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What Happened: November 11, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Chinese persecution; the perils of googling; Lebanon drifts further into the Axis of Resistance

The Scroll
November 11, 2021
Guest-edited by Sean Cooper
Guest-edited by Sean Cooper

The Big Story

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum released a report this week on the growing body of evidence that the Chinese government has committed crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities within their borders. Updating a previous finding from March 2020, the museum report documents persecution and imprisonment of the Uyghur people, as well as “forced sterilization, sexual violence, enslavement, torture, and forcible transfer.” With an estimated 1 to 3 million persons who’ve been confined to China’s network of more than 300 so-called education camps, the ongoing campaign is the largest interment of a religious minority since the end of World War II. Following the Trump administration’s ban last year of cotton imports from Xinjiang, the region responsible for more than 80% of China’s cotton production and where the majority of its forced-labor camps are located, the Biden administration installed trade restrictions this summer on Xinjiang solar products, an effort the White House described as the price to be paid by “China for engaging in cruel and inhumane forced labor practices.” Last weekend, Boston Celtics basketball player Enes Kanter, who’d previously been critical of political repression in Turkey, hosted a rally outside Capitol Hill to garner support for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a congressional bill that would prevent products made with forced labor from being imported from China. With the unanimous support of the U.S. Senate, the bill currently awaits a decision by the House of Representatives.

Today’s Back Pages: An interview with Darren Byler, author of a new book about China’s digital surveillance and oppression of ethnic minorities

The Rest

→ The U.S. journalist Danny Fenster now faces the possibility of a life sentence after Myanmar’s military court charged him this week of sedition and terrorism. Currently on trial for allegations of unlawful association and encouraging dissent against the military, Fenster is one of more than 100 journalists who’ve been arrested since the military coup in February plunged the nation into chaos and violent protests.

→ Novak Djokovic continues to complicate discussions of who, exactly, is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. After his record-breaking 37th Masters title win this weekend in Paris, over the beguiling Russian Daniil Medvedev, Djokovic has also secured his place as the year-end world number one player for the seventh time, another record. Tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most all-time major titles, at 20 each, Djokovic plans to coach after leaving the pro tour. “Knowledge can be a curse if you don’t use it. What am I supposed to do when I retire—take it to my grave?” he said this week.

→ A bar-tailed godwit bird set the world record for continuous avian flight after it recently flew more than 8,000 miles between Alaska and Australia. Researchers traced the bird, wearing a tiny, solar-powered satellite, as it flew for more than 239 continuous hours.

→ Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have sparked a diplomatic crisis after withdrawing their ambassadors from Lebanon. The rift was caused by previous comments made by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi, a smooth-talking former game-show host who defended Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi insurgency, and is currently engaged in a brutal standoff with Saudi Arabia. Kordahi—a member of Marada, a Christian party with ties to Syria and Hezbollah—is known for his stalwart support of the Assad regime and his “pride” in Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. With hundreds of millions of dollars in trade and assistance from its erstwhile sponsors at risk, the beleaguered Lebanon seems poised to move even further into the embrace of Iran and Hezbollah.

→ Puneet Dikshit, a McKinsey partner, has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of insider trading, after he made $450,000 in security trades ahead of an acquisition of the online loan provider GreenSky by Goldman Sachs. Dikshit led McKinsey’s advisory team overseeing Goldman’s acquisition of GreenSky, and he made the trades from brokerage accounts owned by himself and his wife, according to documents unsealed yesterday in Manhattan federal court. While executing his trades, Dikshit allegedly googled “what happens to options when company is acquired.” Like my mother always said: Careful what you search for.

→ French authorities arrested Paris St.-Germain soccer player Aminata Diallo yesterday on suspicion of Diallo’s involvement in the violent assault last week by two masked men who used a metal bar to strike the legs of Kheira Hamraoui, a new player on the team. In coverage of the attack and recent arrest, French sports media has noted that the two players are rivals for precious playing time, at a moment when European women’s soccer is exploding in popularity, with new opportunities for lucrative contracts and deals with sponsors.

→ The internecine battles between the mega wealthy and the pedestrian rich continue apace this week in New York State court as Tinder dating app co-founder Sean Rad goes after media mogul billionaire Barry Diller, whose U.S. holding company IAC allegedly undervalued Tinder to get a better deal on its acquisition of the app. Though Rad cashed out some $400 million during the transaction, he and his co-founders are now seeking more than $2 billion in damages caused by what they say was IAC’s deception during negotiations. Tinder was recently valued at $42 billion by Morgan Stanley.

→ Metallurgist Elaine Thomas, 67, could face a 10-year prison sentence after she pled guilty Monday to falsifying the test results for more than 240 steel productions at a foundry used by the U.S. Navy for its submarines. In their indictment, U.S. prosecutors allege that Thomas, who served as a director of the foundry where she worked for more than three decades, intentionally altered test results of the steel’s strength “to defraud the United States Navy and to obtain money and property by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses and representations.”

The Back Pages

backpagesAn interview with Darren Byler, author of a new book about China’s digital surveillance and oppression of ethnic minorities

I spoke with Darren Byler, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, about In the Camps, his new book investigating the high-security camps and surveillance network the Chinese government has built across its northwest region. In conjunction with the government’s detainment of between 1 and 3 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui in these camps and forced-labor factories, the Chinese state has built a surveillance network of unprecedented scale and technological sophistication—the first totalitarian system against ethnic minorities in the new era of digital surveillance. Byler argues the Chinese campaign’s novel use of digital hardware and software technologies “is what makes it a new phenomenon in the history of colonialism and camp systems.”

Based on almost a decade of research and interviews Byler has amassed in the United States and in China, including interviews with workers at the camps and former detainees, the book is a startling record of the deprivation and abuse detainees suffer in the camps, as well as a vivid account of how the Chinese government has leveraged cell phone data, facial recognition software, surveillance camera networks, GPS tracking, and biometric checkpoints, along with a traditional army of police contractors and neighborhood-level informants, to create an oppressive campaign of suppression.

How are the rules of what’s acceptable behavior handed down by the Chinese government to the ethnic minorities who are being targeted?

Part of the intended ambiguity within the system is not knowing exactly where the line is, just knowing that it is there, and so you really start to self-regulate. That’s been in play for quite a while. There were some formal rules or guidelines that were put in place in 2016. The state regional authorities announced them through the publication of 75 signs of religious extremism. They are ambiguous, but also in some cases specific. It’s a list of rules that say we’re looking out for these abnormal activities. It doesn’t always say what constitutes abnormal, but it’s about norms and behavior, like having beards, wearing veils, being in contact with unauthorized religious teachers.

And then there’s rules about technology—using VPNs, having encrypted applications on your phone like WhatsApp or Twitter, apps that are not officially permitted. The state is always publishing guidelines, and then you kind of wait and see if they’re actually going to be enforced. But they were going back to people’s digital history before the guidelines were published. And so even if you had cleaned your phone, which is something that everyone was doing once people were being detained, it didn’t protect them because during the phone scans [officials would] look at your digital history from the years before and see if you had installed WhatsApp in the past.

It seems like in the past year or two there has been much more awareness, at least in the United States, about what’s going on with these camps. But at the same time, there hasn’t been widespread outrage over what’s taken place. Do you think it has to do in part with the fact that these tools that are being used in these acts of surveillance are the same things that we use in Western nations as tools of convenience? The face scanning on our phones, the Amazon Echos in our houses, these things become banal to us, and it’s hard to see the tools themselves as methods for nefarious surveillance.

That’s part of the story—the ubiquity of these tools that are everywhere in the world does in some way make us think that what the Chinese state is doing is not as serious as it is. Another major factor in the Western context is that it’s really far away. Also, it doesn’t feel as immediately important to the general public that lacks a connection to China or the Muslim world.

But it’s also difficult to really understand it if you haven’t lived in this context, to understand what it would mean to have an adversarial state that has access to all of our digital material. How that intimate knowledge could be used as a weapon against us and our lives. So unless you’ve experienced that or seen it up close, I think you really can’t understand how much our lives are mediated by these devices that we’ve all accepted as part of our existence. We don’t really want to think about that, the intimacy of the technologies that we all use.

You write about certain Uyghur-majority districts that have upwards of 70% of the children up to the age of five years old put in these kindness kindergartens, and they have parents who are either in confinement or in work camps. What is the future like for these children? Do they reunite with their parents, or are they put into the state foster system?

Because we’re talking about a large number of children, it’s hard to know for sure what always happens. But in many cases, particularly if both parents are sent to the camps, the children become wards of the state. In some cases we’ve heard reports, although it’s really difficult to verify, that some children have been adopted by Han parents.

The state has hired around 90,000 new teachers, mostly from other parts of China, who are teaching these children Mandarin, who are avowedly antireligious and are really raising the children to identify as Chinese rather than as Uyghur. To see Uyghurness and Islam as something that’s backward or that they shouldn’t associate with. In many contexts, residential schools for children produce forms of trauma. My sense is that trauma is quite widespread among the children that have been taken.

As you were collecting the stories from the detainees and camp workers—[Byler writes that detainees have been severely beaten, electrically shocked, and locked in so-called Tiger chairs and other restraining devices]—was there anything in particular that surprised you? Any moments that gave you pause, even in the context of what you’ve already learned?

Often as they’re describing things that happened to them in their cells, they’ll demonstrate it physically by standing up and showing me. That’s always emotional just because you can see that their bodies have been trained to do these motions through this experience in the cell. You can see that they’re sort of carrying the cell with them. This experience in the camp is now part of their bodily knowledge.

Almost everyone that I interviewed said they couldn’t sleep. When their family members come to visit them in the camp, guards would put a bag over their head and shackle them and lead them to the visitation area. Right before the guards took them inside, they would take that bag off of the person’s head, remove the shackles, and then the guard would go with them inside to the family meeting area. And they were supposed to tell the family members what they had been instructed to say, which was that everything is great here, I’m well fed, it’s a great school, and I’m grateful to be here. And their family members, who were also terrified to be there, would shake their heads and nod. And it’s this moment of pure terror for everyone, of saying the untruth.

For this one person I was speaking to, he said, “That was the moment where I really understood what it means to be powerless, and how difficult it is to be fully powerless.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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