How the War on Terror Enabled China’s Surveillance Dystopia
Twenty years after 9/11, the U.S. has failed to achieve its missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the War on Terror’s worst legacy lives on in nearby western China, where the Communist Party has erected a vast surveillance system.
Some 11 million people, mostly Muslim minorities from the Uyghur and Kazakh ethnic groups, live under a system of total control, their every move monitored by facial recognition cameras and artificial intelligence. About one-tenth of the population has been taken away to concentration camps for imaginary terrorist crimes, where they undergo indoctrination, brainwashing, and torture.
The U.S. has roundly condemned China’s persecution of the Uyghur people. But during the course of researching my book The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey Into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future, I learned how a political maneuver the U.S. made following 9/11 allowed a major escalation in China’s designation of the ethnic group as an enemy element in Chinese society.
The story of Uyghurs went back to 9/11. Through heavy-handed repression and paranoia, China inspired young men from persecuted minority groups to join the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIM), a small terrorist group, which sent fighters for weapons training in Afghanistan and later Syria. China helped bolster their ranks, legitimacy, and recruitment.
Among the accused men was a group of 22 Uyghurs who were captured in Afghanistan and flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Some of them had been members of a loose, ragtag coalition at camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they had received weapons training they could use in the future against China, if the opportunity arose.
Their detention was legitimized by an alleged political maneuver in 2002. At the United Nations, Chinese diplomats protested America’s proposed invasion of Iraq. Hoping China might drop its opposition, lawyers defending the Uyghur terrorist suspects believed that the George W. Bush administration designated the Uyghur independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist organization. China continued to oppose war in Iraq despite the alleged favor but didn’t vote to block the Iraq invasion at the UN Security Council.
All of the Uyghur detainees said they hadn’t heard about al Qaeda until after they were sent to Guantanamo Bay. But as far as the United States was concerned, they were not disgruntled dissidents fleeing persecution in China and passing through Afghanistan, as they claimed, but militant jihadists waging a war on liberal democracy itself. Even if the liberal democracy in question was Chinese.
“I’d never heard of the ETIM before,” Sean Roberts, an expert on the Uyghurs and professor of international relations at George Washington University, told me. “None of the experts had heard of it.”
Suddenly, with America’s blessing, China had what it needed: a terrorist bogeyman.
Chinese intelligence operatives were allowed to visit Guantanamo and interrogate the 22 captives, a red-carpet treatment. China was the only foreign country whose representatives were allowed to enter the camp and photograph the Uyghur suspects. But the Uyghurs refused to cooperate and answer the Chinese intelligence agents’ questions. They’d been tortured in China, after all, and their families back home were in danger.
After the Chinese agents interrogated each Uyghur suspect for up to eight hours, sometimes every day for three to four days, a team of Pentagon interrogators allowed the Chinese agents to take their photos. U.S. soldiers held at least one Uyghur in a chokehold as the Chinese visitors took their photos. The U.S. government then handed over the Uyghurs’ classified files to the Chinese agents, despite earlier promises to the Uyghur detainees that their files would remain secret, free from Chinese eyes.
“I was disappointed in my country,” their military translator, Rushan Abbas, told me. By October 2002, the Pentagon’s interrogators had begun to conclude that some of the Uyghur prisoners were not jihadi terrorists, but separatist fighters training for an independence movement against China.
“Many of them were wonderful, sweet people. They clearly weren’t terrorists who had some vendetta against the U.S.,” Abbas told me.
Another month passed, but still the Uyghurs were held in their cells. The U.S. government wasn’t sure what to do with them. Since they were held extra-judicially under the Defense Department’s improvised label of “enemy combatant,” their detention had no grounding in any American law or the Geneva Conventions. Consequently, no legal procedure existed to determine where and how to release them.
The legal limbo continued as, behind the scenes, American diplomats tried to arrange deals with other countries to grant the Uyghurs asylum as refugees. They weren’t welcome in America, where members of Congress didn’t want Guantanamo “terrorists” to be resettled in their districts.
In May 2006, after 5 of the 22 men had been imprisoned in Guantanamo for 3 years, those 5 were resettled in Albania, the only country that would take them in.
“The five people accepted by Albania are by no means refugees, but terrorist suspects of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” declared a Chinese government spokesman four days after the release. “It has a close relationship to al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
The Communist Party had a hot list of threats to China, on which were the “five poisons”: democracy agitators, Taiwan supporters, Tibetans, the Falun Gong spiritual group, and Muslim Uyghur terrorists.
Meanwhile, 17 Uyghurs languished in Guantanamo’s highest-security compound, Camp 6, nicknamed the “Tomb.” It was a place so dark and dank that its inmates clamored and applauded when the sun came over the prison’s single rooftop window.
Finally, in 2009, after seven years in American captivity, 6 of the 17 remaining Uyghurs were resettled in Palau, a tiny Pacific island, while the remaining captives were resettled in Slovakia, El Salvador, Bermuda, and elsewhere. These were the only places that would take them, but only after the United States promised to pay $93,333 per man, to help cover each Uyghur’s housing and living expenses. Feeling unwelcome and not at all at home, most of them gave up their newly appointed abodes and later moved to Turkey.
But China had what it needed. The decision to lock up the Uyghurs at Guantanamo Bay, with no evidence of a terrorist plot, helped China justify its treatment of the Uyghurs. It painted them as a terrorist time bomb that needed to be defused through heavy-handed measures.
And now, China justifies the surveillance of the Uyghurs by citing the terrorist threat. China sees enemies everywhere and treats them accordingly. Using artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, and old-school policing tactics, it’s erected the most invasive surveillance dystopia ever seen in the western region of Xinjiang. “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops one by one,” a party official said, explaining the dragnet strategy. “You need to spray chemicals to kill them all.”
Adapted from The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey Into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future by Geoffrey Cain. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.