from the point of view of the Chinese state about what they're doing.

Darren Byler: Yeah, for sure. I think they do really think that they're doing CVE or preventative policing. They talk about that at least in the policing theory literature that I've read. They also talk about counterinsurgency theory, or COIN, as something they're doing.

As you say, they're doing it with Chinese characteristics, which means they're completing the process, which is the transformation aspect of it, and putting people to work, which are things that they said Americans and others haven't followed through on.

Chris Hayes: Well, and also they're drawing from an intense tradition of ideological transformation under conditions of state coercion in (LAUGH) the Chinese Communist Party.

Darren Byler: Absolutely. So, the reflex to turn to camps, as the institution that should accomplish that process, is something that's coming out of the Maoist period when counterrevolutionaries, people with bad family backgrounds, were sent to camps. And then more recently in the '90s, the Falun Gong, which is a Buddhist religious group, was targeted with camps as well.

So, there's a thought reform or re-education. You know, the term, brainwashing, which I think can be used in a stereotypical way to turn the Chinese into this kind of terrifying other, that actually comes from Chinese. And they use that actual term, brainwashing. So, it comes out of a long tradition of thinking about ideological purity.

Chris Hayes: So, tell me about the field work that forms the basis for your writing, both in the book and your scholarship.

Darren Byler: Sure. So, you know, I went to the region first in 2011 as a anthropologist, really learning languages. So, I had to, you know, learn Uyghur which is a Turkic language, and then Chinese. And that's when I really, you know, figured out what my project should be about, which is about this migrant population.

Chris Hayes: Wait. Can I stop you there? People, regular listeners of the show, know I'm obsessed with this. Did you just pick that up, Mandarin and Uyghur? Those sound like difficult projects (LAUGH) to undertake.

Darren Byler: Oh, yeah. No, it was a undertaking. So, you know, I started in my undergraduate work studying Chinese. So I, you know, did that for seven years or so. And then as I started my Ph.D. work at the University of Washington, I could take some courses that's offered there; Uyghur language. So, I had the basics of it. But I really wasn't fully fluent until I got there and was able to use it in daily life. So, no, it didn't come just like I just picked it up one day. It was a lot of work.

Chris Hayes: And I think this is just an important point to hammer home as we're talking about this, when you talk about this sort of, like, colonial aspect to it. I mean, you know, it's a entirely different family tree, linguistically, in terms of, like, linguistic history, Turkic languages and Mandarin, right?

Like, this is a different ethnic group, a different religious subculture. They have their own language. Like, it's a population within the state that is quite distinct from the Han Chinese which is, of course, the dominant racial/linguistic majority of China.

Darren Byler: Yeah, absolutely. So, Uyghurs speak a Turkic language that's about 90% the same as Uzbek, which is spoken in Uzbekistan; maybe 70% the same as Turkish in Istanbul, in modern Turkish. And they look quite different from the Han population, for the most part, which is an important aspect of the surveillance system because it's racialized in a particular way, reading people's phenotypes; the shape of their eyes, shape of their face.

And it means that Uyghurs can't pass as Han, even if they learn Chinese. So, there's a difference that's built into, you know, who they are as a people. And then the third aspect is this is their ancestral homeland. Like, their ancestors are buried in this place.

Certain places are sacred within the landscape. And having an occupying presence of these settlers and this new state saying they can't do their traditions that are something that have been handed on from generation to generation is something that's deeply damaging in a sort of cosmological way. It's damaging who they are as a people in terms of their indigenous knowledge.

Chris Hayes: So, you pick up a little Turkic, you pick up a little (LAUGH) Mandarin, you head over there. You become fluent essentially in Uyghur during that 2014 trip. And then at a certain point, communication becomes more difficult, obviously, the populations, precisely because of the mass internment and surveillance that happens. How do you continue your research?

Darren Byler: In 2014 is when the state declared the People's War on Terror. And so, I was seeing initially leaders within Uyghur communities being detained. Often, it wasn't people I was interviewing, but it was their parents or their uncles; mostly men. And so, I was hearin' these reports of-- of detention.

And there was a surveillance system that was beginning to be built, really based on a passbook system which to me reminded me of apartheid, South Africa, with, you know, in order to move within this space (which is the Uyghur homeland), you needed to have a good citizen card which is called a People's Convenience Card; Convenient for the People card.

It had a QR code on it. And as you went through a checkpoint, they would scan this QR code, and then it would pull up your file on their smartphone. And so, that was already being built. And that's when I really began to realize, oh, they're going to use cutting-edge data science in order to assess people and control their movement.

I didn't know that they would then move on to face recognition cameras and all of the other things that came later. But that's what got me started. And I was connected to dozens of migrants (mostly on WeChat and other devices-- or other platforms.

And so, I could stay in touch for a while, until 2016. And then people started to tell me, it's not convenient for me to be in touch with you anymore. And they, you know, deleted me on WeChat. And that's when I began to realize, oh, the detention is getting much more intense, becoming much more widespread.

And so, then I had to start to use other ways of staying in touch, which was mostly through their family members. If they had family members abroad, they were still able to contact them. And so, that was seen as a safe connection. And there's ways that they could pass on information, in terms of whether the person was in detention or not, who was being detained; those sorts of things.

And then I went in 2018, my last research trip in the region, and could really observe the checkpoint systems. I was detained briefly, myself, a number of times. And didn't tell people that I would spe-- I would speak Uyghur but I would listen in on what people were saying. And so, I was able to verify certain things I had heard before through direct observation.

Chris Hayes: Talk about that detention.

Darren Byler: Well, I mean, it was very brief. So, it was the sort of thing where they would stop me at a checkpoint and take my passport away. Well, first, they would ask me for my local ID. Because oftentimes, people would assume I was Uyghur.

Chris Hayes: Oh, that's interesting.

Darren Byler: Yeah, there wasn't very many foreigners in the region. And I guess I potentially can pass. I don't have a beard when I'm there because it raises too many alarm bells. Anyway, they would detain me just briefly and then they would call their people higher in command and ask who is this guy. Should we let him go through the checkpoint?

And sometimes that took quite a while (like, an hour or two) and so I would be stuck in that checkpoint. And I could really observe other people coming through the checkpoint, what the police were checking as they came through, which is they were looking at their phones, scanning their phones. And then some people would be detained or at least be hauled off for questioning. And you could really read the fear on people's faces as they went through those systems.

Chris Hayes: I think probably the best way to sort of break up how we talk about this is the camps and what they're like and who gets pulled into them, and then the kind of broader surveillance structure outside the camps, 'cause they are complementary. So, I guess first let's just start with, and we talked about it on the show but it's worth resetting, like, what are these camps.

How many people are in them? And how do people get pulled into them? What's the thing that triggers, that you now have to go to a re-education camp or internment camp as opposed to you're allowed to go about doing your some as a butcher or, you know, a carpenter?

Darren Byler: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). So, initially, the camps, which the camp system in this region started in 2015 with a few of those leaders being taken away. And by a few, I mean several thousand. And they were just existing schools, often party schools, that were converted for detention.

Chris Hayes: Party schools? Chinese Community Party schools?

Darren Byler: Yeah. Sort of the--

Chris Hayes: Not like USC or like Arizona State?

Darren Byler: Yeah. So, there are community party schools that are usually for training community party members. But they were turned into these spaces of detention. Then in 2016 and '17, we started to see new purpose-built spaces emerging and being talked about that were also talked about in a similar way as closed, centralized or concentrated training and education centers which in common discourse there was they just said they're re-education camps. They say (FOREIGN LANGUAGE) which is the same word in German for camps, you know, in the Nazi period.

Chris Hayes: Like, the government calls 'em re-education camps.

Darren Byler: Well, I don't know if they would. I mean, they might in private conversation but they don't in official documents.

Chris Hayes: Okay.

Darren Byler: You know, everyone I talked to, that's the word they used.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Darren Byler: So, it's commonly known as camps. And how you end up in a camp is they began to assess the population, ranking them into three main categories of trustworthy, regular or normal, and untrustworthy. Trustworthy folks are people that really work for the government, who have a really good family background, not religious in any way.

Chris Hayes: Obviously, good, you're using their in quotation marks, not as your own normative judgment. But from the perspective of the Chinese Community Party, what constitutes a, quote, "Good family background"?

Darren Byler: A good family background is someone who maybe comes from an educated family, who has worked in local government leadership--

Chris Hayes: Gotcha.

Darren Byler: --or is part of an institution, you know, like a school or something like that; government employee. Normal folks, you know, they don't have those associations with party governance or state governance. And then the untrustworthy people, you know, that was usually determined through a number of different categories.

Had to do with the person's ethnicity. Were you Uyghur? Are you under the age of 55? Between 18 and 55? Are you underemployed or unemployed? Questions about your social network. Do you have family members living abroad? That's a mark against you. Do you have a passport? Have you overstayed a visa while traveling abroad?

And then there's the most important questions were about religious practice. Do you pray regularly (which means go to the mosque)? Have you taught your children in your home? And do you have unauthorized religious knowledge? You know, almost everyone had that unauthorized religious knowledge because of--

Chris Hayes: What does that mean? That's an ominous, authoritarian term if ever I've ever heard one.

Darren Byler: Yeah, it's very broad. So, yeah, it refers to any sort of religious teaching that's not coming from a government-sponsored imam. So, you know, something that's unapproved by a government censor. And so, if you're, you know, reading things on WeChat about pious practice in Turkey, like, that's unauthorized religious knowledge. Or if you studied Arabic, if you studied to read the Koran on your own, which is something that everyone was doing in 2014 and '15, that's also a sign of unauthorized religious knowledge.

So, many people were caught for that reason. And the way that they (at least 100,000 people or more) people were caught was by scanning their phones with a new tool that was developed around this time called a counterterrorism sword which is a plug-in device, used a USB cable and plugged into your phone, and scans through your hard drive looking for things you've installed in the past and data or files you've downloaded.

The counterterrorism sword looked for between 50,000 to 70,000 markers of this sort of religious activity. And so, what I see in the internal police documents which I've been reviewing for the last couple years, is lots of people being detained for activity they had done years before when they didn't realize it was going to later be criminalized. So, it's really, you know, a digital footprint catching up with someone way after the fact.

Chris Hayes: So, let's say you're in one of these prayer groups, right. You're studying surahs (Koranic surahs) and you're responding to prompts about your spiritual quest. So, in terms of the phone, it's not remote, the surveillance, the sword. It actually physically has to have contact with the phone. They're checking phones at checkpoints?

Darren Byler: Yeah. So, one of the aspects of this system was, in 2016, they built a system of over 9,000 surveillance hubs that are called People's Convenience Police Stations which are part of a grid policing system, mostly at jurisdictional boundaries. And so, as people move through space, they're stopped at these hubs and that's typically where they had their phones scanned. Most people who had their phones scanned dozens of times.

Chris Hayes: It's like when if you get pulled over for speeding, they take your license and they, like, run you through the system. It's something like this, right. It's a fairly routine undertaking.

Darren Byler: Yeah. Although I guess the speeding analogy doesn't quite work because there, you must've done--

Chris Hayes: There's an infraction, right. Yes. No. Right, (LAUGH) yeah.

Darren Byler: In this case, it's more like you're going through a border crossing and it's standard operating procedure to have your phone scanned and your ID scanned and your face scanned as you go through that checkpoint. So, in order to carry out your daily life, you go through the checkpoint.

In order to operationalize the system, this is important, they had to hire lots and lots of people who I refer to as data police which are low-level security guards, people without any real training as police, who man the checkpoints and do these scans of people's phones. And they hired around 60,000 people that became grid workers and another 30,000 that worked in the camp and detention center system, all within the span of, you know, a year or two.

Chris Hayes: It's interesting. It's one thing that comes from your book is that even though it's 21st century and, like, cyber tech, it's, like, very high labor. There's a lot of, like, grunt work, human labor being put into this.

Darren Byler: Exactly. And that's not anomalous, really, to building sophisticated surveillance or AI systems. It's just that mostly in the U.S., that labor is happening elsewhere and so we don't see it. But a lot of work in building AI systems is actually done by low-wage, contract workers in India and other places who are hired through Mechanical Turk and other platforms working at really low wages, just to train the algorithms in how to assess and to make sure that the data is clean.

Chris Hayes: Right. So, you've got this big police force. It's doing all this phone scanning using the counterterrorism sword. It's finding fingerprints or ghost impressions of people's retroactively banned activity that makes them untrustworthy. How many people are getting sent into these camps because of these surveillance sweeps on people's phones?

Darren Byler: So, in one government document, an internal document that's been released, we see that they said, in early 2018, the system was still just really getting operationalized, that over 100,000 people had been stopped or their phone service had been stopped because they had been detected as having, you know, done something wrong.

And then beyond that, we see government documents that are in particular locations talking about the percentages of people that are detained, and it's between 10% to 20% of the adult population. So, we don't have exact numbers. The state hasn't given us the total number of people detained.

But we estimate it's hundreds of thousands, probably as many as a million. We also know from the government documents that 533,000 people have been criminally prosecuted, which is in addition to the people that are detained. So, this is a population level campaign that's affecting really everyone in the population. Like, everyone knows about this.

Chris Hayes: How many Uyghurs are there?

Darren Byler: There's 12.5 million Uyghurs. But you know, out of the adult population of maybe 9 million or so, there's children there, too. And then there's 1.5 million Kazakhs who are also affected by this. It brings it up to about 14 million Turkic people, and then another million Hui people, which is another Muslim group that are also affected to some extent. But you know, the Uyghurs are the most affected, yeah, for sure.

Chris Hayes: What happens inside the camps?

Darren Byler: So, the camps are pretty brutal. And it evolved over time. So, initially, they were detaining way more people than they anticipated or they just didn't plan well. So, there was a lot of overcrowding and people were being held in many different places, 'cause the purpose-built camps weren't fully operational in many cases.

And so, they were in police stations and warehouses and factory spaces, which mirrors a lot of other camp systems. Auschwitz was not the camp itself, it was a munitions factory or something. So, you know, this is normal. But over time, they became quite sophisticated in terms of smart surveillance type things which makes them, you know, exceptional.

And when I said normal just a second ago, I meant, you know, it's normal in terms of how camps are built and how camp systems work. Now, though, they have these surveillance systems, cameras that are motion- or face recognition activated in many cells, lights that are always on, command centers, so that a single guard can watch up to 1,000 or so detainees all at once.

Chris Hayes: A Panopticon, if you will.

Darren Byler: Yeah, but a digital version of it; one that's using a lot of computer assistance to track people's movement. So, during the day, people are often forced to sit on stools and watch distance-learning materials on a flat screen TV which has political speeches and sometimes Chinese language.

And then at times during the day, they're actually going into classrooms where they have a teacher that is often teaching them Chinese. There's different levels within the camps. So, it's not the same everywhere. And some people are getting more ideological training. Others are getting more Chinese training.

A lot of what's happening, though, is not actually education. In terms of knowledge, it's at discipline, about forcing these people to recognize the power of the state and to submit to it. There's a lot of physical violence that's happening as well.

If you violate the rules, getting up from your stool, taking too long in the bathroom, like, you will be beaten, often with nonlethal weapons. All the guards carry some sort of stunning device with them. Beatings are something that people say they saw every day.

Chris Hayes: There's also forced labor in these camps. And there's concerns about what is being produced there and where it's headed, where it ends up.

Darren Byler: Yeah, so one of the key aspects of the system in terms of how the state wants to make it sustainable is they want to put these detainees to work. And so, in mid-2018, the state ministry said the camps have now become a carrier of the economy.

And they listed it along with oil and natural gas, which had been the primary driver of the economy in the past. So, now the camps, because they're attracting so many companies from other parts of China to relocate, the camps have become a carrier of the economy.

And what that looks like is factories that are built even sometimes within the camp enclosure, sometimes directly next to it. And once a detainee passes certain examinations having to do with language and ideology, they are transferred from the camp enclosure at times; other times, they stay within the camp, and become a worker during the day.

So, they stop getting education and/or only education and they start becoming a worker. A lot of the work is pretty low-end production-type work that doesn't take a lot of training; mostly in textile manufacturing which makes sense because China is, Xinjiang, this Uyghur region, is source of around 85% of Chinese cotton. So, it makes sense you'd want to source production in the same place where the cotton is grown. There's other industries people are involved in. But that's the main ones.

Chris Hayes: So, the move to production there, you said around 2018, you said the government called them a carrier of the economy. I feel like there's both a lot of denial and gaslighting from the Chinese government, but then also not total denial. Like, it feels like they've gone back and forth about being relatively up front about what they are doing there.

Darren Byler: Well, yes. If you ask them, "Do you have re-education camps," they would still tell you no. But they might admit that they have closed, concentrated, education and training centers which they say are great. And they would also say that, you know, people that are in those centers are there voluntarily.

And what I see on the police documents, and just to be clear, like, these police documents have been obtained by the intercept; it's about 52 gigabytes of internal police documents that have been verified, mostly coming from the capital of the region and showing what policing activity was like between 2018 and '19.

What those documents show is that these people, they could leave voluntarily. It's very clear that they're not able to leave voluntarily, that they are there against their will. And I'm seeing that in the interviews and in the police documents. These people have been detained.

And the factory system that's associated with it is complicit with it. There's a government document that says how there's a mechanism that's set up to bring people from the camps into the factories. And this is, you know, part of the entire program.

Chris Hayes: So, that's the camp system, which is using all kinds of surveillance. There's the sort of surveillance of people's phones to get them into the camps. Then there's surveillance when they're in the camps. There's now this kind of forced labor system, whether it's these factories that are actually using the labor of these people. I want to take a quick break. When we come back, talk a little bit about the sort of surveillance of the society more broadly, for even those who are not in the camps.

So, you write in your book about the kind of technological tool kit that the Chinese Community Party and the Chinese state have used and that extends both in what you call the high-tech penal colony and outside of it. How are they using technology in the areas outside the camps?

Darren Byler: Well, you know, to send people to the camps, they scan their phones. But beyond that, there's checkpoints where people have their IDs scanned. It's matched to their face. People that have been in the camps, and then are released or transferred to work in factories say that the reason they're not able to leave the factory is if they go through one of those checkpoints, their ID will sound an alarm, because they're on a blacklist or a list that doesn't allow them to travel.

One of the smart city systems, which is how these things are described, talks about how they are able to track everyone who's registered within that county. And so, if someone shows up in the county that's not from that region, like, there'll be an automatic alert.

Chris Hayes: Wait. Say that again. What do you mean by that? First of all, when you say smart city, what is that a reference to?

Darren Byler: Oh, smart cities, it's a term coined by IBM--

Chris Hayes: Right, yes, (LAUGH) I remember.

Darren Byler: --and has to do with using automated forms of governance, which is camera systems, but other kinds of controls when it comes to basic provisioning like electricity and water and stuff, to control traffic and things like that within the city, to make it work more efficiently.

In the Xinjiang context, and I think in many places where they're using smart city systems, they're also now supporting the police and predicting where crime is going to happen. In some cases, in others, just helping them to have more rapid response.

In the Xinjiang case, they're using license plate recognition, which is something that is used in many cities as if you're going through on a toll road, the cameras will detect you. But in this context, it's about seeing who's driving which car.

And then they're also taking pictures of people's faces as they're driving and matching the image (that image of their face) to the person registered to the car. And in high-traffic areas, they're using face recognition camera systems, which they've had in London and places.

But here, it's actually rolled out at the level of the entire urban system so that they're checking people as they move through space, matching their face to this data set. And then if you're on a watch list because you've been in a camp or because you have a relative who's in a camp, you're going to, there's going to be an alert that's triggered and the police will respond, you know, and, you know, come up and ask that person why are you here.

Chris Hayes: And what I'm hearing from you is they're basically rolling on everyone all the time. There's just cameras on everyone all the time. And there's a face recognition database that's basically constantly searching for people that they think should not be moving about freely.

Darren Byler: Yeah, absolutely. And because of the checkpoint system as you move through space, you've had your face scanned hundreds of times at this point which means that the fidelity (like, the capacity of the system to detect your face and to be 99% sure it's you) is really good. It's really accurate.

And so, that means that the scale and density of it really amplifies its potential to track people across space. What I'm seeing in these police documents is, you know, the 99% certainty that the person being detected by the camera is the person that they think it is.

Chris Hayes: I guess what I'm hearing from you is that it's not, I think you even say this in the book, the form of coercion is the certainty that you will be caught outside the cam. Again, to get back to the Foucault idea, like, they don't necessarily need dogs and barbed wire.

Darren Byler: Right. So, one of the interesting aspects of the system is that it's automated in a lot of ways so that the apartheid aspects of it are really folded on top of each other. Like, it's a society on top of another society. Because the Han population, the settler population, is living in the same space but isn't subjected to the same controls.

I mean, their faces are also being watched but they go through a green lane as they come up to the checkpoint and are really not inconvenienced by it. It's really the Muslims that are being tracked all the time and being targeted by the system and are inconvenienced by the system and are fearful of the system. The Han people feel as though they're protected, that the state is really there for them, and that they're using this cutting-edge technology to make their life better.

Chris Hayes: I mean, having been in the West Bank, like, there are some real parallels there on the West Bank. There are literally separate lanes when you go through a checkpoint if you're an Israeli citizen who lives in a settlement than if you're a Palestinian. There's just different lanes and different forms of surveillance and forms of documentation you have to produce.

Darren Byler: Absolutely. And some of this is really on the level of the skin, because the way that people are sorted as they move through checkpoints is based on these low-level security officers looking at the person and seeing does this person look Uyghur or do they look Han. And if they appear to be Han, they'll just wave them through. So, that's another thing that human surveillance aids the technology in doing is making sure that Han people aren't inconvenienced by it.

Chris Hayes: What's the endgame here? Or is it the idea of the Chinese state that they're just gonna, this will be the sort of new normal in this part of their country?

Darren Byler: Well, I think there is a lot of money that's involved in building the system. So, a lotta startup costs; around $100 billion to build the camps and the associated surveillance systems. But I think part of what they think will happen here is that the system will begin to run itself; that people will begin to self-regulate, discipline themselves.

You know, that's coming back to the Panopticon idea where people just stop doing things that might trigger the system. And so, they behave in new ways. So, I think that they feel like the system will run itself for a while. And they've also, and this is another colonial aspect of it, begun to separate the children from their parents in a lot of ways, by moving them into boarding schools or a residential school system.

And I think they feel like the next generation of Uyghurs will grow up still understanding they're Uyghurs because it's on their skin and it's on their ID card, but won't identify with the Islamic aspects of their tradition, won't really know their own history; might not know their own language, and so will be much more malleable and they would say more productive members of Chinese society. So, it's I think a generational sort of plan.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Say more about the schools.

Darren Byler: So, the school system is something that coincides with the camp-building. We see in 2016 and '17 thousands of advertisements for teachers who are supposed to have non-religious backgrounds, speak Chinese, have no political problems in their background and are committed to counterterrorism, fighting separatism; those sorts of things.

And what I know from my interviews is many existing teachers (Uyghur teachers) within the school system were sort of pushed into sort of lateral positions or demoted into janitorial positions within the schools and replaced by these new people that were hired. The government documents say around more than 80,000 new teachers were hired.

And then we also see in the education documents that there's a shift from what, before bilingual education which meant that there was some Uyghur language component, to a mode-two form of instruction; that would be Chinese only. It's not clear if that's implemented everywhere already.

But it looks that as young as first grade, that children are now receiving a Chinese-only education. Part of what they're thinking about in structuring the education system (like American multiculturalism, they talk about that in some of the education literature), that, you know, in America we teach everyone English. It's mandatory.

And so, we should do the same in China. Chinese should be mandatory. And minority languages should be de-emphasized. They're forgetting there that Uyghurs are indigenous to this space, that they're really occupying the same position as Native Americans in North America. And erasing their languages is quite a bit different than making immigrants speak the language of the country they're immigrating to.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I guess that's a key distinction. What you've laid out in this interview, and also what you lay out in the book in greater detail is such a overwhelming form of control; truly upsetting in every possible way. Is there resistance? What forms do resistance take?

Darren Byler: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). That's one of the aspects of the system that makes it very difficult to resist; that there's really no outside to it. You know, you would think that you could just stop carrying your smartphone, stop using your smartphone. But at the checkpoints, if you have a smartphone registered to you, they'll ask you for your smartphone.

And if you don't carry it, that's also a sign of suspicion. Stepping out of the system when it comes to digital surveillance is not really a possibility. People I've interviewed talk about how they would find spaces where they would meet and be able to talk.

Like, they would go to a sauna and not bring their phone with them. And because it's a sauna, it'd be okay to not have it and they could talk more freely. But those spaces of connection are really limited. And there's also this massive informant system that's a part of the project with the low-level security guards and everybody.

And knowing that anyone could be detained at any moment and be forced to name other people, it means that people aren't really free to talk about things that they might want to say to each other. The same time, there is the Han population, the settler population, that's there, does at times assist people, often in smaller ways.

Like, they'll help to get information out. The police documents that I'm looking at, other documents that have been leaked, are often coming from people within the government who are wanting the world to know what's happening. And so, you do see those smaller forms of resistance.

It's just really hard to see any sort of organized response within the space. And outside of the Uyghur space, the Uyghur region, in other parts of China, there's still pretty widespread support for what the state is doing. They think this is the government protecting them and that any sort of media response to it that's coming from outside of China is just about Western imperialism wanting to keep China down and that sort of thing.

Chris Hayes: Every time this is described to me, we've now covered it a few times, I'm shocked anew. I mean, it seems like one of the most horrifying and egregious human rights abuses happening in the world. It's the very definition of totalitarianism in so far as it is a totalizing system from which there is no escape.

It is a suffocating form of behavioral and psychological control at a population level to force a population to essentially annihilate its own history. It's a crime, it seems to me, my own judgment on this as undertaking. And yet, there's some international outcry. But, like, by and large, it's not a huge deal.

Darren Byler: Yeah, I think that's true. China is a major player in the world economy. It's the number-two economy in the world and it's the source of a lot of production of things that all of us want to buy. So, governments taking a stand on this will come at some sort of cost. The textile industry has begun to respond. People are starting to, companies are starting to relocate their supply chains and things like that.

Chris Hayes: Out of the area?

Darren Byler: Out of the area and, you know, sourcing their cotton in other places.

Chris Hayes: Well, I got to say, like, talk about a bridge too far. I mean, the relationship with China is very complicated. It just is. I am not someone who thinks that, like, launching some new cold war against China would be particularly beneficial to anyone, really. I think that probably includes Uyghurs.

I think that it's such a fraught and complicated relationship. It's such a complicated society. It's the largest society in the world. There's no easy answers. But you know, not buying textiles made by forced labor camps seems to me, like, a pretty easy red line for everyone to enforce.

Darren Byler: You would think so. I mean, part of what makes it difficult is because there's a lot of obfuscation in the supply chains, so you don't know exactly where your products are coming from, oftentimes the companies are based in other parts of China but then have a factory in Xinjiang. And they're not being transparent about that.

And at this point, it's really impossible to do due diligence and go to Xinjiang and actually look at labor conditions. So, that makes it harder to enforce. And it's not limited to textiles. It's also in electronics and the Apple supply chain is affected by this, too. So, it's quite complex and difficult to extract yourself from.

Chris Hayes: Let me ask you, maybe ending on a sort of philosophical question, about the nature of technology and all this. I mean, technology's a tool. I mean, you can use a hammer to nail together a bunch of two-by-fours to make a shelter for someone.

And you can also use it to bash someone's head in. There's, you know, nothing inherently good or bad about a hammer. That's true of a lot of tools. It strikes me that that's one way of looking at the digital architecture here. I kind of like the convenience of the fact you can go through those tolls now, even if you don't have an E-ZPass, because they get your license plate. So, that's one way of looking at this sort of digital system.

The other is that there's inherently some kind of authoritarian valence to them (LAUGH) that's inescapable, that, like, the nature of the technology is such that it will, like, draw humans towards abuses of them. And I kind of wonder, as someone who's spent as much time as anyone documenting it, thinking about this, where you are on that.

Darren Byler: Well, at the very least, we should have regulation in how some of these technologies are used; that they should be used for, you know, certain purposes and then walled off from others. But, sure, I mean, when it comes to face recognition tools, there's just so many ways that they can be abused, especially when they're in the hands of authoritarian governments or even police, I think, when they're used to track populations who are deemed more criminally prone.

So, I think when it comes to the face recognition stuff, I think there should certainly be more regulation and we should really be having a deep conversation about the cost and benefits of those systems. Who do they benefit? And who are they hurting?

You know, it's the stateless populations, people without legal protections, that are targeted and hurt the most by these systems in almost all contexts. So, that's I think one way to start. Another thing to think about beyond this is that designing for racial justice or to support people that are targeted by Islamophobia is not simply not to have technologies.

It's to design technologies that have liberatory (PH) potential built into them that are designed to protect people and to, you know, create forms of more justice. And I think that's something that's really lacking so far in a lot of tech industry and should really be emphasized. You know, at this point, it's really about profit, about making money and thinking about consequences later on.

Chris Hayes: I said it was gonna be the last question but I lied. So, one more. What are the leverage points for people that are listening to this? One is that it seems like another places are American companies participating in the tech system, and should they be called out and sanctioned for that and protested. Does American media or civic society attention on this actually produce at the margins more responsiveness from China or beneficial results?

Darren Byler: Well, I think that the U.S. tech firms that are involved with this should be called out and should reevaluate what they're doing. And there is people within the tech industry that, you know, have similar ideas that wanna design for a better world.

I think there should be greater coalition-building. And you know, that's begun to some extent with the Biden administration reaching out to other countries and working in a more coordinated way with them. But it needs to extend far beyond what it has done so far in terms of reaching developing nations who are much more dependent on China and in terms of trade and economy.

You know, we should really be designing for a better world, both when it comes to tech but also when it comes to policy and thinking about how we support the developing world, the global south, and do it in a way that doesn't necessarily lead us, you know, into a direct conflict with China.

Like, the cold war discourse I think is really fraught. But instead, pushes us towards greater equality for people everywhere in the world, that's another conversation probably, and-- and takes us away from thinking about the emergency that's confronting the Uyghurs.

But I think situating that emergency within that broader conversation is an important aspect of not letting the Uyghur situation become a sort of wedge issue that produces greater xenophobia or anti-China racism. It's a difficult thing to know how to deal with.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. (LAUGH) It is.

Darren Byler: Just 'cause there's no easy solutions.

Chris Hayes: Darren Byler's a anthropologist and assistant professor at the Simon Fraser University School of International Studies. He's author of a new book which he discussed and you should definitely check out. It's called In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony and it is out now. Darren, thank you so much.

Darren Byler: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: Once again, my great thanks to Darren Byler. He's an anthropologist, assistant professor at the Simon Fraser University School of International Studies, author of a new book, In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony, out now. Now, we should say we reached out to the embassy of the People's Republic of China, did not receive comment on the nature of the camps in China.

For the record, the Chinese government has defended its actions in the past and said that its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs is justified. It has rebuked claims of genocide by the U.S. and other countries and consistently denied allegations of human rights violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

We should also note we contacted Tencent. They're the parent company of WeChat. We did not receive comment on the surveillance of content on its platforms. All tech companies in China are subject to the Chinese Intelligence Law which says that companies must allow government agencies access to their data.

There's a new piece in the AP this week about the latest developments in Xinjiang which you should check out as well. Why is This Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to