Database Entry: Primo Levi, Camp Power, and Terror Capitalism: A Conversation with Darren Byler
Internment Surveillance Internment conditions Civilian Informants

Primo Levi, Camp Power, and Terror Capitalism: A Conversation with Darren Byler

October 13, 2021
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Much of the discipline in the camp spaces came from other detainees within the cells, Uyghur and Kazakh guards, Muslim and Han camp instructors and ‘life teachers’ [生活老师], Han and Uyghur Civil Affairs Ministry bureaucrats who monitored detainee progress, judges, and prosecutors from all ethnicities. … Because they are operating in or around the extralegal space of the camp, they have extraordinary power over the detainees under their charge, but they are not the architects of the system—the camp commanders, the system designers, the party secretaries who set the quotas, and so on. The Muslims involved in the system face maximal coercion—as a constant rhetoric of rooting out and destroying ‘two-faced’ people is held over them at all times.

Inside the camps, people do compare notes at least initially as they try to make sense of what just happened and what will come next. So, at first, there is a lot of whispered discussion regarding why people had been detained. But in interrogation and over time inside the cell, it appears as though guards and interrogators often turn detainees against each other. During interrogations, detainees are pushed to confess a kind of ‘middle guilt’—not too guilty that they could be sent to prison but also not too innocent that they did not deserve to be in the camp (professing one’s innocence is construed as being resistant or having a ‘bad attitude’). Declaring this guilt often requires that they name others who are more guilty than them: the ones who first invited them to a Quran study group on WeChat or showed them how to use a VPN [virtual private network], and so on. The privileged position of ‘class monitor’ carries with it the responsibility of informing on resistant or failing detainees in the cell and doling out punishment for lack of discipline. Over time, as detainees become more desperate, they often become more suspicious of each other, so some of the initial solidarity begins to dissipate and people are often simply silent.