Published: March 3, 2021

Since early 2020 Darren Byler has analyzed a 52 gigabyte internal police dataset obtained by the news journal The Intercept as part of his work with CAS’s China Made project and his position as a China Fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Wilson International Center for Scholars. The dataset he examined contains tens of thousands of police files which describe in fine-grained detail the goals and capacities of a mass internment system which targets Uyghurs and other minorities in Northwest China. 

In his work Byler shows the way this system of policing fits into broader political and economic history. Over the past two decades Chinese Public Security Bureaus across China have increasingly begun to build and deploy interlinked systems of surveillance technology through private-public partnerships with technology companies. Since 2010, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has become a limit case for the development of such technologies. Xinjiang now has one of the highest densities of surveillance cameras, face-recognition checkpoints, and digital forensics infrastructures of any location in the world. From cellular towers, mobile devices, to smart ID systems, QR coded housing, neighborhood-level sub-monitoring stations, to centralized command centers, server rooms, and “smart” detention camps, a system of digital enclosure has enveloped the 24 million people who live in the vast Muslim-majority region. 

After appearing in The Intercept’s flagship podcast “Intercepted” and speaking at a Wilson Center conference, on February 4, 2021 Byler was invited to speak on the nation-wide news program Democracy Now!.  In the 20 minute segment he discussed the economic drivers and implications of the surveillance system along with a Uyghur poet and teacher, Abduweli Ayup, whose family members are featured in the police dataset.

Byler is also the author of two forthcoming books on this topic. The first, a short narrative-driven account of the Xinjiang internment and surveillance system titled In the Camps: China’s High Tech Penal Colony, will be published by Columbia Global Reports in October 2021. The second, an academic monograph titled Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, will be published by Duke University Press in November 2021. A research proposal that draws on his work with China Made and the Wilson Center has also been nominated for a 2021 Early Career Fellowship from the Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies.