As a young boy growing up in 1960s Britain, George Orwell was one of my favourite authors and I avidly consumed everything he wrote. His novel 1984 was composed as a vision of a terrible future of totalitarian control of people by the capture of data about their behaviour by the state. At the time, I found his image of such a future to be far fetched and over-pessimistic. Bizarrely, he composed this futuristic novel while living in a remote crofter’s cottage on the beautiful island of Jura in the Hebrides of Scotland.
But there was nothing idyllic about the nightmare of his vision. Whilst reading his works, I was aware then in the late 20th century of the obsession of the Chinese Communist Party with worship of their great leader Mao Tse-Tung, the suppression of religion, and compliant obedience to the state – I even owned a poster of Mao speaking to a group of worshipful peasant farmers wearing traditional Uyghur costumes – but I could never have imagined at that time that Orwell’s vision would become such a terrifying and horrific reality in today’s 21st century China.
He chose the year 1984 as a date which was far in the future at the time of writing. For the people of Xinjiang province in the far North West of China, their nightmare of totalitarian state control by the Chinese Communist Party started to escalate in 2016. Orwell may have predicted the wrong date, and he could not have forecast the rapid development of information technology to enable such manipulative behaviour by governments, but he well understood the timeless psychology of political evil to exploit scientific advantage.
Xinjiang is three times the size of France, with a population of about 21 million people, of whom half belong to the Uyghur ethnic minority. In a surveillance programme which appears to be intended to prevent radicalisation and potential terrorist activities by Muslims, since 2016 huge “Vocational Training Centres” have been built in the province to “re-educate” citizens who are arbitrarily arrested and detained if the state considers that they might be at risk of imminently committing an offence. Using data recognition gathered from closed circuit camera networks, and routine data capture about facts such as “Has the subject grown a beard?” or “Does the subject pray at home?” the state surveillance calculates and takes into account social points which are then tallied and used to assess the need for “re-education”.
Journalists such as Lily Kuo in the Guardian and James Millward in the New York Review of Books have written about the re-education camps since 2017, but outside China little is actually known about the camps and the number of inmates. According to Rune Steenberg of the University of Copenhagen between 2 and 3 million people have come in and out of the camps since their construction and expansion. At any one time it is thought that these enormous camps, covering millions of square metres, house more than one million inmates.
Whilst it is not clear what exactly is happening in the camps, it is a fact that the detainees are being routinely abused and their rights destroyed. But it is perhaps more important to focus on what is going on outside the camps, because the damage caused to families and to the social system is enormous. When a member of the community is arrested for detention and re-education, this means the loss of a bread winner for a family and an impact on religious structures which causes greater fragmentation of society and actually has the detrimental effect of leading to a stronger potential for radicalisation. This can only be an unintended consequence. The Chinese State appears to believe that it is fighting against terrorism, but its brutal actions against religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang amount to blatant ethnic cleansing.
Academics such as Vanessa Frangville of the Université Libre de Bruxelles are calling for international action against China for the crimes being committed against its own citizens. She is appealing to universities worldwide to suspend cooperation with the Ministry of Education in China, and to stop doing business as usual with Chinese institutions. She urges an international investigation into the numbers of camps in Xinjiang, a list of the victims interned, the state of their mental health, and a proper record of what has happened to missing persons who have not been accounted for in the province.
Considering the secrecy shrouding the manipulative state control of China’s far North West, and the concern of academia about the future impact of such policies on society, it comes as no surprise that in China’s deep south the intelligent residents of Hong Kong are protesting furiously to protect their civil rights. Huge demonstrations are taking place this week to try to stop the enactment of legislation that would facilitate the extradition of suspects from Hong Kong to China for the first time. They fear that this would be the thin end of the wedge in China’s increasing control over the “one country two systems” policy envisioned by the handover of Hong Kong by UK to China in 1997, and that the legislation would be exploited by China for use against political targets.