Fellows in Focus: Luce/ACLS Fellow Darren Byler Investigates Uyghur Dispossession, Culture, and Terror Capitalism
Published: February 5, 2024
Darren Byler F’21, G’14, Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, recalls his first visit to China during his undergraduate studies as an experience that opened his eyes to the size, complexity, and challenges of the world, but also to the resilience of the people living in it.
“That experience is what prompted me to study Chinese language and later Uyghur language, not so that I could call myself a China expert, but really so I could understand how people made sense of the worlds they were in,” he said. “I was also interested in decolonial, anti-racist politics and ethical practice, so those commitments pushed me to find a particular location within China studies where I could observe that type of struggle at the ground level.”
Today, with funding from the Luce/ACLS Program in China Studies, generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Byler has been able to analyze the culture, urbanization, internment, violence, and surveillance of Uyghurs and other minoritized groups in Northwest China.
As Byler ideated his dissertation, the work of his mentors at the University of Washington inspired him to consider how the state violence that Uyghurs are subject to in Northwest China is related to similar global issues, including capitalist resource extraction, contemporary colonialism, and technological change.
“A lot of my thinking over the decade of these projects has been shaped by changing dynamics in the world economy and global political systems,” Byler said.
That experience is what prompted me to study Chinese language and later Uyghur language, not so that I could call myself a China expert, but really so I could understand how people made sense of the worlds they were in.
Darren Byler F’21, G’14
Photo: Darren Byler conducts ethnographic fieldwork with a former detainee in Kazakhstan in January 2020. Image credit: Jack Wolf.
Byler received a Luce/ACLS Predissertation-Summer Travel Grant in China Studies in 2014 to begin the ethnographic work on his project, “The Art Life of Ürümchi: Aesthetics, Minoritarian Politics, and the City in Chinese Central Asia.”The project analyzes Uyghur and Han art created as a component of the urban renewal process and describes how the artists established interethnic solidarity by claiming space in Ürümchi and using new technologies.
From 2014 to 2018, Byler explored the spaces of creative expression in Ürümchi and discovered Uyghurs were being exposed to complex systems of predictive policing and data surveillance. Eventually, the artists and writers he’d connected with were silenced and detained in camps, which prompted him to work on his second academic book project, “Thinking with Violence: Narratives of Reeducation Camps and Infrastructural State Power in Northwest China.”
In 2021, Byler was awarded a Luce/ACLS Early Career Fellowship in China Studies, which he has used to research this current book project on the internment, surveillance, and forced indoctrination of Muslims in China through interviews with former detainees, police officers, teachers, and others impacted by the situation in Xinjiang, and the assessment of internal government documents. The project also works to uncover the bureaucratic power and technical developments that allow Chinese state leaders to oppress minoritized groups and garner state power.
ACLS gave me a way into the world of academic research. It also exposed me to some great mentors who pushed me in my work, making it sharper.
Darren Byler F’21, G’14
“ACLS gave me a way into the world of academic research. It also exposed me to some great mentors who pushed me in my work, making it sharper,” Byler said. “Because the fellowship program has a built-in mentoring component, it gave me a space to experiment with my thinking, testing some new ideas. The space of supportive experimentation and critical feedback has been really helpful in building out the shape of my current project.”
As one of the last ethnographic researchers residing in Xinjiang before the mass internment campaign, Byler has worked with numerous journalists to uncover history and to access primary source material for his current project. He has also spoken as an expert witness before government bodies like the Canadian Parliament and technology companies like Google to spread awareness of his work. Chinese immigrant populations and public audiences around the world have also engaged with Byler’s work, which he sees as a step toward reducing mass surveillance and anti-Muslim racism.
Byler is now working collaboratively with colleagues, including Luce/ACLS Early Career Fellow in China Studies Guldana Salimjan F’22, on the Xinjiang Documentation Project, a digital archive of leaked state documents and primary source materials that aims to preserve a historical record of Uyghur mass detention.
Byler’s ethnographic field work from 2014-2018 inspired his first book Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City, which was recently awarded the 2023 Gregory Bateson Award from the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the 2023 Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology and the American Anthropology Association. The book analyzes how Uyghurs have resisted state attempts to strip away their way of life, the unexpected ways Uyghurs and Han people form bonds of solidarity and protect one another, the emergence of the security industry in the global economy, and various other topics related to Uyghur detainment, colonization, and what he refers to as “terror capitalism.”
“For my peers to recognize this work, which represents so much of what I see as important in my life, as worthy of leading awards in the discipline of socio-cultural anthropology is really sort of astounding,” Byler said. “Of course, it also speaks to the lives of the Uyghur and Han men who shared their knowledge and experience with me. They taught me what it is to be human. Ultimately, these awards are for them. I hope someday we will be able to celebrate them together.”
With program grants totaling $957,000, ACLS will continue to support scholars and broaden the circulation of knowledge about China with fellowships and grants for research, travel, and innovative collaboration.