01 June, 2018

Moral Hazards and China

Image Source.

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.


Nathan Taylor said...

excellent post.

Good luck in your future endeavors, and I hope you continue to write.

Ji Xiang said...

Good post.

What is rather surprising is that the Islamic world seems not to care one bit about the whole issue.

Bankotsu said...

You know, you are a white man in a yellow man's country, you are not comfortable. You see it as "tyranny".

How do you think non white people like it, living in a world dominated by western white men? We are not comfortable. We see it as tyranny.

A white men like you with a holier than thou attitude shamelessly coming to lecture and moralise to others when your country America is the greatest force of genocide and warmongering on the face of the planet.

I spit in the face of garbage like you.

And as for someone who have a bit of knowledge of China, you very well know that China is struggling and mobilising with all of its might to tear down this American tyranny over global politics. And billions of non western people are on the side of China.

We will see whether of not your shameless American global hegemony will prevail or not.

The sooner this disgusting western hegemony enters the dustbin of history, the better it will be for mankind.

"The White Conscience: An Analysis of the White Man's Mind and Conduct"

Brett said...

This is very good.

T. Greer said...

Ji Xiang--

I would like to see a real bit of investigative reporting on why this is so. I suspect I know the answer, but it deserves longer treatment--why burka banning in Europe gets all the headlines in the Arab world, while atrocity in Mynamar and concentration camps in Xinjiang get a pass.


I let your comment through because I'd like to show other readers exactly what we are dealing with. In any case, what you say isn't true--I was perfectly comfortable in Taiwan. In many ways it is vastly superior to my own homeland. I would never dream of calling it tyrannous.

I wouldn't use such words for South Korea or Japan either. I might consider it for Singapore, but even there the freedoms restricted are just on a different scale, aren't they? I am free to worship as I will in Singapore. I have not had that freedom in Beijing.

I do not judge individual Chinese worse than I do individuals from my own land. Americans who call for revolution and offer vast condemnations of all who tolerate Communist rule are foolish. They don't understand how hard it is to escape ideas and incentives. It is easy for us to condemn southerners now for not fleeing the sins of their society, too easy. But at the time? No, I will not condemn them. I am sometimes use the analogy of abortion today. Like slavery in antebellum times, and like the tyrannies exercised by the Party today, horrific, society-scale evils are being committed. But it is so hard to see them that way from the inside. And in all three cases there are varying levels of culpability, from the abortion doctor to the person who votes for a pro-choice candidate. I have a hard time condemning every person who supports abortion as evil. You can be a good person and believe in it. Americans of the 1820s would also affirm that one could be a good man and have slaves. It is quite obvious that one can be a Party member and still be a good person. I cannot condemn an entire nation with these sort of judgements--but the system that shapes the way they think or act-that is a different matter. Be it abortion in America or concentration camps in China, my stand is more or less the same: it should be condemned. It should be recognized as the moral issue that it is. But as with slavery in older times, that judgement must come from outside.

And that is what this post is. Systems of evil should be called for what they are. Any system of concentration camps designed to strip a people of their religion is that. The Party has crossed a moral line. We must not fear to publicly recognize this.

Lexington Green said...

Is there any constituency in the USA which is interested in protesting this state behavior in China?
The fact that the Chinese are crushing Muslims may make it hard to find Americans to oppose them.
Seems likely that the interest in maintaining business with China will predominate over any human rights concerns generally.
Another concern: Are US firms involved in developing and supporting this surveillance system in China?
How portable is the system? No doubt there are people in the USA who would eagerly grasp at such power.

Ji Xiang said...

To be honest even the atrocities against the Rohingya seem to be getting more coverage in the Muslim world. I think the Middle Kingdom's closed nature makes it hard to really drive home what is happening, since it is reduced to the level of rumours and hearsay. Also, people aren't generally actually being killed for the time being.

On another note, after enjoying your intelligent writing I am a bit surprised to discover from your comment above that you are an anti-abortion fanatic. I am sorry, but in my view comparing abortion to slavery and concentration camps is just that - fanaticism. Aborting foetuses with no awareness of their own existence is not the same thing as making living humans who can feel suffering go through a life of misery. But well, the beauty of democracy and the enlightenment is that people are free to express their own views. We both seem to think this is worth fighting for. So we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Keep up the good work.

Dominik LukeŇ° said...

I was truly moved by your thoughtful and balanced perspective on the issue. I too have been reading Snyder (and even before, Baumann and others) on the Holocaust and felt that we're in denial if we just call it the work of uniquely evil individuals. The participation of people who I can imagine would be just like me or people I'm friends with in all aspects of the process makes me wonder.

What particularly resonated with me was that people are more likely to be on the side of the tyrants than the tyrannized (after all, former victims are not infrequently future perpetrators). I always tell my friends with school age children who worried about them being bullied that they should be just as or more concerned about them being bullies.

I agree that Myanmar and Xinjiang are uniquely brutal as expressions of tyranny and beyond any moral redemptive dimensions falling perhaps just short of the worst excesses of the killing fields throughout history. But I often fear that people forget about similar tyrannies being stratified even into our system. While I don't have any restrictions on my freedom, people walking by me in the street who have gone through the carceral systems (not just while actually behind bars) and people around them often experience life as if they were living in a police state. But because they are not clustered regionally (or necessarily ethnically), their experiences are not quoted in the same breadth.

This is so hard to discuss without getting into an atrocity matching contest. That is not my intention. What these have in common is not necessarily the level of brutality (although the New Jim Crow book has opened my eyes, here) but the level to which they can become normalized in polite society. I am wary of instinctive condemnations, not because I think nothing can be said here but by those without blemish, but because they are often a part of a process of moral cleansing. But there's danger to that timidity, as well.

But I digress. I really just wanted to thank you for what you wrote.

Anonymous said...

"On another note, after enjoying your intelligent writing I am a bit surprised to discover from your comment above that you are an anti-abortion fanatic. I am sorry, but in my view comparing abortion to slavery and concentration camps is just that - fanaticism. Aborting foetuses with no awareness of their own existence is not the same thing as making living humans who can feel suffering go through a life of misery. But well, the beauty of democracy and the enlightenment is that people are free to express their own views. We both seem to think this is worth fighting for. So we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. Keep up the good work."

Morality is subjective. Who decides what is good or bad? Negative feelings? Those vary a lot and can be changed for good with something like genetic engineering, which China will be trying soon. There is nothing objectively good or bad here, it's completely delusional and anti-science to believe otherwise. What you are doing is simply making calculations and taking sides based on genes that are tuned on what increased the fitness of your ancestors.

T. Greer said...

Ji Xiang—I thank you for your compliments!

I suppose you know the standard responses to your objections. Late term fetuses are just as capable of pain as actual babies are, and of course little babies coming out of the womb would not have what we call an awareness of their own existence either. If suffering was all that mattered then there would be no grounds for ever harming animals; if intelligence is the dividing line then there are no grounds for treating those with severe mental handicaps as anything less than sub-human.

I am not ready to equate conception with the beginning of life—but on late term abortions I have no doubt. If there is a distinction between killing a baby just out a womb and killing a baby that could survive out of the womb if given the chance (or would if given three more weeks!) I do not see it.

I am heartened by the fact that Southerners condemned people like Angelina Grimke with the word fanaticism. I suppose by the end of Grinke’s career the proportion of pro-lifers who believe as I do roday was about the same as that of the abolitionists were then.

But the real question is this: if you accept the comparison above as true, how should it guide the way you act? If you actually believed that people in your society were as bad as slavers what would you do?

Grimke’s answer was to leave. It is the same path many Chinese dissidents take. And from far away they could assail with all their might at the evil they see.

But that is not realistic for most people. Most must stay. And if you have to stay, what do you? Do you go John Brown and try to end it all with violence?

No. I can understand why some might yearn for such an approach. But civil war is an evil worse than most evils it attempts to defeat. The relatively(!) happy ending of the U.S. civil war biases Americans I think. We don’t realize what it costs. Most democracies don’t survive civil conflict.

With that said, I think Lincoln’s approach was the right one. His election pitch, that is. He admitted that were he born into a plantation family he would probably have the same sympathies and thoughts that they had. He would not condemn them for being shaped by their society and their interests. But in the end, slavery was wrong, and needed to be called wrong. It also needed to be stopped from spreading. Contain it and shame it, but don’t move politically against it.

The Southerners of course were so threatened by this plan that they started a war over it. But Lincoln’s perspective is generally my own. Contain and shame, but don’t move further—let generational change be the mover until there is firm enough consensus to make it illegal again.

But perhaps I will change how I feel. The whole Williamson affair was a very clarifying experience for me. It forced me to think deeply about what I actually believe and how that should affect my behavior.

In any case, glad you like my writing on other issues well enough to keep reading, lol.

T. Greer said...


Thank you for your kind words.

There is always a worry of ‘whataboutism’ in these conversations. Point out one moral failing and the chorus strikes up: “what about x,” “what about y” “what about z.” Inasmuch as these serve as distractions from the issue at hand or accusations about the intentions of the author, I don’t have much tolerance of them. Your comments, thankfully, do not fall into either category.

This post asks two things of its readers: the first is that we should acknowledge the Party for what it really is. The second is that individuals on the China scene should reconsider their actual attachments to government. The danger in the first is that some people loudly talk so that they can avoid walking the walk. People may also assume that, as you put it, loud stands ‘morally cleanse’ the speakers. But awareness and empathy mean nothing, really.

Thus the second request. Perhaps calls of action are needed within the United States—perhaps Americans need to closely examine their own relationship with the prison system. But regardless of what American businessmen, journalists, and so forth must do in other spheres, I ask them to reassess what they are doing in this one. Reassess, and act on their reassessment.

@Lexington Green--Parts of it are already commoditized. This video gives an idea of how things are going, and it doesn't just dips into the issues:

The first place to buy, I suspect, will be Iran.

This brings up another disturbing aspect of all this: The PRC is developing technologies that we would just be better off never having been developed. We don't want this type of surveillance technology to exist. The temptation will be too great to stop it from spreading.

T. Greer said...

^and it just dips into

Ji Xiang said...


morality is subjective? It may be, but that doesn't mean I won't fight for my idea of morality. We are all forced to do that, including you. If someone came and claimed that in your country murder should not be punished, because morality is subjective anyway, I am betting that you wouldn't agree with that, and you would go to some effort to convince other people not to go along with such an idea. We live in societies where we are constantly surrounded by other people, and our safety and our lives depend on the common vision of morality that everyone has.

Yes, perhaps there is nothing that can be scientifically proven to be good or bad. Perhaps we are just making calculations based on genes that have maximized our ancestors' ability to reproduce (not their fitness), although human societies have been able to go well beyond the dictates of natural selection and care for the poor and the sick. In any case, it doesn't matter. Every human being has views on moral issues, and everyone has a right to state their own opinion. That is my morality.