April 5, 2021

Posted by orrinj at 6:54 PM


Surviving the Crackdown in Xinjiang: As mass detentions and surveillance dominate the lives of China's Uyghurs and Kazakhs, a woman struggles to free herself. (Raffi Khatchadourian, April 5, 2021, The New Yorker)

As Sabit was deciding to move to Canada, in 2014, a dark future was being mapped out for Xinjiang in secret meetings in Beijing. Xi Jinping had become President the year before, and he was consolidating power. As he cleared away the obstacles to lifelong rule, he eventually subjected more than a million government officials to punishments that ranged from censure to execution. With China's ethnic minorities, he was no less fixated on control.

Xinjiang's turbulent history made it a particular object of concern. The region had never seemed fully within the Party's grasp: it was a target for external meddling--the Russian tsar had once seized part of it--and a locus of nationalist sentiment, held over from its short-lived independence. Communist theoreticians long debated the role that nationalities should play in the march toward utopia--especially in peripheral societies that were not fully industrialized. The early Soviets took an accommodating approach and worked to build autonomous republics for ethnic groups. The Chinese pursued a more assimilationist policy.

In the fifties, Mao, recognizing that the Party's hold on Xinjiang was weak, mobilized the bingtuan to set up its farms in the region's north--a buffer against potential Soviet incursions. Revolutionaries flooded in, and within decades the population was forty per cent Han. Party officials, hoping to assimilate the indigenous residents, sought to strip away their traditions--their Muslim faith, their schools, even their native languages. The authorities came to regard Uyghur identity as "mistaken": Uyghurs were Chinese.

In the late seventies, Deng Xiaoping took power, and rolled back the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In Xinjiang, mosques were reopened and local languages were permitted, giving way to a cultural flourishing. But amid the new openness people began to express discontent with what remained a colonial relationship. Adhering to regional traditions, or even maintaining "Xinjiang time"--two hours behind Beijing--became a subtle act of dissent. Some locals staged protests, bearing placards that read "Chinese Out of Xinjiang." A few radicals discussed an insurgency.

In April, 1990, near the city of Kashgar, a conflagration broke out between locals and the authorities--apparently started by an amateurish group of militants and then joined by demonstrators who did not fully grasp what was happening. Police and members of the bingtuan quickly quashed the violence. It had been only a year since the Tiananmen Square protests, and the country's ruling élite had little tolerance for disunity. A year later, when the Soviet Union fell, the Chinese Communist Party--convinced that ethnic nationalism had helped tear the former superpower to pieces--became even more alarmed.

With near-paranoid intensity, the government pursued any perceived sign of "splitism." The Party secretary of Kashgar, Zhu Hailun, was among the most aggressive. Abduweli Ayup, who worked for Zhu as a translator and an aide, recalled that, in March, 1998, cotton farmers protested a ruling that barred them from planting vegetable patches. Zhu railed at them for being separatists, adding, "You're using your mosques as forts!" On another occasion, he derided the Quran, telling an Uyghur audience, "Your God is shit." Zhu ordered Ayup to lead a door-to-door hunt for families harboring nationalist or religious books--telling him that he was not to go home until he succeeded. Ayup worked until dawn, rousing people. But, he said, "I couldn't find any books at all."

Xinjiang's insurgents had proved unable to gather many adherents; locals favored the Sufi tradition of Islam, which emphasizes mysticism, not politics. At the time of the September 11th attacks, there was no terrorist violence to speak of in the region. But Osama bin Laden's operation, planned across the border in Afghanistan, put a new and urgent frame around the old anxieties. Chinese authorities drew up a long list of incidents that they claimed were examples of jihad, and made their case to the U.S. State Department. Many of the incidents were impossible to verify, or to distinguish from nonpolitical violence. In China, mass attacks--with knives, axes, or even improvised explosives--are startlingly common, and often have nothing to do with ethnic unrest. Not long ago, a man walked into a school in Yunnan Province and sprayed fifty-four people with sodium hydroxide, to enact "revenge on society," officials said. Similarly, a paraplegic assailant from eastern China detonated a bomb at one of Beijing's international airports--apparently an act of retaliation for a police beating. The bombing was treated as a one-off incident. An Uyghur, frustrated that this would never be the case in Xinjiang, asked on Twitter, "Why is everything we do terrorism?"

As the 2008 Olympics approached, Chinese authorities became obsessed with the concept of weiwen, or "stability maintenance"--intensifying repression with a ferocity that the Chinese sociologist Sun Liping compared to North Korea's. Sun, who had served on a committee that reviewed Xi Jinping's doctoral dissertation, noted that the Party was a captive of its own delusions: by overestimating the chance of an imminent societal rupture, it had become blind to the root causes of discontent. Reflexive crackdowns designed to eliminate a "phantom of instability," Sun warned, would lead to a downward spiral of repression and unrest, which could bring about the very collapse that had been feared all along.

Nowhere did this seem more apt than in Xinjiang, where China's leaders continually appeared to mistake popular discontent for a growing insurgency. The 2009 protests in Ürümqi--following similar ones in Tibet--caused Party theorists to call for engineering a monocultural society, a single "state-race," to help pave the way for "a new type of superpower." One influential domestic-security official noted, "Stability is about liberating man, standardizing man, developing man."

A new Party secretary in Ürümqi began to pursue such a policy: women were told not to wear veils, Uyghur books and Web sites were banned, historic buildings were demolished. Within a few years, the downward spiral that Sun Liping had warned of began to occur. In the autumn of 2013, an Uyghur man, accompanied by two family members, plowed an S.U.V. into a crowd of tourists in Tiananmen Square--possibly because his local mosque had been damaged during a raid. The S.U.V., filled with homemade incendiary devices, caught fire. The man and his family died, but not before killing two pedestrians and injuring thirty-eight others.

Several months later, in Yunnan Province, a small group of assailants dressed in black stormed a train station and, wielding knives, brutally killed twenty-nine bystanders and injured more than a hundred and forty others. Although no organization claimed responsibility for the incident, an insurgent group based overseas celebrated the attack. The authorities declared that the assailants were Uyghur separatists, and in Beijing the incident was called "China's 9/11." Xi was enraged. "We should unite the people to build a copper and iron wall against terrorism," he told the Politburo. "Make terrorists like rats scurrying across the street, with everybody shouting, 'Beat them!' "

In April, 2014, Xi travelled to Xinjiang. At a police station in Kashgar, he examined weapons on a wall. "The methods that our comrades have at hand are too primitive," he said during the trip. "None of these weapons is any answer for their big machete blades, axe heads, and cold steel weapons." He added, "We must be as harsh as them, and show absolutely no mercy."

On the final day of his visit, two suicide bombers attacked a railway station in Ürümqi, injuring dozens of people and killing one. At a high-level meeting in Beijing, Xi railed against religious extremism. "It's like taking a drug," he said. "You lose your sense, go crazy, and will do anything."

Soon afterward, the Party leadership in Xinjiang announced a "People's War." The focus was on separatism, terrorism, and extremism--the "Three Evil Forces." The region's top official took up the campaign, but Xi grew dissatisfied with him, and two years later appointed a replacement: Chen Quanguo, then the Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region--a tough-minded apparatchik whose loyalty was beyond question.

Ambitious and regimented, Chen had served in the military and then risen quickly through the political ranks. When he arrived in Tibet, in 2011, monks were immolating themselves--an urgent response to a long-running crackdown, which the Dalai Lama called a "cultural genocide." The crisis was generating international headlines.

In a place where oppression had become the norm, Chen did not stand out for his use of physical violence. Instead, he distinguished himself as a systematizer of authoritarian tactics, ready to target entire groups of people with methods that pervaded daily life.

The vast majority of self-immolations were occurring to the east of the autonomous region, so Chen tightened the borders of his jurisdiction, restricting entry for Tibetans from outside it. In Lhasa, he made it impossible to buy gas without an I.D. He built hundreds of urban police depots, called "convenience stations," which were arranged in close formation--an overwhelming display of force. He dispatched more than twenty thousand Communist Party cadres into villages and rural monasteries, to propagandize and to surveil. Some locals reported that members of volunteer groups called the Red Armband Patrols upended homes to confiscate photos of the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese authorities blamed for the unrest. Detentions appeared to rise. In 2012, when a large number of Tibetans travelled to India to receive a blessing from the Dalai Lama, Chen had them consigned to makeshift reëducation facilities.

The self-immolations continued in neighboring territories, but Chen's jurisdiction recorded only one in the next four years. "We have followed the law in striking out, and relentlessly pounding at illegal organizations and key figures," he declared. He had a flair for cultivating his superiors. In March, 2016, just before his appointment to Xinjiang, delegates from his region arrived at the National People's Congress, in Beijing, wearing pins with Xi's image on them--"a spontaneous act to show gratitude," state media noted. The Party deemed Chen's tactics a success.

In Xinjiang, Chen wore his thin, jet-black hair in a precise coiffure, and travelled with a security detail brought with him from Tibet. Rather than move into the Party secretary's residence, he set himself up in a hotel that was controlled by the government and secured by the People's Liberation Army. The building was in close proximity to facilities that housed police organizations, and Chen had a high-speed data line run from his residence into the region's digital-security infrastructure.

Xi had once compared reform to a meal, noting that after the meat is eaten what's left is hard to chew. Chen made it clear that he came to "gnaw bones." He titled one of his speeches "To Unswervingly Implement the Xinjiang Strategy of the Party Central Committee, with Comrade Xi Jinping at the Core."

His predecessor had borrowed from his Tibet strategy, deploying two hundred thousand Party cadres in Xinjiang. Chen increased their numbers to a million, and urged them to go from house to house, and grow "close to the masses, emotionally." Under a program called Becoming a Family, local Party officials introduced them to indigenous households, declaring, "These are your new relatives." Cadres imposed themselves, stopping by for meals; sometimes they were required to stay overnight. Terrified residents forced smiles, politely served them, engaged their questions, and even offered them their beds.

Assisted by Zhu Hailun, who by then had become the deputy Party leader of Xinjiang, Chen recruited tens of thousands of "assistant police officers," for a force that could implement mass arrests and also quell any unrest that they provoked. He began constructing thousands of "convenience stations," seeking to impose an "iron grid" on urban life. He set out to divide the population into three categories--trusted, average, untrustworthy--and to detain anyone who could not be proved sufficiently loyal.

In early 2017, half a year after Chen arrived, he prepared his leadership for a long, complex, and "very fierce" campaign. "Take this crackdown as the top project," he instructed them, noting that it was necessary "to preëmpt the enemy, to strike at the outset." The mission, he said, was to rip out the separatist problem by its roots. He expressed zero tolerance for any "two-faced" officials who were unwilling to zealously carry out his plan.

Posted by orrinj at 1:03 PM


Report: Suicide Rates Actually Dropped In 2020 (RELEVANT, APRIL 5, 2021)

Suicide was the eleventh highest cause of mortality for Americans in 2020, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) -- dropping by 5.7 percent out of the previous year and out of the top ten causes of death for the first time in years. Suicide claimed the lives of 44,834 Americans last year, slightly lower than 47,511 in 2019, 48,344 in 2018, 47,173 in 2017 and 44,965 in 2016, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Vital Statistics System.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


World's Biggest Wind Farm May Be Answer to Korea's Net-Zero Dream (Heesu Lee & Will Mathis, Mar. 31st, 2021, Bloomberg)

The fishing grounds where Jung Kuenbae and his forbears have caught shrimp, butterfish and croakers for three generations are going to be turned into the world's largest offshore wind farm. He's OK with that.

"I initially opposed the idea when the plan was proposed because it will destroy our livelihood," said Jung, who leads a group of local fishermen in some 200 ships that drop nets in the waters off the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula. "But I realized the project is part of the country's transition to cleaner energy, which is something we have to come to terms with, rather than fighting against it."

The 48.5 trillion won ($42.8 billion) wind farm, to be built over the next decade off the southwest coast of the country, would generate up to 8.2 gigawatts of power, one of a catalog of grand projects the government wants to roll out with private sector backing to meet its ambition of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Why The Recent Violence Against Asian Americans May Solidify Their Support Of Democrats (Michael Tesler, 4/01/21, 538)

Over three-quarters of Asian American and Pacific Islanders voters who thought there was "a great deal" or "a lot" of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. supported Joe Biden over Donald Trump in weekly Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape surveys conducted from April to September 2020. But only 37 percent of Asian Americans who didn't think there was any anti-Asian discrimination preferred Biden to Trump in the presidential election.

Political scientists Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Mo have argued that Asian Americans who experience discrimination are more likely to support Democrats because they associate social exclusion based on their ethnic background with the predominantly white Republican Party. Take, for example, what Kuo, Malhotra and Mo found in one experiment. Some participants were randomly subjected to a microaggression from a white lab assistant who questioned their citizenship before having them answer a survey that measured political attitudes. The Asian Americans subjected to the microaggression were 13 percentage points more likely than the control group to view the Democratic Party in a positive light.

This uptick came at the expense, too, of how respondents thought about the Republican Party. That is, the Asian Americans who were subjected to the microaggression were more likely to say that Republicans were close-minded and associate the party with exclusionary treatment. That is something that has been made much more explicit during the pandemic.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Struggle for Empathy Within the Border Patrol's "Culture of Cruelty" (Todd Miller, April 5, 2021, Lit Hub)

During Lenihan's training for the US Border Patrol, a drill sergeant yelled at him for 69 days. In role-playing scenarios, he was assaulted and beaten as part of his training. Police-grade pepper spray was shot into his eyes as he did jumping jacks. He underwent 77 hours of intensive firearms training, often using outlines of human torsos and heads as targets. The lines of good and bad, innocent and evil, legal and illegal were drawn clearly every day.

Yet when Agent Brendan Lenihan clasped Rogelio's callused hands in their common struggle to carry Roberto to safety, for a fleeting moment, the border was gone. With it went his uniform, badge, laws, and gun. In their place was a bridge, across which he could see and feel the world from Rogelio's side--his longing, his love, his family, and his anguish and despair. As the black bile continued to ooze out of the boy's mouth, Rogelio looked at Brendan with a terrified grimace. Then the radio crackled, calling Lenihan back to the US Border Patrol once again. For Roberto, in the agent's arms, the border had never left. It continued to kill him.

The helicopter wouldn't be able to safely land by the car. They landed instead at a nearby clearing. As Brendan snapped back to protocol, the previous moment remained with him--a transformative moment, a bridge to another reality. "I usually have hands-on contact with someone just long enough to put on handcuffs and send them away, and there I was, holding hands with someone I'd usually just arrest."

"As a border patrol agent," Lenihan said, "you have a muted sense of empathy because you see so much all the time that you just don't know how to cope."

Brendan's empathy transcended Border Patrol training and culture. No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization that compiled thousands of testimonies of people who were abused during short-term detention, charged the Border Patrol with producing "a culture of cruelty" in a 2011 report. Sean C. Chapman, the lawyer of Agent Matthew Bowen, who in 2019 faced federal charges for hitting a Guatemalan man, Antolín López Aguilar, with his Border Patrol truck, gave a glimpse into this culture during the trial. Chapman was forced to explain the trove of text messages from Bowen uncovered by prosecutors, one of which described migrants as "disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire."

Throughout his text conversations, Bowen used the word "tonk"--onomatopoeia for the sound of an agent's flashlight striking a person's head. Chapman made a startling claim, throwing the "bad apple" narrative to the wind: In Bowen's defense, he stated that the denigrating language used by his client was "commonplace throughout the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, and that it is part of the agency's culture." All of this underscores what Greg Grandin wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The End of the Myth: The U.S. Border Patrol has been "a frontline instrument of white supremacist power" since its founding in 1924.

Over the years, I have interviewed many agents in many settings, from government offices to private homes. While these interviews and other reporting confirm the existence of a top-down, violent, and dehumanizing culture among border enforcement personnel, it is much more difficult to generalize about the agents themselves. Talking one on one, I have met agents whose attitudes span a wide spectrum. For example, one agent attempted to justify using snipers to shoot at "aliens" if they were suspected of smuggling. When I asked the agent how he could identify who was a smuggler, he replied that smugglers have phones, and pointed to his hip.

While these interviews and other reporting confirm the existence of a top-down, violent, and dehumanizing culture among border enforcement personnel, it is much more difficult to generalize about the agents themselves.
Another agent I interviewed was an expert marksman in charge of conducting trainings at a shooting range, but admitted that he hated guns. He told me he had vowed to write a scathing account of the Border Patrol when he retired. A former agent was a thoughtful historian who, while working for the Border Patrol, spoke critically about US drug laws and advocated for legalization. His mother was from Chihuahua, Mexico, and he joined the Border Patrol after he lost his job at Circuit City when the company went under in 2007. But the Border Patrol job did not last either. His pride in his Mexican ancestry and his advocacy for marijuana legalization ended up drawing the attention of those in higher command, who fired him. Even though 50 percent of the Border Patrol agents are Latinx, when they show pride in their heritage, if they dare, their loyalty to the United States is questioned.

After a long interview at another agent's house, the man invited me to join him for dinner. His openness and hospitality, as with many of my other interviewees, challenged my preexisting expectations and biases. Becoming sympathetic to Border Patrol agents, even liking some of them, has had an odd effect on me. I began to see that the agents were the most visible elements, yet only a small part of a much bigger system that included paper pushers, policy-makers, politicians, and private corporations that sell bullets and weapons and high-tech cameras for a profit.

Focusing solely on the agents obscures this vast and hidden world of the border-enforcement apparatus--a world funded by everybody in the United States who pays taxes. And through taxes, my own connection to this apparatus is direct. I pay the agents' salaries, I pay for the drones, I pay for the groundsweeping radar systems and aerostats, I pay for the detention centers, I pay the administrators who sign into policy the most heinous treatment of our fellow human beings. I play a part in perpetuating a system that sustains a world of catastrophic inequalities where 2,153 billionaires have more money than 4.6 billion people--60 percent of the world population. Our taxes enforce such hierarchies of inequality and determine who can move across certain lines of division and who cannot, who serves and who is served. Individual agents are cogs in a complex machine made of disposable parts. If they do not sufficiently conform to this system, if they do not conform to the militant enforcement of US borders, they get fired. This grander theater spares no one, including the agents, in its inhumanity. And, as Francisco Cantú writes about in The Line Becomes a River, the theater doesn't spare the agents from the nightmares and the trauma.

Another blockade to empathy fits right into this. According to Krznaric, it is "the human tendency to obey authority." He uses the example of one of the administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, who claimed no responsibility for his actions during his 1961 trial. Eichmann's defense was that he was simply "doing his job." Part of that job was to abide by the Nazi classifications of people such as Untermenschen--subhumans--the category given to Jews, Roma, Slavs, and people of color. It is also worth remembering that Adolph Hitler praised US immigration law in 1936 by saying that the United States was "making progress toward a healthy racial order."

As political theorist Hannah Arendt famously pointed out, there was nothing psychopathic about Eichmann: He was a fairly typical person who "did his duty" and "not only obeyed orders but obeyed the law." He was, Arendt said, "terribly and terrifyingly normal." The same is true for most of the Border Patrol agents I've met and interviewed. Once, in a weekly birthing class, I was awkwardly paired for weeks with an agent who was also expecting a child. When we shared what we did, he said he worked for the Border Patrol. I said I wrote about the border. And we just left it at that. Most agents want to enjoy their days off with their families and friends. Yet all must obey the top-down command structure. If they do not obey authority, they lose their jobs.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Scientists Need to Admit What They Got Wrong About Covid (C. Brandon Ogbunu, 4/04/21, Wired)

From the beginning of the pandemic, misinformation and disinformation were not mere nuisances, but defining forces in the global response. And their most influential authors were not only renegade "doctors" with YouTube channels, but government officials directly responsible for the pandemic policy.

At the very least, bad information stymied or derailed public conversation about the science of Covid. The truth is more grim: The doubt that was inspired by bad faith actors drove formal public health policies (or non-policies). Skepticism and science denial had stakes far greater than the winner of a Twitter spat. Simple unknowns were weaponized, and many Covid lies were actively orchestrated and propagated in order to sow doubt about the way that science works, sometimes for political gain.

In the face of this, the scientific community's reluctance to come clean about uncertainties and missteps are not only understandable, but even appropriate: There is a time and place to have abstract debates about the true meaning of "efficacy," and a time to act on the information that we have in service of the public good. The pandemic, and the millions of lives (globally) that we lost in its wake, qualify as a large enough emergency that one can forgive a little chest-thumping bravado: We're scientists, we've spent decades studying this stuff, and your bull[****] is harming people. We, experts and the informed citizen-science public, might know that science is a process that cannot exist without accumulating new data and discarding old ideas. But much of the public is unaware of how this process actually works. Our "trust me, I'm a scientist" appeals can be misguided.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Compulsory Vaccination Is American As Apple Pie -- And Old As The Revolution (Mia Brett, Apr. 4th, 2021, National Memo)

Compulsory vaccination policies in this country began during the American Revolution. Smallpox was a huge threat to the Continental Army and word of the disease was actually halting enlistments. In order to protect soldiers and the war effort, General Washington ordered all new recruits receive the "variolation" for smallpox in 1776. The policy was successful at eradicating smallpox among soldiers, which helped the Continental Army defeat the British invasion at Saratoga.

The first law that required the general population get vaccinated was passed in Massachusetts in 1809. The state empowered local boards of health for towns to require free vaccinations of people over 21 if the boards felt it was necessary. If a person refused, they had to pay a $5 fine (about $100 in today's money). States across the country followed with their own compulsory smallpox vaccination laws though the specifics varied widely. Some only required compulsory vaccinations in the midst of an epidemic. Some only required vaccinations for children attending schools.

New York City exercised particularly broad power in allowing health officials to enforce vaccinations or quarantines. As a busy international harbor, the city felt particularly threatened by incoming diseases. As a result, immigrants and ships were often required to quarantine. Unfortunately, these policies often took on a distinctly anti-immigrant and nativist turn. Public health officials often blamed poor immigrants for spreading diseases rather than engaging in education to encourage vaccine compliance.

Common policy in the late 19th century was to place a yellow flag in front of an infected building and not allow anyone in or out. However, there weren't clear guidelines on forcing a person to comply with a vaccination if they didn't want to. As a result, in 1894, Brooklyn's top health official Z. Taylor Emery would often enforce quarantines, to the point of not allowing provisions to be delivered, on those who refused being vaccinated. Emery's arbitrary and coercive policies resulted in backlash but the appeals court supported Emery's rationale of protecting the public.

In 1905, the question of compulsory vaccination laws made it to the United States Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. At the time, Massachusetts was one of 11 states that had compulsory vaccination laws. Jacobson was a Swedish immigrant who had a bad experience with a childhood vaccination. He refused the smallpox vaccination as an adult in Massachusetts. Jacobson was prosecuted and fined for refusing. He challenged the fine, claiming it was an invasion of his liberty. In a 7-2 decision the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory vaccination laws are not arbitrary or oppressive, as long as they don't "go so far beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public." Jacobson was affirmed in 1922 in Zucht v. King to support a school district refusing admittance to a student who was not vaccinated.