THE PERFECT POLICE STATE – AN UNDERCOVER ODYSSEY INTO CHINA’S TERRIFYING SURVEILLANCE DYSTOPIA OF THE FUTURE by Geoffrey Cain

PublicAffairs/Hachette Australia 2021; ISBN: 9781541757035; RRP: $49.99 (hb)

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NO ESCAPE – THE TRUE STORY OF CHINA’S GENOCIDE OF THE UYGHURS by Nury Turkel

HarperCollins 2022; ISBN: 9781335469564; RRP: $USD 28.99 or $51.25 via an Australian online retailer (hb)

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THE CHIEF WITNESS – ESCAPE FROM CHINA’S MODERN-DAY CONCENTRATION CAMPS by Sayragul Sauytebay & Alexandra Cavelius

Scribe Publications 2021; ISBN: 9781922310538; RRP: $35 (pb)

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A STONE IS MOST PRECIOUS WHERE IT BELONGS – A MEMOIR OF UYGHUR LOSS, EXILE AND HOPE by Culchehra Hoja

Little Brown 2023; ISBN: 9780349015965; RRP: $34.99 (pb)

The most shocking – and enduring – characteristics of totalitarian Communism are its total disrespect for basic human rights coupled with the brutality by which it imposes dictatorship on its unfortunate citizens. This was true of Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism and the murderous regimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Kim Jong-un in North Korea – and all other Communist regimes.

A secondary characteristic is Communism’s demand that all its citizens must “love the Communist Party” which oppresses them and which demands that people proclaim as truths sentiments that they know to be lies about their lives and the society in which they live. This was foretold by Orwell’s novel, 1984. You must love Big Brother

This is not a matter of academic historical interest. It is the current lived experience of the people of mainland China and, in particular, for its Muslim Turkic minorities who are the Uyghur, Kazakh and Tajik peoples of Xinjiang province. They live, in the words of the titles of two of the books being reviewed here in, The Perfect Police State with No Escape. These ethnic groups are suffering cultural and physical genocide.

It took many in the West a lot of years to accept the truth about the brutal Soviet regime, notwithstanding the evidence being apparent to those who wanted to see it from the 1930s or even earlier. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to hide the truth of its crimes in Xinjiang, the truth is out there already.

The four books covered by this review all tell essentially the same story in different ways and reveal the truth about the genocide being waged against the Muslim population of the province I now prefer to call East Turkestan having read these books. Xinjiang means “new province/territory” in Chinese, which gives away the fact that, despite what the Communist Party says, China’s control of this region has been relatively recent.

The Chief Witness – escape from China’s modern-day concentration camps tells the story of Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh woman who personally experienced the conditions in one of the detention centres/concentration camps in East Turkestan. Sauytbay was not detained as a prisoner but forced to work there as a teacher (since she was fluent in Chinese as well as her native tongue). She was forced to participate in the crude attempts to “re-educate” Kazakhs and Uyghurs and was aware of the viscous treatment of the detainees. This book tells both her life story and that of the Kazakh people and by extension that of the Uyghur peoples, who make up the majority of the ethnic Muslim population of East Turkestan.

Sauytbay’s husband and children were able to flee to neighbouring Kazakstan – where many Kazakhs have relatives. Sauytbay’s passport having been seized, she later illegally crossed the border, was detained by the Kazakh government, tried (under pressure from China) but was eventually allowed to seek asylum in Sweden. While this meant freedom for her family, it was a long way from her homeland, her people and her culture. It is exile, a form of ongoing repression.

A Stone is most precious where it belongs – A memoir of Uyghur Loss, Exile and Hope also tells one woman’s story, that of Gulchehra Hoja, a Uyghur who became a children’s TV presenter in East Turkestan until the pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to simply tell lies to children became too much. Using her status as a TV personality she was allowed to travel abroad – and did not return. At the time of writing the book, she was a journalist with radio Free Asia, based in Washington, D.C. broadcasting Uyghur language programs back into China. For this defiance of the Communist Party, 24 members of her immediate and extended family, including her elderly mother and father were arrested. Her younger brother was not included in this mass arrest, but only because he had already been “disappeared” into the Chinese gulag the previous year. And the most shocking thing about this is that it is – by far – not the most shocking story that emerges from these accounts of repression in East Turkestan.

At the time of the book’s publication this year, Hoja believed that her parents and brother had been released from jail, although she could not be certain since it was too dangerous for them for her to phone them. Every aspect of their lives is controlled by the Communist authorities as these books reveal. The Communist Party seeks to use relatives still in China to pressure exiles to return or to be silent.

Both these books are a combination of personal memoir and of traditional Uyghur and Kazakh life as it was. In recent years, traditional lifestyles and culture – including the Islamic religion – have been systematically destroyed by the imposition of the most extraordinary control measures ever imposed on a subject people. The means of doing so use both traditional communist brutality and high-tech surveillance as imagined by Orwell but implemented in practice by the CCP, often using Western technology.

These methods are best summarised in The Perfect Police State – An undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future, by Geoffrey Cain, an investigative journalist and technology writer. This book begins with a Prologue which summarises “The Situation” – the dystopian existence which minority peoples in East Turkestan must endure on a daily basis.

As many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks and other minority peoples have been detained in re-education/concentration camps since 2017. Their treatment there has been arbitrary, brutal and relentless. But life outside is hardly less hellish, accompanied by the ever-present threat of being sent to or returned to the camps.

The reach of the CCP extends into the homes of ordinary citizens, forced to accommodate a Han Chinese minder for extended periods who will report on what goes on inside the house, watching for “unsocial” behaviour, for example the existence of religious texts or other Islamic practices.

Even without a government spy in the house, people are subject to close monitoring by a local neighbourhood watch official. At every point during their daily routine, ID cards are scanned to check that the person is “trustworthy”. Citizens must carry smartphones with them everywhere on which apps have been placed tracking movements, phone calls, messaging and other activities. A smart phone is not a status symbol here, it is a device which ensures constant monitoring of a population on a mass scale.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere, using facial recognition technology and linked to AI driven data bases operating with access to personal data, photos, eye prints and even DNA taken in compulsory swabs. Police stations are everywhere and stops at checkpoints are frequent.

At noon each day, according to Cain, if you are female you may be required to take a government mandated birth control pill. Some consider them to be the lucky ones; other women have been forced to undergo compulsory sterilisation. The Chinese Communist Party is seeking to drive down the birth rate of the minority peoples in the region.

Returning home, locals need to scan their ID card or QR code simply to enter their own house. A government TV camera may be in your living room, as is your CCP-appointed “minder”. If he is male and you are female you may be subject to his sexual advances. Resisting them is risky since it may lead to him reporting you for an invented allegation and you may be sent to the concentration camps.

“This is a day in the life of a Uyghur, Kazakh, or other ethnic minority in (East Turkestan),” Cain says and spends the rest of his detailed book demonstrating that this is, indeed, the awful truth. It is hard to imagine how life could be worse. It is hard to imagine how anyone could feel comfortable dealing with a regime that has imposed such an horrific life upon millions of its citizens.

On his last day as US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo officially declared that the policies the Chinese Government was pursuing in East Turkestan constituted both genocide and crimes against humanity. This development is recorded in the penultimate chapter of Nury Turkel’s No Escape – The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs. Pompeo’s decision – which Turkel played a role in bringing about – was subsequently endorsed by and remains US policy under the Biden Administration.

Turkel is a Uyghur, born in 1970 in a Chinese prison during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” – his mother had been imprisoned at the age of 19 when she was five months pregnant. Her father had been an official of the Second East Turkestan Republic, a short-lived independent country that survived with Soviet backing in the 1940s but was incorporated into China with Stalin’s blessing after 1949. From these inauspicious beginnings, Turkel managed to leave China before the full force of repression began, became an American citizen, a lawyer and a leading campaigner for the rights of the Turkic minorities in East Turkestan.

Turkel describes the tactics employed against the Muslim people of East Turkestan as “reminiscent of Chair Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but on digital steroids. Since Mao’s day, Beijing has updated its technique with an arsenal of the latest technology, much of it stolen from Silicon Valley and adapted for its own malignant purposes.” He could have added that much of it was sold to China by Western IT companies.

The Chinese Communist Party is doing this he says, “not just to brush aside the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, but to perfect the art of digital dictatorship, a new kind of AI totalitarian state” and to extend this level of surveillance to all China. He and other authors date the intensification of the campaign against the Muslim peoples to 2016-17, after the arrival in the province of Chen Quanguo as Communist Party Secretary. He had previously served the Chinese regime in repressing the Tibetan people.

Turkel details the impact of China’s genocidal policies on women in the province as well as the attempts by Beijing to destroy the religious and social culture of the Turkic peoples, including the destruction of mosques and the prevention of the practice of religion. Ironically, the Muslim minorities practised moderate and largely cultural forms of Islam and the actions of the Communist Party may be to encourage religious faith, although its outward expression is largely impossible.

What is almost equally reprehensible is the silence of many Muslim majority nations in the face of a full-blown Chinese effort to dismantle the practice of Islam in East Turkestan. A cartoon of the Prophet published in a Western country or rumours of an alleged defilement of the Koran may lead to riots or terror attacks in Western cities (Charlie Hebdo, for example), but the systematic attempt to eliminate the practice of Islam in China goes unremarked.

In October 2022, the UN Human Rights Council voted against holding a debate about the violation of human rights in Xinjiang/East Turkestan. Among the 19-17 votes against the motion sponsored by Western countries were several Muslim majority countries including Indonesia, Somalia, Pakistan, UAE and Qatar. Malaysia abstained. Other Muslim majority countries, including Egypt, have cooperated with China in returning Muslim citizens who have sought asylum.

The repression in East Turkestan is continuing since the publication of these books. On a trip to the region in August 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on local officials “to further encourage assimilation of Muslims and curtail illegal religious activities” in what is supposed to be an “autonomous region” of China. Freedom of religion is “guaranteed” by article 36 of the Chinese Constitution and Islam is one of five recognised religions.

The “assimilation” of Muslims means making them more like the majority Han Chinese who are being encouraged to settle in Xinjiang. All key posts are controlled by Han Chinese CCP members or supporters. Mosques and Muslim cemeteries are being bulldozed.

Forced labour is also an issue of concern and is frequently referenced in these accounts. Uyghurs and others in the “re-education” camps are increasingly being used as forced labour in the cotton-growing industry (modern slavery) and foreign enterprises are establishing themselves in the province. But a Uyghur forced labour workforce is also being exported to other parts of China to work in factories and other enterprises in areas where labour is scarce. All companies doing business in China risk finding forced labour in their supply chains.

China is using its diplomatic and financial muscle in the UN and other world forums to not only prevent criticism of its repressive policies but also to seek to re-write the history of the region to promote the view that the “new province” of Xinjiang has “always” been part of China. More recently it has even begun to crackdown on the expression of Mongolian culture.

Turkel notes the work of many people and institutions around the world active in publicising the fate of the peoples of East Turkestan. Among the parliamentarians he thanks is Australia’s Michael Danby, former ALP MHR, a staunch supporter of freedom and democracy everywhere in the world regardless of nationality or religion. Also mentioned is the work of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank dedicated to strategic and defence issues which has done world-recognised work on the situation in East Turkestan.

Taken together, or individually, these books are depressing to read. There are stories of individuals who have made their way out of China to the West. We know their names. But there are millions more both in the camps and under close surveillance at home and at work whose names and stories we do not know. China has used technology to clamp down on contact between the region and the outside world.

But it is important that these stories are told and become well known. Pleasingly, I found all these books in my local library. There is no excuse for us in the Western world – as individuals or governments. There are now well documented, internationally reputably reports on “The Situation” in East Turkestan. We know the truth behind the CCP’s propaganda from these eyewitness accounts. The question is: what can – and will – we do about it?

Keith Harvey is a former union organiser within the Victorian Laboe Party. He is the author of Memoirs of A Cold War Warrior and Brian Harradine in the Australian Biographical Monograph series