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How “Terror Capitalism” Links Uyghur Oppression to the Global Economy

Where is your ID!” the police contractor yelled at me in Uyghur. I looked up in surprise. I had been avoiding eye contact, trying to attract as little attention as possible. In April 2018, in the tourist areas of Kashgar—where there were checkpoints every 200 yards—contractors usually recognized a bespectacled white person as a foreigner. But over the years that I had lived and worked as an anthropologist in Xinjiang, a region in Northwest China, I had often been mistaken for a Uyghur.

“I don’t have a local ID. I’m a foreigner. I only have a passport,” I responded in Mandarin. At another checkpoint, a Uyghur police contractor had advised me to stop speaking Uyghur if I didn’t want to raise suspicion. So I had adopted the tactic of only speaking or writing Chinese at checkpoints.

“Oh! Well, show me your passport then,” he said, switching to Mandarin, his tones nearly as flat and imprecise as my own. He leafed through my passport, pausing at my picture. “That’s a big beard,” he commented. “That’s the style of a lot of young people in my hometown in the United States,” I responded. In 2014, the Religion Section of Xinjiang’s United Front Work Department had identified beards on men under the age of 55 as a possible sign of religious extremism and terrorism.

Eventually, a Han man, a “real” police officer who was allowed to carry a gun, showed up. He asked me about my background, why I was traveling, how I learned Chinese. He said they had looked me up in the system, so they knew all about me.

Despite this, I was allowed to leave. Unlike so many people I knew, I was not held in a camp or assigned a low-wage factory job. My data had been harvested, but I had the protection of my US passport to protect my property and labor from being legally stolen. In a general sense, just by living within a global capitalist economy and the imperial histories that built it, I was implicated in the system of control and “reeducation” that I was studying. The digitization of social life, the Global War on Terror, and the drive for low-cost commodities are facts of life almost everywhere. But, as a protected citizen, the fear I felt was a momentary glimpse of the surveillance systems that dominated the lives of the Uyghurs I saw at the checkpoints. For them, there was no way out.

“Terror capitalism”

Over the past few years, I have developed a conceptual framing that helps me explain the political and economic forces at work in the checkpoints, camps, and factories of Northwest China. I call the concept “terror capitalism”—a type of capitalist frontier-making that exploits the perceived threat of ethnic and racial differences to generate new forms of capital accumulation and state power. Building new frontiers of capitalism means turning things that were previously outside of the marketplace into commodities. In the past, this has involved mining natural resources, turning the lands of the colonized into property, and forcing racialized people to work for low wages or no payment at all as part of industrial production. In the contemporary moment, when breakthroughs in artificial intelligence are transforming human existence, previously uncommodified aspects of social life—like behavioral and biometric data—are being used to create products that can measure and predict things like efficiency, desire, and criminality. This “fourth industrial revolution” of technology-assisted data assessment highlights the pivotal role of military-industrial complexes in building technological innovation and national economies from China, United States, Israel, and elsewhere, and the way governments and corporations adapt military and policing tools to expand tech industries into new domains of life. Across the world, states and companies use information infrastructure—digital forensics tools, biometric checkpoints, and image-recognition systems—to control people and manipulate the workforce.

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