01 June, 2018

Moral Hazards and China

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Four hundred thousand to one million people in concentration camps.

If these estimates are true,  that means that at least one—and perhaps far more—of every ten Uyghur men lives in a re-education camp right now.

Those numbers come from an article published by the Associated Press two weeks ago. [1] This week's Economist lists a similar tally. It goes on to describe in detail a few of the other things happening in the sands of old Turkestan:
Under a system called fanghuiju, teams of half a dozen—composed of policemen or local officials and always including one Uighur speaker, which almost always means a Uighur—go from house to house compiling dossiers of personal information. Fanghuiju is short for “researching people’s conditions, improving people’s lives, winning people’s hearts”. But the party refers to the work as “eradicating tumours”. The teams—over 10,000 in rural areas in 2017—report on “extremist” behaviour such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan and sporting long beards. They report back on the presence of “undesirable” items, such as Korans, or attitudes—such as an “ideological situation” that is not in wholehearted support of the party.

Since the spring of 2017, the information has been used to rank citizens’ “trustworthiness” using various criteria. People are deemed trustworthy, average or untrustworthy depending on how they fit into the following categories: 15 to 55 years old (ie, of military age); Uighur (the catalogue is explicitly racist: people are suspected merely on account of their ethnicity); unemployed; have religious knowledge; pray five times a day (freedom of worship is guaranteed by China’s constitution); have a passport; have visited one of 26 countries; have ever overstayed a visa; have family members in a foreign country (there are at least 10,000 Uighurs in Turkey); and home school their children. Being labelled “untrustworthy” can lead to a camp. 
To complete the panorama of human surveillance, the government has a programme called “becoming kin” in which local families (mostly Uighur) “adopt” officials (mostly Han). The official visits his or her adoptive family regularly, lives with it for short periods, gives the children presents and teaches the household Mandarin. He also verifies information collected by fanghuiju teams. The programme appears to be immense. According to an official report in 2018, 1.1m officials have been paired with 1.6m families. That means roughly half of Uighur households have had a Han-Chinese spy/indoctrinator assigned to them. 
Such efforts map the province’s ideological territory family by family; technology maps the population’s activities street by street and phone by phone. In Hotan and Kashgar there are poles bearing perhaps eight or ten video cameras at intervals of 100-200 metres along every street; a far finer-grained surveillance net than in most Chinese cities. As well as watching pedestrians the cameras can read car number plates and correlate them with the face of the person driving. Only registered owners may drive cars; anyone else will be arrested, according to a public security official who accompanied this correspondent in Hotan. The cameras are equipped to work at night as well as by day. 
Because the government sees what it calls “web cleansing” as necessary to prevent access to terrorist information, everyone in Xinjiang is supposed to have a spywear app on their mobile phone. Failing to install the app, which can identify people called, track online activity and record social-media use, is an offence. “Wi-Fi sniffers” in public places keep an eye, or nose, on all networked devices in range. 
Next, the records associated with identity cards can contain biometric data including fingerprints, blood type and DNA information as well as the subject’s detention record and “reliability status”. The government collects a lot of this biometric material by stealth, under the guise of a public-health programme called “Physicals for All”, which requires people to give blood samples. Local officials “demanded [we] participate in the physicals,” one resident of Kashgar told Human Rights Watch, an NGO. “Not participating would have been seen as a problem…” 
A system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), first revealed by Human Rights Watch, uses machine-learning systems, information from cameras, smartphones, financial and family-planning records and even unusual electricity use to generate lists of suspects for detention. One official WeChat report said that verifying IJOP’s lists was one of the main responsibilities of the local security committee. Even without high-tech surveillance, Xinjiang’s police state is formidable. With it, it becomes terrifying. [2]
Contemplate these things. We are over-due for a moral accounting.

Over the last two years, a substantial part of my income has come through leading reading seminars with Chinese students who will go on to study in American universities. We've read history, philosophy, and literature together. Some of my students have said very nice things to me over these two years. The most flattering compliment any of my students have ever offered me was only given two weeks ago. At the completion of one of the seminars, the student told me that she had never met (nor heard of) an American who was as fair to China as I was. It was a small thing, but coming as it did from one of the seminar's shiest students (and what is more, after grades had been submitted!), it was meaningful to me.  One engages differently with different audiences, of course. I suspect that those who read this blog or my twitter feed will be surprised to hear comments like that; I make no apology for the hard line I take with the Party. But my goal has always been to understand issues as they are seen from the inside, and when the occasion demands it, to articulate them in a way that even the ardent Party faithful would agree with. In some cases this is easy. The Party line on America is actually, in many respects, a far more accurate vision of American foreign policy than many of the things we Americans—left or right—like to tell ourselves. But not all issues are so easy. Still, I try. My student's comment was a small confirmation that my efforts have not completely been in vain.

I take a similar approach to the history we study. I have studied many of the nastiest parts of modern history with my students. Slavery.  Japanese war-mongering. The Holocaust. My approach to these atrocities is simple: it is not enough to empathize with the victims. That is easy. It is also mostly useless. The real challenge is to try and feel the emotions, understand the fears, and take seriously the ideas that lead perpetrators to commit the crimes they did. One must not just sympathize with the tyrannized--one must also try and sympathize with the tyrant.

Why is this necessary? Why focus just as much on the experience and fears of the slaver as the slave? Because you are far more likely to become a slaver than you are to suffer as a slave. In his book on the 14 million people murdered by the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Eastern Europe, historian Timothy Snyder makes this point well:
It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands…Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral....It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. [3]
So one must try and sympathize with the tyrant. But one must not forget what tyranny is.

We see tyranny before us today. To put it bluntly: the Communist Party of China is an enemy to freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. With a small exception to be made (depending on how one counts) for North Korea, there is no greater. No tyranny in human history has ruled more people than the Party does now. But we must be truthful about the nature of this tyranny. Tyranny can be popular. If we are honest we will recognize that many—perhaps even most—of the Party's subjects are quite content being just that: subjects. Not all people cry for freedom.

Xinjiang is different. Here a people is crying. They have been subjected to a new and frightening form of despotism, a terrible marriage of terror and technology. To enforce this new tyranny the Party has imprisoned one out of every twelve to one out of every six adults. Each has been subjected to torture (or the threat of it), insult, betrayal (or the threat of it), and an attack on all they hold sacred.  Each has been plugged into an Orwellian system of surveillance that rates, rewards, and punishes them for everything they do or identify with. There is nothing else in our world like it.

There are moral hazards here.

The hazards have layers. The prison torturer is more culpable that the prison guard, who is more culpable than the bureaucrat next door, who in turn is more culpable than the bureaucrat in a distant province. But each is part of system that keeps the machine of torture and tyranny rolling. Each man might contribute only his mite—but 1.3 billion mites is a heavy yoke to bear.

Yet  it is not just Chinese who add in their mites. Every businessman, every investor, every pundit, and every well-oiled ex-politician must search themselves. Do their words, deeds, or funds help hold up the machine? We cannot say anymore "well that's just Xinjiang" or "most of the Party isn't that bad." There are one million people in concentration camps! Those kind of comments could be allowed a decade ago—but not now. Things are now far too terrible for that.

I leave Beijing shortly. I am fortunate. I will not be a part—even a small little part—of this system any longer. My plans to leave were finalized before these reports were made public, so I cannot claim any special virtue here. But I am glad that I will not need to lose any sleep over being a cog in the infernal machine. I am luckier than most: I have the opportunity to leave. Most Chinese will never be given the chance to escape the moral hazard the Party quite purposefully forces them into.

We—and by we I mean all non-Chinese reading this—do have that chance.

A moral accounting is in order. I don't ask for a witch hunt.  I stand against twitter mobs as a matter of principle. Far better for this to be a matter of private change, not public shame. But for that to happen we need this first step: the recognition that the PRC of 2018 belongs in the same moral category that we placed the USSR in during 1950s. There are those among us who would not imagine supporting the Gulags of that regime, but do not feel so strongly about the Gulags of our own day.  If you are one of these people, the time has come to ask yourself: why? 


[1] Gerry Shih, "China's Mass Indoctorination Camps Evoke Cultural Revolution" Associated Press, May 2018.

[2] "China has turned Xinjiang into a Police State Like No Other" The Economist, 31 May 2018.

[3] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2014),  400.