Sometime in mid-2019, a police contractor in the Chinese city of Kuitun tapped a young college student from the University of Washington on the shoulder as she walked through a crowded market intersection. The student, Vera Zhou, didn’t notice the tapping at first because she was listening to music through her earbuds as she weaved through the crowd. When she turned around and saw the black uniform, the blood drained from her face. Speaking in Chinese, Vera’s native language, the police officer motioned her into a nearby People’s Convenience Police Station—one of more than 7,700 such surveillance hubs that now dot the region.       

On a monitor in the boxy gray building, she saw her face surrounded by a yellow square. On other screens she saw pedestrians walking through the market, their faces surrounded by green squares. Beside the high-definition video still of her face, her personal data appeared in a black text box. It said that she was Hui, a member of a Chinese Muslim group that makes up around 1 million of the population of 15 million Muslims in Northwest China. The alarm had gone off because she had walked beyond the parameters of the policing grid of her neighborhood confinement. As a former detainee in a re-education camp, she was not officially permitted to travel to other areas of town without explicit permission from both her neighborhood watch unit and the Public Security Bureau. The yellow square around her face on the screen indicated that she had once again been deemed a “pre-criminal” by the digital enclosure system that held Muslims in place. Vera said at that moment she felt as though she could hardly breathe.                    

This story is an edited excerpt from In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony by Darren Byler (Columbia Global Reports, 2021.)

Kuitun is a small city of around 285,000 in Xinjiang’s Tacheng Prefecture, along the Chinese border with Kazakhstan. Vera had been trapped there since 2017 when, in the middle of her junior year as a geography student at the University of Washington (where I was an instructor), she had taken a spur-of-the-moment trip back home to see her boyfriend. After a night at a movie theater in the regional capital Ürümchi, her boyfriend received a call asking him to come to a local police station. There, officers told him they needed to question his girlfriend: they had discovered some suspicious activity in Vera’s internet usage, they said. She had used a virtual private network, or VPN, in order to access “illegal websites,” such as her university Gmail account. This, they told her later, was a “sign of religious extremism.”   

It took some time for what was happening to dawn on Vera. Perhaps since her boyfriend was a non-Muslim from the majority Han group and they did not want him to make a scene, at first the police were quite indirect about what would happen next. They just told her she had to wait in the station. 

When she asked if she was under arrest, they refused to respond. 

“Just have a seat,” they told her. By this time she was quite frightened, so she called her father back in her hometown and told him what was happening. Eventually, a police van pulled up to the station: She was placed in the back, and once her boyfriend was out of sight, the police shackled her hands behind her back tightly and shoved her roughly into the back seat.     


Vera Zhou didn’t think the war on terror had anything to do with her. She considered herself a non-religious fashionista who favored chunky earrings and dressing in black. She had gone to high school near Portland, Oregon, and was on her way to becoming an urban planner at a top-ranked American university. She had planned to reunite with her boyfriend after graduation and have a career in China, where she thought of the economy as booming. She had no idea that a new internet security law had been implemented in her hometown and across Xinjiang at the beginning of 2017, and that this was how extremist “pre-criminals,” as state authorities referred to them, were being identified for detention. She did not know

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By: Darren Byler
Title: The covid tech that is intimately tied to China’s surveillance state
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Published Date: Mon, 11 Oct 2021 11:00:00 +0000