The covid tech that is intimately tied to China’s surveillance state

In mid-2019, a Kuitun police officer tapped Vera Zhou, a young student at the University of Washington, on the shoulder while she was walking through a busy market intersection. Vera Zhou, a student from the University of Washington, didn't notice the tap at first as she was listening to music with her headphones as she weaved through crowds. The blood from her face drained when she looked at the black uniform. The officer spoke in Chinese, Veras mother tongue, and directed her to a Peoples Convenience Police Station, one of the more than 7,700 surveillance hubs located throughout the region.
She saw her face enclosed by a yellow square on a monitor inside the gray boxy building. She also saw pedestrians moving through the market with their faces enclosed by green squares. A black text box contained her personal data and a high-definition video of her face. She was Hui, who is a member of a Chinese Muslim community that accounts for around 1 million of the 15 million Muslims living in Northwest China. She had crossed the boundaries of her neighborhood confinement's policing grid and the alarm went off. She was a former detainee in an re-education camp and she was not allowed to travel outside her area without permission from the Public Security Bureau and her neighborhood watch unit. The yellow circle around her face indicated that she was once more pre-criminalized by the digital enclosure system, which held Muslims in place. Vera stated that she felt like she couldn't breathe at the moment.

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

Kuitun, a small town of approximately 285,000 people in Xinjiangs Tacheng Prefecture is located along the Chinese border to Kazakhstan. Vera was trapped there since 2017, when she, a junior geography student at University of Washington, had made a spur of the moment trip home to visit her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was invited to a local station by police after he had spent the night in a cinema in the region capital rmchi. Officers told him to go to the police station and question his girlfriend. They had found suspicious activity in Vera's internet use, they stated. To access illegal websites such as her university Gmail, she had used a virtual personal network (or VPN). They later explained to her that this was an indication of religious extremism.

Vera was not able to see the truth for a while. The police initially seemed to be very indirect because her boyfriend was not a Muslim from the majority Han group. They didn't want him making a scene. They told her to wait at the station.

They refused to answer her question about whether she was under arrest.

They told her to just have a place. She was now quite scared and called her father in her hometown to tell him about the situation. Finally, a police van arrived at the station. She was put in the back. Once her boyfriend was gone, the police tied her hands behind her back and shoved her into the back seat.


Vera Zhou did not believe that the war on terror was related to her. Vera Zhou considered herself to be a non-religious fashionista, who loved wearing black and chunky earrings. She was a high school graduate from Portland, Oregon. Now she wanted to be an urban planner at a top-ranked American college. After graduation, she had planned to reunite her boyfriend and pursue a career as an urban planner in China. She saw the Chinese economy as being booming. She didn't know that a new law was being implemented to protect the internet in her home and across Xinjiang starting in 2017. This was also how extremist pre-criminals were being detained by state authorities. She didn't know that the newly appointed party secretary for the region had given the command to gather all those who were eligible as part of Peoples War.

She felt her control slip in the back of her van and was overcome with fear. She cried, her eyes welling up with tears. Isn't it our duty to protect the innocent? She cried, her eyes welling up with tears.