NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.
Each episode, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.
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This episode, we discuss evidence of human rights abuses against Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang as a new collection of leaked documents rocks the world and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet returns from a controversial visit to the region.
Monica Hunter-Hart interviews Michael Clarke, Adrian Zenz and Sophie Richardson about the history of Xinjiang, the Xinjiang Police Files leak and Bachelet's visit. She also talks to a Uyghur man who spent a month in pretrial detention in 2017. Then, Jack Stone Truitt interviews Darren Byler on Xinjiang's surveillance tech. Finally, Alice French sends in her Tokyo Dispatch, this time interviewing Ken Moriyasu about China's threat to Taiwan.
Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. Mehmet's voice was re-created by Eric Francisco.
Related to this episode:
Xi tells U.N. rights chief that China doesn't need lectures, by CK Tan and Pak Yiu
U.N. rights head Bachelet starts landmark tour of China's Xinjiang, by Pak Yiu
All for one: U.S. enlists its Asian allies in defense of Taiwan, by Ken Moriyasu
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WAJ KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream, where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region.
I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, on assignment in Washington D.C.
Today's episode -- Human Rights in Xinjiang: The U.N.'s China Compromise.
The People's Republic of China has long been concerned about separatist groups in the country's remote, western Xinjiang region. over the past decade, Beijing has created a complex system of surveillance, detention and reeducation that it says is successfully fighting terrorist elements. But rights advocates, foreign governments, international scholars and, most importantly, Uyghur and other muslim refugees from the region have accused of China of using that system to target the local Muslim minorities. Pointing to a mounting body of evidence, much of it leaked, Beijing stands accused of unlawful detention, indoctrination, forced labor, separating children from their families, systemic rape and even forced sterilization.
Amid fresh evidence and criticism about this mistreatment of minorities, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, who is a former president of Chile, recently concluded a controversial visit to the country. There, as she met China's top leaders and became the first U.N. human rights chief to visit the Communist country in over 17 years, Bachelet also came under fierce criticism for the compromises her office conducted to land the visit. A long-awaited U.N. report on China's alleged abuses in Xinjiang, which was due last year, has been delayed without explanation. On the ground, she did visit a Chinese-run prison and former reeducation camp, but only saw what Beijing wanted her to see. Covid restrictions were cited as an excuse as she was forced to travel without reporters, without disclosing her itinerary, and without informal and open access to what are deemed by the U.S. and many of its allies to be over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities who are being subjected to genocide. There are many narratives about Xinjiang. Bachelet, the diplomat, used language that echoed China's during her trip, while rights advocates across the world continue to push for an unrestricted investigation into the remote region.
Now, Bachelet has defended her visit. She's said that she was not on an investigative mission, rather a diplomatic one, and stressed that engagement with China on the subject of human rights is key. But that doesn't mean, her critics say, that the truth has to be compromised. Just last week, an enormous collection of official documents from Xinjiang was leaked, giving us a more detailed look into the crackdown apparatuses than we've ever had before.
There's a larger story here, too, about global power. The Xinjiang debate reminds us of the stark reality that China is a major player at the U.N. and other global bodies. Its influence hasn't just been expanding across Asia or Africa or Latin America, but also in diplomatic capitals like New York and Geneva. Given China's increasing influence, it may indeed be a pipe dream to imagine that any U.N. official -- even a fiery rights advocate like Bachelet, who has a long, personal history of speaking truth to power -- would go to Beijing to read the riot act to the Chinese over their internal security policies. This even calls into question the relevance of the modern United Nations -- which, as the world's leading multilateral organization, is expected to stand for global rights and equality, not perpetuate the power and policies of its members. Thus, the China Xinjiang secret is not just the U.N.'s compromise, but a reflection of the limits of contemporary global diplomacy.
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KHAN: Now, here to dive headfirst into the story in Xinjiang is Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart. She's got quite the report today, with four remarkable guests who bring us context, analysis and a critique of both the Chinese government and the U.N.
HUNTER-HART: Thanks, Waj. Yes -- we're going to speak to a historian, Michael Clarke, for background and context. Then we'll discuss this monumental leak with the man who received and outed what are now being called the Xinjiang Police Files, anthropologist Adrian Zenz. And finally, we'll analyze the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner's controversial visit to Xinjiang with Human Rights Watch's China Director, Sophie Richardson. But it seems most important to begin with a representative of the people at the heart of it all. You're going to hear from a Uyghur man who, several years ago, spent a month in a Xinjiang pretrial detention center -- that's one of the many different types of facilities Uyghurs are held in. We'll be talking a lot about the reeducation camps, too; but these pretrial centers are where people are often held before they're convicted of anything. This man has now sought safety in Europe. Even while abroad, he's received personal threats from the Chinese authorities against speaking out. And he still has family back in Xinjiang; so for both his safety and theirs, we've changed his name -- we're calling him "Mehmet" -- and someone else is repeating his interview responses so that his voice can't be traced. Here are the basics of Mehmet's story: He grew up in a medium-sized city in Xinjiang to an upper-middle class Uyghur family. He's now in his mid-30s. He described to me some of his earliest memories of discrimination, including the Uyghur language getting phased out of his education system and his father getting passed over for promised promotions in favor of younger, Han Chinese newcomers who didn't even know the local language.
MEHMET: The thing is, like, it just became greater and greater and greater, the discrimination. And from covert it became overt. Um, you would hear, you would constantly hear that -- you know, like for example, at schools, they would say "Uyghur students are lazy," or "They can't learn things."
HUNTER-HART: He said when he was in college he started to notice Uyghur children who moved to town with their families and were denied a seat in the local schools, supposedly because they were new to the area, alongside incoming Han Chinese families who were immediately able to find a place for their children. Here's a story from when Mehmet was beginning a job search just before graduating from university.
MEHMET: They would call me for an interview. And after the interview, they would tell it to my face: "We don't want Uyghurs. Thanks for your time."
HUNTER-HART: Oh my god.
MEHMET: Yes. That, that was my experience constantly. And government jobs are the only jobs that they would say that they, for certain positions, that they require to have Uyghurs. And when I was about to graduate, those were all police jobs. Security officials. They all wanted, the state wanted more Uyghurs there. So. I didn't want to be a police. So I left.
HUNTER-HART: He worked in China proper for a few years and then joined a Ph.D. program in the U.S. He returned to Xinjiang quite a few times, and even though he had trouble initially acquiring a passport, he was able to come and go at that time. But that all changed the last time he went back, in 2017.
MEHMET: I was arrested right off the plane. And I was kept in jail for about a month.
HUNTER-HART: What was their stated reason for arresting you?
MEHMET: They didn't tell me at first. They, the airport border control, or airport security officials, they would not disclose any information. I even begged for a phone call. Nothing. But eventually, I found out that I was arrested under the suspicion of disrupting the societal order.
HUNTER-HART: Oh my god, that was the phrase they used?
HUNTER-HART: And were you given more details, or is that as much as you know?
MEHMET: No, that's on my arrest warrant. It says, "under the suspicion of disrupting the societal order."
HUNTER-HART: Wow. Do you have a personal interpretation of what it was?
MEHMET: No. I don't. Because, how would I disrupt the societal order when I'm on the other side of the world?
HUNTER-HART: What was it like in detention?
MEHMET: Um. Devastating. Um. The cell was full of people. It was overcrowded, obviously. I think it went over two times of its maximum capacity. I was in a 12-person cell. At one point it reached 23 people, but it was always 21 or 22. But they kept adding people in. There were, there were people coming in constantly. And it's full of Uyghur people. Most of them, they had no idea why they were there. They were, they said they were asked to come to the police station. After they went, they recorded their biometric information, which I did as well. They did a health check, which I did as well. And biometric information basically includes scanning of the face and voice signature collection, foot, handprints, and drawing of blood, and, yeah.
HUNTER-HART: He also described what day-to-day life was like inside the pretrial detention center.
MEHMET: We would sit in the cell. We were not allowed to go outside. We, we would march stationarily, shouting Communist slogans. You know, like, how the party is great. How we can improve. And be a new person, or like, be good again. Like, basically, it was slogans designed for criminals, I guess, or incarcerated people. We would have to, what we did during our study session was just memorize the prison rules. Or jail, pretrial detention center rules. And also memorize the signs of extremism. There were about 74, or 76. I can't remember. Over 70 signs of extremism. If you can memorize all of them, shackles off. That was the reward.
HUNTER-HART: Did you memorize them?
MEHMET: I didn't, but I had the shackles taken off because I could speak Chinese fluently and I was translating in the jail cell.
HUNTER-HART: When I asked Mehmet what else he thinks the international community should know about Xinjiang, he said he suspects that estimates about the numbers of people imprisoned are too low because they don't include pretrial detention centers like the ones he was kept in. Those centers, he says, are a part of the story that hasn't fully been told. But how did things get to this point? Let's move on to some historical context. We're joined now by Michael Clarke, an adjunct professor and senior fellow at the Australian Defense College's Center for Defence Research and author of a book on the history of Xinjiang. Michael, thanks for coming on Asia Stream.
MICHAEL CLARKE, GUEST: Yeah. Thanks, Monica. Happy, happy to join you.
HUNTER-HART: Michael, I'm hoping you can provide listeners with some background. You know, some people are surprised to even learn that there's a substantial population of Muslims in China. So tell us about Xinjiang province and how we got to the point today where the Chinese government is being accused of human rights abuses and even genocide.
CLARKE: So officially, it's the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. And Xinjiang is really part of, I suppose the legacy of the Qing, expansion of the Qing Dynasty, really, in the sort of mid-17th century. And Xinjiang itself is really -- culturally, ethnically and geographically -- really part of Central Asia, rather than, part than, than, sort of, part of the traditional heartland of China itself. So this is one of the things that the way that China-based states, including the now, the PRC, has always grappled with, is, is really how to integrate this sort of very different region, ethnically, culturally and so on with the rest of China. Now, the way in which they've sought to do that, since 1949, has gone through a number of different phases. And of course, being ruled by a Communist Party, which is officially atheistic, very much, has adopted a very muscular kind of approach to trying to mold, I suppose, religious and cultural identity, in particular, in Xinjiang. So in Xinjiang itself, you have a number of Turkic Muslim minorities, and the Uyghur are the largest in terms of population. In the early 2000s, is you have the effects of the War on Terror and 9/11 on the way in which the party state sort of framed its challenge.
CNN REPORTER: A plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.
CLARKE: So you have kind of a shift after 9/11. You have this focus on suggesting that well, one of the barriers to integration is really Uyghur extremists, so-called "extremism" and "terrorism." And this is where this narrative sort of becomes bedded down, consolidated. And over sort of the next decade, you have a very clear focus on policing, a focus on counterterrorism policy and strategy, all of which is framed around, you know, this idea that there is something intrinsic to Uyghur identity that makes them prone to extremism. And sort of the culmination of this is really, from my perspective, is the beginning of the reeducation process -- the reeducation camps or detention centers, however, we like to frame them -- which really begins at the end of 2015 and early 2016.
NBC REPORTER: Across the northwestern province of Xinjiang, an estimated 1 million Chinese Muslims have vanished into a vast network of detention centers for what China calls "reeducation."
CLARKE: The concept of reeducation itself has a very long history within the PRC, of course, right back to the Maoist period. But what's interesting about what's happened in Xinjiang is, is very much the focus on it's almost a whole-of-society attempt to sort of remake an entire ethnic or cultural group in the party state's own image in some way. So you have this focus in reeducation camps on, on, the use of, use of Mandarin language only, a focus on, focus on propaganda, ideological loyalty and so on. The idea is that we need to break Uyghur cultural identity down and sort of begin again.
HUNTER-HART: And how successful has that project been?
CLARKE: Now, look, the, the state itself has maintained that its program of reeducation has been successful. Yet, I don't think I wonder how they judge that, to be honest. I mean, the idea that you can, you can remake an entire population's culture and mindset within the space of a very few short years, to me seems not only highly ambitious, but hubristic in the extreme.
HUNTER-HART: What causes one to get sent to a reeducation camp?
CLARKE: What's happened over time is that you have the party sort of adding I suppose to the to the list of of issues, behaviors and so on that can get one sent to reeducation. So initially, sort of in that 2015/2016 period, you seem to have had a much greater focus on expressions of" -- what they defined as -- "religious extremism." Now, that was a very broad definition. Sort of a manifestation of religious extremism could be a man growing a beard, for instance, or a man, or others, abstaining from alcohol or cigarettes, undertaking their fast for Ramadan, right through the use of certain names for children. So that was kind of the first phase. But then after that, you have a focus, for instance, on the relationship between so-called extremism and underdevelopment. You know, the reeducation camps are about not only eliminating extremism, it's also about so-called "vocational training" and providing skills to Uyghur and other at-risk minorities. It's a very colonial mindset. It's this idea that the colonial state is coming in and benevolently bestowing, you know, the benefits of secular modernization upon this backward minority.
HUNTER-HART: We gained more insight into those camps just last week. A collection of documents was leaked from the computer system of Xinjiang's Public Security Bureau. They're being called the "Xinjiang Police Files." And looking through them is really just heartbreaking. What's staying with me most are the photos. There are pictures from inside the camps and also thousands of mug shots taken in 2018 -- the faces of those being detained. The image that keeps haunting me is one of a 50-year-old woman named Hawagul Tewekkul who has visible tears in her eyes as she looks at the camera and appears to be holding back a sob.
CBS REPORTER: These are the faces China never intended us to see from inside its system of mass incarceration in Xinjiang.
DW REPORTER: The photos show police using physical force against prisoners in handcuffs and chains.
FRANCE 24 REPORTER: Those who attempt to flee targeted by a shoot to kill policy.
HUNTER-HART: Michael, leaks like these are incredibly helpful for shedding light on what's happening in Xinjiang, but they're also rare. We have some witness testimony, but many people are physically unable to speak out, or are threatened when they try to do so. So in general, how do we know what we know about what's going on in these camps?
CLARKE: If you actually focus on the way in which the Chinese state itself has talked about this, and also its own documentation, its own statements. You know, it demonstrates that, you know, what has been happening and what a lot of outside researchers have been saying has been correct. The focus on a mass form of reeducation, you know, the, the ways in which certainly in the early phases, it seemed the local officials were almost mandated to have to sort of meet quotas for numbers of people to be placed in reeducation. And this comes out, not only in these documents, but in previous document leaks as well. And, really, I've just stressed that the way in which the importance of looking at the way in which the Chinese government itself has spoken about this has been really revealing. So in that first sort of period, 2016/2017, you know, the party state's position was outright denial that this was taking place.
FRANCE 24 REPORTER: "Unfounded." "Slander." "Defamatory." "Rumors." These are the terms that Beijing has been using to push back against accusations that they're holding a million people, namely ethnic Uyghurs, in internment camps.
CLARKE: Then by 2018, you have the sort of defensive approach, sort of equating what China was doing with, "Oh, well, this is, this is our attempt to combat extremism." And then it shifts again, in the last couple of years, it's shifted to a much more open in a way, transparent notion that, well, "Yes, we are doing this, and we're proud that we're doing this." You know, there's been a spate of documentaries on Chinese state television -- some of the internationally facing Chinese media as well -- focused on these little documentaries about, you know, Uyghurs have, who have been saved by the party from extremism.
CGTN VIDEO: It is hard to imagine that this dancing Uyghur girl was just one step away from becoming a terrorist!
CLARKE: So it's a much more much more assertive approach, is that actually, "Yes, we are doing this."
HUNTER-HART: Thank you so much, Michael.
CLARKE: Thank you.
HUNTER-HART: Now let's delve deeper into that document leak with the man to whom the files were passed. We're joined by Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist who is a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Adrian, thank you so much for being on Asia Stream.
ZENZ: Yeah, thanks for having me.
HUNTER-HART: One of the reasons why the Xinjiang Police Files have seemed so important, and different from the evidence that we've previously had, is the level of detail they include. Could you give us some examples of the new findings from these files?
ZENZ: Yes, I mean, the problem, or the blessing, of the new files is that they had such an abundance of new material, it's even hard to say where to start. Maybe at the top. At the top, we have an internal speech by China's minister of public security, Zhao Kezhi, directly speaking of Beijing's approval for the reeducation campaign, and of Xi Jinping's directive to enlarge the camps, given his knowledge of the fact that they are overcrowded, and to recruit more prison guards, more camp guards, more police. Chen Quanguo, former party secretary talking about arresting Uyghurs using handcuffs, shackles and blindfolds. And if anybody tried to escape, taking a few steps to open fire on them -- asked to open fire on people who are trying to move against the police, trying to move against internment camps, etc. But we are learning something about the ruthlessness of the officials, the brutality of the system, and the sort of paranoia with which Uyghurs have been framed -- normal Uyghur citizens are being framed as terrorists. Even people who've done nothing at all to the state.
HUNTER-HART: On a personal level, when you were first examining these files, what made you the most shocked, or maybe moved you the most?
ZENZ: Yeah, I think the most shocking are the images of the Uyghurs and then being able to see who of them is in a camp, you know, using the attendance spreadsheets. And I mean, seeing old people, really old people, you know, and they're staring at the camera with blank looks, you know, in a police station, and then young teenagers, young girls, age 14 at the time, or 15. Just unbelievable.
HUNTER-HART: The files span from the early 2000s to 2018. Analysts like yourself have used them to look at one particular county and estimate that at least 12% of the adult population there had been detained. Do you have a sense of how many people might be detained today?
ZENZ: It's a bit hard to say and depends if you count people locked into securitized labor camps, or labor or factory parks, if, if those should be counted as detainees or not. In theory, it's, it's entirely possible that 1 or 2 million have been locked up in high-security facilities of some kind. Yeah, technically, it could be more than that. The capacity would be higher than that. It's very difficult to know at this point.
HUNTER-HART: Beijing hasn't addressed the leak particularly directly. When reporters asked about it, a Chinese embassy spokesperson in Washington said, quote, "Xinjiang has taken a host of decisive, robust and effective deradicalization measures," and that the region's harmony and stability is, quote, "the most powerful response to all sorts of lies and disinformation on Xinjiang." What do you make of that?
ZENZ: Oh, the PRC has learned that it's better to just be very vague in their rebuttal and to not say anything specific, to just talk about general lies. So maybe the benefit of doing that is they don't give away anything. But the disadvantage is, of course, their, their rebuttal is completely non-effective and non-, noncredible, because they're not responding to any specific allegation at all. So they're not responding to image material, to documents. It's completely nonspecific.
HUNTER-HART: Switching gears here, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, just wrapped up a visit to Xinjiang.
AL JAZEERA REPORTER: Michelle Bachelet's visit to China was the first by a U.N. human rights commissioner since 2005.
BLOOMBERG REPORTER: There's really been uproar, a lot of disappointment and criticism of the trip.
HUNTER-HART: You've written that the expectations for Bachelet's trip were low and that the outcomes have been even worse. What went so wrong?
ZENZ: What's gone wrong is that this is quite possibly one of the worst ongoing atrocities of our time, of the 21st century, and of our current time. And I think it's just incredible that you can just agree to a visit where you already know it's not an investigation, even though you promised an investigation.
ZENZ: So you're already violating all kinds of expectations. And then the worst, at the press conference, you basically echo Chinese propaganda terms, saying that these are "vocational training centers," uncritically repeating Chinese claims that they have been closed, even though we know that many have been shifted to higher security facilities. And then calling upon the Xinjiang government to investigate its own practices to see if counterterrorism is in line with international standards. Now, firstly, we all know that what China's doing in Xinjiang is not counterterrorism. People are being locked away for growing a beard, for having an extra child. That's not counterterrorism. And then calling upon the wolf to investigate its own behavior? I mean, calling upon the perpetrator of an atrocity to investigate himself? I mean, is that supposed to be a joke? So the investigation was supposed to have been conducted by the United Nations, by Michelle Bachelet's office. And I think she -- it is an incredible betrayal of the victims, what she did there.
HUNTER-HART: Adrian Zenz, thank you so much for coming on Asia Stream.
ZENZ: Thank you, indeed. My pleasure.
HUNTER-HART: What Zenz said at the end about calling on the wolf to investigate its own behavior -- he's referring to part of the statement Michelle Bachelet made on May 28th, at the end of her trip.
BACHELET: I encouraged the government to undertake a review of all counterterrorism and deradicalization policies to ensure they fully comply with international human rights standards.
HUNTER-HART: Bachelet's statement -- and in fact, her entire visit -- has been heavily criticized by analysts, a number of government officials from around the world, and human rights groups. Human Rights Watch is one such organization. I spoke to the head of its China division, Sophie Richardson, while the trip was ongoing. [I caught her on the road -- she kindly agreed to talk while on vacation -- so the audio here is a little funky.] I asked Richardson what a worst-case scenario for the visit might look like, and it's a bit remarkable how closely her answer aligned with what actually happened. She anticipated how the only action item Bachelet identified was a new channel for private dialogue between the U.N. and the Chinese government. Bachelet didn't mention in her closing statement that her visit was tightly controlled and constrained by the PRC. She also didn't condemn the government for any human rights abuses.
RICHARDSON: She seems unwilling to frontally challenge the Chinese government. She's had multiple opportunities to show that she was going to be as tough on the Chinese government as she's been on other governments and she's kept blinking. She has not published this report, but it's been, you know, that she said, that she promised back in September, and then in December, her own spokesperson said it would be published within a matter of weeks. We still haven't seen it. She has not been particularly vocal about Chinese government human rights violations. She has not been particularly keen to spend time with human rights defenders from across the mainland. You know, and that's, that doesn't bode well. And there's a lot of speculation about why she's taken these positions. Why she hasn't done more or spoken up more strongly when she's perfectly capable of being quite critical, for example, of Russia around Ukraine, or the U.S. around racism and police violence -- both perfectly valid positions, with which we agree, I want to be careful to note -- but she seems to find it difficult to muster the same level of criticism against another P5 [the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members] government that is committing some of the most serious human rights crimes under international law on her watch. And while she is there.
HUNTER-HART: That report that Richardson was referring to is an assessment on the situation in Xinjiang that the U.N.'s human rights office has been promising since last year. Back in March, nearly 200 human rights groups signed an open letter demanding that it be released as soon as possible. In the wake of her controversial visit, Bachelet is facing even more pressure to do so. The other point Richardson made there was that Bachelet's vagueness and moderation aren't actually typical of her. During the Q&A, she was asked about racial discrimination and gun violence in the U.S., and here's how she labeled the problem.
BACHELET: It's a terrible human rights situation.
HUNTER-HART: "A terrible human rights situation." But she didn't use language as strong or declarative when discussing Xinjiang. Groups like Human Rights Watch argue that Bachelet is neglecting her duty as the head of the world's most high-profile body devoted to human rights to do something about what they call "crimes against humanity." But the job doesn't just fall on Bachelet. I asked Richardson what the rest of the world should be doing to help persecuted minorities in Xinjiang.
RICHARDSON: You know, I think it's very clear that -- Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes very clear -- what happens when authoritarians don't feel constrained by international law. And I think governments in particular would do very well, to apply this lesson with respect to the Chinese government under Xi Jinping. It's being discussed largely in the context of whether this this heightens the threat that Beijing poses to Taiwan. But I think it also makes pretty clear that powerful states don't hesitate to attack one another, or to attack the norms and values and laws that have shaped international relations since the end of World War II. I think there's a lot more work for governments, particularly democracies to do, with not just to push for the kind of accountability for Uyghurs that we see, you know, for other communities. Certainly one step that most democracies could take, is to task national-level prosecutors with gathering evidence of atrocity crimes, with a view towards prosecutions under what's called "universal jurisdiction," this is the same mechanism by which Germany recently prosecuted Syrians on charges of torture. You know, more broadly, I think that, you know, people should pause for a moment and look at the tag of the shirt that they're wearing and wonder whether it was made with forced labor. Meaning, you know, Uyghurs who we know have been forced to work in different sectors, both inside the Uyghur region and in other parts of China, to ask themselves about whether, you know, the, the availability of cheap goods from China has not just, you know, fueled certain kinds of economic problems, but effectively prolonged the life of a highly authoritarian government in Beijing.
HUNTER-HART: U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act at the end of last year, and it's set to go into effect later this month. The law aims to prevent the importation of goods that use Uyghur forced labor. On Thursday, a Chinese spokesperson declared that implementing the law would, quote, "severely disrupt normal cooperation between China and the U.S." Also on Thursday, the U.S., U.K. and other countries requested that the International Labor Organization set up a mission to investigate claims of labor abuses in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, many world governments, and even the EU foreign affairs office, have called on the U.N. to release its Xinjiang report without delay. But on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Bachelet's office said that there will, in fact, be further delays. It will be updated to reflect observations from the visit and shared with Chinese officials prior to publication. While all of this goes on, the people of Xinjiang remain in what appear to be increasingly intractable conditions.
KHAN: Thank you for that, Monica. Now to explore the role of surveillance technology, private enterprise, and how Western companies knowingly or unknowingly overlap with what's happening in Xinjiang, here is Nikkei Asia business and markets reporter Jack Stone Truitt.
JACK STONE TRUITT: Thanks, Waj.
Reports of detention centers and forced labor might conjure up 20th century images of barbed wire and coercion by the barrel of a gun.
But so much of what's happening in Xinjiang is a result of a uniquely modern, highly sophisticated, uber-Orwellian surveillance state.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang move through numerous checkpoints multiple times per day. Each requiring face scans and biometric ID cards. Tens of thousands of security cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, keep watch. Programs track their phone history to map out connections with other individuals.
All together, billions of data points are assembled to create a highly detailed portrait of every individual in the region.
Implementing this requires a sprawling surveillance technology enterprise by both the Chinese government and private firms, with implications that spread far beyond northwest china.
I talked to Darren Byler, an assistant professor of international relations at Simon Fraser University, to discuss this "Big Brother" aspect of China's policing of Xinjiang -- which Chinese companies are behind it, what the connection with the Chinese and global economy is, and what Beijing's policies there mean for the rest of the world. Here is our conversation:
Darren, thank you so much for being here.
DARREN BYLER: It's a pleasure, thanks for having me.
TRUITT: Professor, you've called this system of high-tech repression "terror capitalism," and I want to hone in on the "capitalism" component. What's happening in Xinjiang is of course an example of extraordinary state power, but what is the role of private enterprise and profit in all of this?
BYLER: Well, like many places in the world, the Chinese state has really begun to outsource a lot of its cutting-edge technology and surveillance to private companies. And so there's a whole system of private-public partnerships between Chinese startup tech firms, and the police and the state. And so it's 1,400 firms working in Xinjiang, the state has invested state capital of around $100 billion in infrastructure development over the last five years or so in the region. So it's a really lucrative space to get these big contracts to develop new tools.
And then along with it, you know, these technology companies are really interested in access to data, because data really helps them to fine-tune and develop their mechanisms of the algorithms of their products they're developing. And this data is now available to these private tech firms. It's very symmetrical as a database. And so it's really perfect, in some ways to train algorithms.
So it becomes a kind of experimental space, a sort of frontier of the Chinese tech industry, particularly around AI, which the Chinese state has talked about as sort of the future of the Chinese economy, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So by 2030 they want to be able to compete, or outcompete anyone else in the world when it comes to some of these tools. And also the proof of concept that they're developing by testing these tools in the field in the battlefield, really, which then can be adapted for other purposes.
TRUITT: And who exactly are these private companies? Are they based exclusively in Xinjiang?
BYLER: Well there's a lot of companies. So there's 1,400 firms, many of them are based in Xinjiang itself. And there are smaller companies that are, you know, really kind of getting their start from this new security apparatus.
But the companies that are actually benefiting the most or have gotten the most contracts are larger companies based in eastern China. Many of them are national champions -- that's how they're referred to by the Chinese state.
TRUITT: Are Western companies implicated in any of this? We've seen stories of say, an Adidas t-shirt using cotton from Xinjiang that was potentially the product of forced labor. But is there a tech equivalent?
BYLER: There's definitely component parts in the Chinese-built tech that is coming from the West. And, you know, that's in, like, microprocessing chips from Intel and other places.
And so, I think the Western tech companies who are helping to build the system or providing tech for it, you know, they see themselves as steps removed from this application, and perhaps rightly so, but I think at the same time, they have some responsibility in terms of how they let their tech loose in the world.
In terms of the outflow back to the West. When it comes to COVID-related surveillance equipment, fever-mapping tools, we see those coming from the same companies that have built significant aspects of the camp system in Xinjiang being deployed at airports and in corporate headquarters, corporate spaces around the world, including in the U.S.
So, you know, you can't say for sure that a heat-mapping system built by Dahua has learned its ability to do what it does from tracking Uyghurs. But it's the same company, and it's, you know, the algorithms are being tested in that space. We see heat mapping systems being built at the perimeters of camps in Xinjiang. So there's a lot of overlap. Enough to, you know, someone concerned with ethics, and how they might be implicated in it, should be concerned.
TRUITT: On the business front what can be done by outside actors? Many of these companies have been placed on the U.S. Commerce Department's ban list or the Entity List, but is that effective?
BYLER: Well, it does have an effect, there's no question about that. A number of these companies that are working in Xinjiang, had ambitions to move beyond the Chinese market to other places in the world, and they are doing that still. But, you know, being placed on the entities list by the U.S. government has prevented them from being publicly traded in certain places and has just thrown up red flags around them. And so it's limited in their market growth, in some ways.
TRUITT: And finally, someone who keeps up with the news has likely seen headlines about Xinjiang, probably focused on detention camps, or forced labor, and my hunch would be that if they don't read any further they might get a very 20th-century vision of what's happening. All of which is to say, do people have enough of an appreciation for the cutting edge, kind of techno-surveillance-state aspect of all of this?
BYLER: It's hard to know, I think that there is increasing awareness, I've written books about it, hopefully, some people are reading. But you know, I'm sure there's a lot more work to do. I think that the sort of overweening geopolitics, that sort of rivalry between the U.S. and China, that sort of "new Cold War" rhetoric, and the discussion around Huawei, that's been placed at the center of that, I think, has clouded a lot of people's view of this. And so they think, you know, if, if a Chinese company is put on an entities list, this is just because, you know, the U.S. is wanting to be strategic about keeping a company that has a leading edge from sort of furthering its market share.
That's not the case with these things, these companies are really bad actors, they've, you know, participated very directly in what's happened to the Uyghurs and deserve to be put on the entities list. At the same time, I think that there's a real hypocrisy as well, from the U.S. government. And in many global actors, when it comes to surveillance. These Chinese firms, they're modeling what they're doing on state contractors that work with U.S. military, U.S. police, companies, like Palantir, they say this really directly in their marketing for their tools that this is the Chinese version of Palantir. So, there's a lot of bad actors in this space. And I think the object of critique should be the global surveillance industry and lack of regulation around it.
TRUITT: Darren Byler is an assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University. Darren, thank you so much for your time.
BYLER: Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure.
KHAN: That was Jack Stone Truitt wrapping up our report on Xinjiang. We now pivot to another hot-button issue when it comes to China, and the one that most concerns those in Washington: Taiwan. Here is Alice French, our Big Story Editor, with this week's Tokyo Dispatch.
FRENCH: Konnichiwa! And welcome to the Tokyo Dispatch, where I'll be sending regular updates from the narrow streets and neon lights of Tokyo, home to Nikkei HQ and hub for our East Asia coverage. Tokyo has welcomed more foreign leaders in the last two weeks than in the whole of the past two years, as U.S. President [Joe] Biden made his first trip to greet Prime Minister [Fumio] Kishida on May 22. Biden's bilateral visit, the first by an American president to Japan since 2019, was swiftly followed by a meeting of the Quad -- short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a partnership between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. Kishida hosted the huddle in Tokyo, which featured India's Prime Minister Modi and Australia's new Prime Minister [Anthony] Albanese, along with Biden. Then came Nikkei's Future of Asia conference, held in-person for the first time in three years, and with appearances from the leaders of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and more. All of these visits have thrust Asian diplomacy and foreign policy into the spotlight, especially in the context of an increasingly volatile world order in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But one issue that has taken center stage is Taiwan and how Asian countries allied with the U.S. would respond if China ever invaded the self-ruled island. In this week's Big Story, Ken Moriyasu, Nikkei Asia's diplomatic correspondent here in Tokyo, explored the U.S.'s game plan in the event of a potential Chinese attack on Taipei. I caught up with him to find out more.
So, Taiwan has come up a lot in world leaders' meetings held in Tokyo over the past week or so. Could you give us a rundown of what exactly was said about the issue, and by who? What was different this time compared to previous statements on Taiwan?
MORIYASU: Well, the biggest headline was what President Biden said at the very end of his joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida. As he was about to step down from the podium, he was asked one last question: When it comes to Taiwan, are you willing to be involved militarily to defend Taiwan, if it came to that? And he said yes, and he said, "That's a commitment we made" twice. So this was very interesting because the U.S. does not have a commitment to defend Taiwan. People are speculating whether this was a slip of the tongue, which it probably was not, or if he really believes it, or if it was a strategy to convey the message without altering the official policy.
FRENCH: Right, so the U.S. will likely need some allies if it's going to take China on. Which countries would be expected to support the US in the event of a Taiwan contingency? And how ready are they to do so?
MORIYASU: Right, the obvious two countries will be Australia and Japan, America's closest allies in the Indo-Pacific. Australia seems to be very willing these days to support the U.S., especially since its relationship with China has deteriorated so much, after Australia called for an independent investigation into the roots of the coronavirus. It has signed the so-called AUKUS deal with the U.K. and the U.S., to acquire nuclear power submarines. But Australia is a little too far to make a really substantial contribution in a Taiwan operation. I think the real crucial partner in a Taiwan operation will be Japan, because there are 56,000 American active-duty troops based in Japan, and also the ports of Yokosuka and Sasebo, and also the Marines in Okinawa will be in the best position to hurry over to the Taiwan Straits to help.
What is Japan's attitude to this expectation? And how do you think the U.S.'s approach to Taiwan will affect Kishida's foreign policy going forwards?
MORIYASU: Prime Minister Kishida has seen his approval rating rise to the highest since he came into office last year. A recent Nikkei poll showed that 91% of respondents in Japan said that Japan has to be prepared for a Taiwan crisis. The attitude in Japan has become much more prepared for a Taiwan crisis, and they are beginning to see it as an imminent reality, rather than a theoretical discussion. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has suggested a doubling of the defense budget to 2% of GDP. But one of the retired Self-Defense Forces generals that I talked to explained to me that, probably, a doubling of the defense budget is not enough -- probably Japan would need to triple its budget. So we really are at a crossroads.
FRENCH: Thanks very much, Ken. It sounds like Japan still has a long road ahead in its preparations for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. We'll be following the situation closely on the Nikkei Asia website, so stay tuned for more stories on this topic. This has been Alice French, with the Tokyo Dispatch, for Asia Stream. Mata kondo!
KHAN: That's it for Asia Stream this week.
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KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of the Xinjiang region and all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout when you visit asia.nikkei.com. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I'm your host, Waj Khan. The voice of Mehmet was read by Eric Francisco.
We'll stream again in two weeks -- till then, enjoy the start of summer and steer clear of Ponzi streams.
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