China has arguably come to be a state Panopticon of control, facilitating the horrific persecution and isolation of the Uyghur community.
The panopticon, designed by Jeremy Bentham, is a prison built with a watchtower at the centre. It oversees prison inmates, whilst the inhabitants of the watchtower are not visible to those being watched. It is a physical manifestation of enforced conformity, creating and training a homogenous population.
The modern nation state has arguably replaced and adapted the mindset and methodologies of the colonial structure by using information gathering such as census and statistics to understand the native in order to control and subjugate.
By analyzing the population, learning their behavior, collecting detailed information, the state becomes equipped with specific data. This knowledge becomes authoritative, and therefore a tool at the disposal of the state structure.
Recent decades has seen the increase in suppression of the Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese state. It is now regarded as “one of the most heavily policed areas in the world”¹.
The resource rich area of Xinxiang is integral for China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, an initiative that will significantly strengthen the country’s economic standing². This provides explanation as to the usage of the Global War On Terror (GWOT) narrative as a means to gain control of the territory. It is a narrative effectively immune to any accountability.
Through its “Strike Hard Against Violent Extremism Campaign”, China has criminalized various forms of religious expression. This ranges from growing beards, daily prayers, halal eating practices, and Islamic names for children.
China has employed a robust system of surveillance in order to police any such religious activity, turning the region into a “surveillance state”³. It has successfully manufactured an atmosphere mirroring that of the panopticon gaze. Over 1 million Uyghur’s have been placed into re-education facilities⁴. The detainees have no rights, are unable to leave, and are indoctrinated, “cured” and stripped of their Uyghur cultural heritage.
Bringing the Panopticon Down to Eye Level
A key element of monitoring and managing the population is through stabilizing populations on the outskirts in order for them to be of benefit to the state. One way of achieving this is by standardizing the spaces that these populations live in. For example, architecture is used to bring the guard of the panopticon watchtower down to the inmate.
China has attempted this, for example, by introducing “grid-style social management”. Here, a “local government divides the territory under its jurisdiction into segments with each segment being monitored by a designated person”⁵.
Information such as “population size in the area, housing facilities, and social organizations”⁶ are collected. Local information is then fed to district centers. Whilst this information allows the government to collect information to manage the social welfare of the people, it also acts as an Orwellian gaze on the people.
A further example of architectural changes for the facilitation of more stringent Uyghur monitoring is the alterations made to the Xinxiang city of Kashghar. “The old city, previously a maze-like area of mudbrick homes, has been mostly demolished”⁷under the guise of “safety and sanitation”. The rebuilding has included wider streets that are easier to police, facilitating further surveillance.
There are also various checkpoints throughout the towns and cities in Xinxiang, where metal detectors and facial recognition or iris scan machines are used, exclusive to Uyghurs, as Han citizens use separate gates⁸. Such physical and visual “othering” of the Uyghur population allows for their exclusionary classification.
Biological Surveillance and Othering:
Chinese Authorities in Xinjiang were collecting “DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65”⁹. This collection of biodata completely takes away any agency that the individual has over his body, making his very being a commodity of the state.
Surveillance of such magnitude is not only related to the power to produce loyal subjects, but the power to know people’s thoughts and minds. By knowing these, they can be manipulated.
This isolation of the Uyghur has become normalized due to their biological “othering”, equating them to a biological threat to society. The rhetoric of the authorities surrounding the Uyghur community has been one of a disease or illness, where they need to be “healed”.
This narrative, evoking fear amongst the general population of a non-discriminatory “objective enemy”, legitimizes the surveillance and curtailment of their basic human rights. The semantics of “cures” and “healing” therefore creates a justification for the use of “re-education camps” as a means of quarantining them from the rest of the population and “normalizing” them.
Such rhetoric of prevention, as stated by China’s foreign minister¹⁰ thus pre-emptively criminalizes the entire community, where whether or not an actual offense has been committed becomes redundant. The danger is therefore impliedly inherent to that community or representative of an inherent nature.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted, surveillance, quarantining, and curtailing freedoms in light of a biological threat can not only be accepted but welcomed by the majority of the circumstances are correct, i.e. if the majority feel that they are unsafe.
Arguably, in the pursuit of ethnic and cultural homogeneity, the Uyghur are experiencing a cultural genocide. The invoking of the “extremist” narrative, which operates amidst a wider grand narrative of global Islamophobia, has allowed the state to exercise otherwise inconceivable forms of surveillance and violence against the Uyghur community.
Written By Fatimah Az-Zahra