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‘Surveillance’ doesn’t begin to describe what Beijing is doing to Uyghurs

Researcher and writer Vicky Xiuzhong Xu talks about the way the Chinese state has penetrated every aspect of life in Xinjiang — and targeted her, thousands of miles away, in Australia

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, 27, is a writer, researcher and stand-up comedian living in Australia. Her work has been instrumental in exposing the scale of China’s forced labor program in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs are corralled into heavily guarded compounds to work in factories under prison-like conditions. She became a key propaganda target for Chinese authorities, who have denounced her as a national traitor, after her research on human rights abuses was published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

She is now writing a memoir about her experiences, titled “You’re So Brave.” In October, she and her colleagues at ASPI published a new report detailing the complex network of repression in Xinjiang. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been researching surveillance in Xinjiang for years. Was there anything that shocked you while you were working on this project?

I think what’s really striking to me is the extent of the Communist Party of China’s penetration into people’s daily lives. We did a case study on one family, and their son was 19 when he was caught using a file-sharing app called Zapya, which people just use to share music. For this, he was sentenced to three years in prison — and not even by a real court. Somebody in the neighborhood committee informed him about his sentence, outside of legal procedures. Then this neighborhood committee would visit the family six times in a single week, supposedly to “calm their thoughts”  after the verdict. This is a very personalized system. 

You quoted the Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil in the report. I thought his insight was so striking. He said, “People eventually felt as though they were part of the police, with a taste for watching and reporting on one another. They remained constantly ready to confront enemies and, at the same time, often felt that they themselves were the enemy.”

In a normal society, the police are the police and the people are the people. The uniform separates them. But, in this situation, the whole dynamic is different at a local level. In the same community, some civilians have policing and spying powers, and some civilians are just subject to all this unlawful treatment. They do not have any legal resources to just say no. All they can do is put their hands up and go to flag-raising ceremonies and show their allegiance to the party. I think it’s a lot more than the word “surveillance” can describe. 

What word do you think should be used instead?

I think some people call it “tech authoritarianism.” That works. You know, we hear about surveillance in Xinjiang day in, day out. And I don’t feel anything when I hear that word now. Working on the ASPI report, we got access to thousands of pages of police records that no one had closely studied before. When we put those together, we realized we had the vantage point of Xinjiang police officers, which is something most researchers can only dream of. When we looked at communities and neighborhoods from this point of view, it was shocking.

How do you stop yourself becoming numb to all of this stuff?

I very much turn off the emotional side of my brain when I work on these things, because if you keep getting emotional over statistics and case studies, it stops you from actually working objectively. But, sometimes, a year later or something, I often read back, put myself in the reader’s shoes, with my whole range of emotions, and think, “This is outrageous.” 

Vicky Xiuzhong Xu has been targeted by the Chinese government for her research into human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Photo courtesy Vicky Xiuzhong Xu

What do the people around you think of the work you do?

Everyone who has a vague idea of what I do is afraid for me. Before I published this report, a lot of my friends were trying to persuade me not to use my real name. I decided I just couldn’t do that. It’s not a normal thing for a journalist or researcher to pour your life into a project for six months, a year, and then pretend you have nothing to do with it. Professionally, that’s extremely painful and, morally, it’s the wrong thing to do, because you’re giving in to whoever is trying to silence you. I can’t let that happen, so I just published this report under my own name and I didn’t give in to fear. As for what’s going to happen now, we’ll see. 

Can you tell us a bit more about why your friends are afraid for you?

Last year, I was the lead author of the report Uyghurs for Sale which dealt with the issue of Uyghur forced labor. The report named dozens of companies that were directly or indirectly connected to Uyghur forced labor, including Nike and Apple. It had a lot of reach and impact and was even featured on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” According to Chinese media, tens of billions of dollars evaporated from China’s textile industry as a result. In April 2021, the Chinese media referred to me as a traitor and “demon,” a drug addict and a sexual pervert, as well as an ungrateful daughter, who had also fabricated the issue of forced labor and caused Uyghur workers to lose their jobs. A lot was published about me, all of it extremely negative. There was also fake porn of me circulating. That national fame — or, rather, notoriety — in China was absolutely horrifying.

 What’s your relationship with social media like now? 

Twitter is my preferred social media platform, but my relationship with it is kind of traumatizing. For a few months this year, when I was tweeting out my ideas and trying to engage with my followers, I frequently came across screenshots of a particular porn clip in my comments. It was supposed to be of me, but it’s not. After months of exposure, I became extremely familiar with the clip. It was engraved on my mind, against my will. On Twitter, I’ve also had Chinese diplomats posting articles about me that call me “bewitched.” 

Do you feel safe in Australia? 

You know, the thing is that I do not feel very safe right now. The first time I went to an Australian police station, I was told that someone threatening to rape me online was not the same as receiving such a threat in real life. That advice was maybe given in good faith back then, because it was more than two years ago, and I think our public institutions didn’t have enough understanding about Chinese clandestine operations.

Now, I receive some support from the Australian authorities, though not enough to make me feel fully protected. Strange things, including hacking attempts, happen frequently, but I try not to be paranoid. I’m wary of these investigations taking up too much of my time that can be used towards research or writing. It’s the same for many Xinjiang researchers. It’s pretty tough to work in such a high-risk environment with minimal security, training or resources.  

You talk in the report about how you were competing against the Chinese authorities’ efforts to scrub evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang from the internet. Did it feel like a race against time?

Yeah, absolutely. At the beginning of our work, when we were probably three months in, we read this article in The Washington Post, which said that there were systematic efforts by the Chinese government to delete records of the Xinjiang clampdown. And, then, we started to notice it ourselves. It was not just news articles or government notices that got deleted, but also things like web pages that researchers, including ourselves, had saved in archives like the Wayback Machine, but even some of those caches had gone. This meant that sources we were citing suddenly disappeared when we were mid-project. 

What was it like to discover that pieces of evidence you thought you’d saved had disappeared? 

Well, I mostly blamed myself and I’ll never make the same mistake again. But, sometimes, we forget that, for atrocities on the scale of what’s happening in Xinjiang, it’s impossible for everything to be carried out entirely in secrecy. It is impossible to lock up a million people and place tens of thousands or more in forced labor assignments without some kind of record of it. You need a lot of bureaucratic machinery to achieve the results that they have. It’s impossible to completely hide that. And the good news is that they cannot censor something that hasn’t been reported. The censors are always stuck behind you. You have to write about something for the authorities to take note of it. If your research is new, you’re always one step ahead. 

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