Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City

Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City by Darren Byler (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022).

Reviewed by David R. Stroup, University of Manchester

In 2014, in the wake of ethnic violence in Uyghur and Turkic Muslims communities, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) began a targeted campaign of ethnic and religious repression which resulted in the detention as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslims in concentration camps. These actions, and the question of their legality under international law,  have subsequently become a major point of discourse in the field of international politics. A growing body of scholarship has attempted to understand the ideologies that motivated these human rights abuses, and to describe the means by which the Chinese party-state has carried them out. Darren Byler’s (2022) Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City makes a vital contribution to this collection, analyzing China’s actions through a framework Byler calls “terror capitalism.” Byler’s intimate ethnographic observations—conducted in Urumchi from 2014 to 2018—reveal not only how China’s drive for capitalist modernization undergirds the racial and economic hierarchies that the so-called “People’s War on Terror” has mobilized to build and maintain structures of oppression, they also foreground the human stories of the Uyghur, Kazakh and other Turkic and Muslim people ensnared by the campaign.

As Byler outlines in his introductory chapter, the Chinese party-state’s ethno-racialized securitization of Uyghur communities as “terrorists” justifies acts of surveillance, enclosure, devaluation, dispossession and erasure. This capitalist-driven settler colonialism, Byler contends, intends not only to deepen processes of authoritarian state-building, but also to establish hierarchies which portray Turkic Muslims as a readily available source of labor to be exploited for China’s economic expansion (p.6-9). Byler describes how labeling Turkic communities as vulnerable to “extremism” renders them as inferiors in need of the intervention of the civilizing aid of the Chinese state. These narratives rationalize the systemic monitoring, exploitation, and displacement of Uyghurs.

Following this overview, Byler’s first three chapters outline how this framework of terror capitalism operates. In chapter 1, he discusses the digital enclosure of Uyghurs, whereby the party-state’s promotion of online communication among Uyghur via social media apps like WeChat facilitated state-sponsored data harvesting and surveillance. Under the racializing logic of counterterrorism, expression of Turkic or Islamic identity on these platforms led to the detention of Uyghurs in camps and, Byler observes, opened them up to forced labor practices that sought to transform them into “a deeply controlled proletariat, a docile yet productive unfree class” (p. 59).

Further, Byler explains, the system of terror capitalism allows the state to further enact programs of devaluation and dispossession against Uyghurs. The next two chapters explore these processes in turn. In chapter 2, “Devaluation,” he examines how Uyghur understandings of “value” (in Uyghur, sapa) do not align with notions of “quality” (in Chinese, suzhi) rooted in the ethnocultural values of China’s majority ethnic Han. Marking Uyghur bodies as “low quality” and deeming Uyghur engagement with traditional or Islamic economic and cultural practices (perhaps best encapsulated by the Uyghur word, yerlik, or “of the land”) allows the party-state to subtract and marginalize those who do not conform to state-approved frames of ethnic expression. Noting that the state’s system of multiculturalism only values “state-directed culture work” and “counterterror policing,” Byler observes that the state’s discourses surrounding “quality” are often “used to solidify historical legacies and validate forms of social violence” against Uyghurs (p. 93-94). Further, as Byler demonstrates in chapter 3, these acts of subtraction also enable state-directed colonial dispossession. Here, Byler describes the cumulative effects of terror capitalism. The party-state’s digital enclosure of Turkic Muslims forces them to perform loyalty, express “counter-extremist” denunciations of those whose lifestyles do not conform to state-approved assimilationist multiculturalism, and in some cases build the media architecture of repression (p. 122-130). As Uyghurs’ participation in the knowledge economy became compulsory, the party-state began its campaign of detention and mass internment of those it deemed “radicals.” Byler notes that, especially for young Uyghur men attempting to survive in an ever-tightening atmosphere of urban surveillance, these detentions of family and friends “both tethered them to the suffering of those they loved and made it impossible for them to consider returning to it” (p. 130). By subtracting Uyghurs in this way, the party-state expropriates land and capital and enforces a capitalist mode of assimilation of Uyghurs into the state.

While Byler’s account of this system of terror capitalism is bleak, it provides a vital insight into the ways in which the state’s dehumanizing program of racialized securitization of Turkic Muslim identity violently transforms Uyghurs into an easily-mobilized source of unfree labor. It is fitting then, that another of the strengths of Terror Capitalism is the ability of Byler’s ethnography to restore the humanity and dignity of his interviewees. The latter chapters of the book personalize these struggles of his interlocutors to exist and resist in the face of the state’s colonizing power. In chapter 5, Byler explores the “minor politics” of those in the Han majority—particularly the “Old Xinjiang” Han, born and raised in Urumchi—who perform acts of solidarity with Uyghurs, often through producing public-facing art depicting the lives of Uyghur migrants. Though Byler notes that Uyghurs compatriots considered such work “almost good enough,” he still emphasizes how these acts attempt break through and resist the party-state’s official version of assimilationist multiculturalism (p. 184-188). Chapter 6 turns its attention to these migrants themselves, focusing on the subtraction of Uyghurs from urban landscapes through the demolition of urban villages. Focusing on the occupants of a “nail house”—a home whose occupants have resisted relocation even as all buildings in their surrounding area have been razed to make way for tower blocks—Byler outlines how such resistance to relocation offers migrants some opportunity to reclaim autonomy, even if the ultimate demolition of migrant homes provides a sobering reminder that “ethnography always fails” in the face of overwhelming pressure from an authoritarian state (p. 219).

Perhaps the most powerful example comes from the fourth chapter, “Friendship,” which provides an intimate view of how the anti-colonial “life and liver friendships” of young Uyghur men allow them to navigate and survive in the midst of loss and state-directed erasure. As Byler observes, in the context of the party-state’s campaign of dispossession, “storytelling and friendship could be a matter of life or death” (p. 162). In his concluding chapter, Byler’s candid ethnography allows the reader to feel the loss of these comrades viscerally. His descriptions of the environment he found upon his return to Urumchi in 2018, as numerous Uyghurs disappeared into camps, not only focuses on the scope and breadth of detentions, but also the specific traumas induced by missing friends. These moments provide poignant reminders that victims of the “People’s War on Terror” are individuals, and of the holes that their absences leave in the lives of others. While much of the heretofore published academic discussion of this crisis revolves around its systemic elements, Byler calls on us to examine its devastating impact on a granular, personal level. Thus, the strength both of Byler’s theoretical and methodological frameworks is made clear: his dissection of the dehumanization caused by terror capitalism, enacted through detailed ethnography, implores readers to remember that resistance begins by reasserting the humanity of the oppressed.

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