Primo Levi, Camp Power, and Terror Capitalism: A Conversation with Darren BylerOctober 13, 2021
Many former detainees noted that being allowed to work inside the camp or being transferred to work in a factory from the camp was a great relief from the drudgery and violence of life in camp cells and classrooms. Simply having something to do and a bit more bodily autonomy felt humanising. Because the factories where former detainees are transferred (in distinction from factories where farmers are assigned) are managed with the support of camp personnel, many detainees still viewed them as a carceral space. In some cases, they were locked in cubicles as they worked, and they were not permitted to move beyond allotted boundaries without permission. The guards and managers viewed them as dangerous and often still treated them as criminals rather than as professionals or employees.
This means that work is primarily about extracting maximal profits from deeply controlled workers, which I refer to in Terror Capitalism as a permanent underclass. That is, at least in the near term, such workers are indefinitely excluded from the right to freely choose where they work and under what conditions. This is the case for both former detainees and Uyghur and Kazakh villagers who are simply deemed unproductive or ‘surplus labourers’ [剩余劳动力]. State documents show that individuals who fall into the categories of assigned work are graded based on their trustworthiness [Qapqal County Social Security Bureau 2018]. Those who are given a certificate validating their trustworthiness are typically those who are sent along with police officers and cadres who ensure their discipline to work in factories across the country. Those who fall into normal or untrustworthy categories are sent to work in locations in Xinjiang or into a range of different types of ‘training’. The camps—or ‘concentrated closed training and education centres’ [集中封闭培训教育中心]—are one track used in this training. In all cases, a securitised form of the ‘dormitory labour regime’ (Smith and Pun 2006) used in relation to migrant workers across the country is used by factory managers to manage coerced Muslim workers. For former detainees working in camp-associated factories, rather than Muslim surplus labourers working in eastern China, the security measures used in this ‘reeducation labour regime’ are greatly enhanced with forms of biometric tracking, checkpoints, and locked enclosures.