Spirit Breaking: Uyghur Dispossession, Culture Work and Terror Capitalism in a Chinese Global City


Darren Byler

PhD defended at: 

University of Washington


This dissertation, "Spirit Breaking: Uyghur Dispossession, Culture Work and Terror Capitalism in a Chinese Global City," is centered on the effects of rapid capitalist development and a “People’s War on Terror” among the Han and Uyghur migrant populations of Ürümchi – an emerging global city of approximately three million in China’s Central Asian border region. Drawing on 24 months of ethnographic study, funded by the ACLS and SSRC, I analyze the way Turkic Muslim Uyghur migrants and non-Muslim Han migrants in China’s mass rural-urban migration use expressive culture repertoires as a means of staying politically and ethically engaged while living under conditions of dispossession and intense securitization.

By looking at the stories they write, the photos they take and the films they watch, this project presents a theoretical model for understanding how migrants find a life in the city through cultural expression and social community. It also names the ongoing process of dispossession as an effect of what I name "terror capitalism." This form of capitalist production utilizes the discourse of terror to justify state investment in a wide array of policing and social engineering systems that employs millions of state security workers. It also justifies billions of dollars of investment in artificial intelligence and cyber-security development. Terror capitalism turns the bodies of Uyghurs into a site of experimentation in novel forms of biomedical and cybernetic control. The products produced through this venture in terror capitalism will be exported elsewhere as tools of terror-management as China becomes a dominant center of global politics.

"Spirit Breaking" demonstrates how Uyghurs have become the object of terror capitalism and the role of cultural production in both building and refusing this new economic formation and gendered, ethno-racial violence. It argues that terror capitalism becomes a source of energy that turns the self into a source of refusal, however fragile, as friends and loved-ones are placed in indefinite detention. In general though it finds that the fracturing of both Han and Uyghur sociality produces life stories that are caught in the magnetism of mass incarceration, the culture work of multicultural domination and the “reeducation” internment camp system that attempts to eliminate Uyghur religious practice, one of the last remaining spaces of Uyghur social autonomy. Through this the violence of state-directed capitalist dispossession is shown to break the spirit and vitality of Uyghur sociality while linking Han life paths to this new form of domination and exploitation.

This dissertation focuses on how causes of migration are embedded in a complex set of economic and political changes and modes of representation in contemporary China.

Chapter 1 analyzes the impetus behind a 2009 state-planned arts district that attempted to pull Han and Uyghur culture workers and consumers into the state project of New Silk Road development while at the same time the city engaged in anti-Muslim urban cleansing projects and the construction of a “global city.” This chapter argues that the goal of “desire production” that was fostered by the material and cultural infrastructure of the creative industries space was countered by older legacies of multicultural domination that tightly constrained the liberatory impulses of the space. Culture production and infrastructure development that appears to be an antidote to structural violence can thus be seen as part of older processes of dispossession.

Chapter 2 shows how the emergence of industrial farming in the Uyghur homeland in 2000s, coupled with the structural oppression of the “People’s War on Terror” and the cosmopolitan desires incited by new forms of media—television advertising and social media networks—have created conditions of tremendous pressure on young Uyghur men and their families. This chapter argues that media infrastructure has simultaneously provided a means of escape from forms of material and social dispossession and incited new forms of dispossession by forcing Uyghurs to use new media infrastructures which record and trap their political subjectivity.

Chapter 3 turns to the stories of young Uyghur men as they are confronted by racialization and policing in the city. Drawing on these stories in tension with an emerging body of Uyghur fiction on alienation in the city, this chapter argues that tight-knit friendship networks among young men are an emerging social phenomenon that responds to new infrastructures of control and exclusion.

Chapter 4 attends to contentious political relationships between Han and Uyghur migrants by turning to the life practice of one of Xinjiang’s most influential photographers, a Han settler named Tian Lin. The chapter argues that Tian Lin’s life work is producing an anti-colonial “minor politics” (Lionnet & Shih, 2005) that Uyghur migrants view as “almost good enough.” In his role as a “blind wanderer,” a “longterm Xinjiang resident” (Ch: mangliu; lao Xinjiang) and a Uyghur “accomplice” or “kin” relation (Uy: egeshküchi; qarandash), Tian Lin holds in tension the contradictions between political impulses of building a global city through processes of dispossession and exclusion.

Chapter 5 focuses on a tumultuous year in the life of two "travelers" (Uy: musapir): an elderly Uyghur man who refused to leave his “nail house” in an informal settlement; and a pious jade seller. I show that in 2014 migrant life was often comingled with the transnational media infrastructures of Reformist Islamic practice that stood in tension with new infrastructures of cybersecurity and policing. The chapter argues that the relational autonomy that is fostered by the infrastructure of informal Uyghur urbanism and religious economies are experienced as comforting even as they become the cause of displacement and mass incarceration and experiments in “terror-management.”

Chapter 6 pulls together the various strands of the project by arguing that Uyghur forms of “quality” or cultural capital are often rejected in the Chinese city, and thus result in a failure to achieve the success they seem to portend. The chapter argues that the global city is in fact structured around particular forms of Han cultural values. This has resulted in the wide scale disruption of the work of native craft/trade male apprentices and with this a suspension of their life-narratives as self-fashioning subjects.

Disciplinary Interventions: "Spirit Breaking" intervenes in discussions of the global city, the experience of the global “War on Terror,” and the effects of capitalist dispossession along the New Silk Road. The central concept that it develops, terror capitalism, names an emerging global economic formation that like racial capitalism describes a process of original accumulation. In this case though, the bodies of racialized Muslim others are made productive as a site of experimentation in Chinese policing and data production. It argues that the bodies of Uyghurs are being mined for new security technology which will be exported around the world as part of China’s global expansion. The project also contributes to scholarship on infrastructure, media studies and urban studies by showing the way Eurocentric conceptualizations of “the global city” and cultural capital are being transformed in Northwest China. Finally, by focusing both on social dispossession, securitization and the political behaviors that respond to it, this research takes part in anthropological debates on the relationships between structure and agency, media and politics.