“Erase the Memory” to “Erase a People”? They’re Doing it in the USA Too

“Beyond Anything Orwell Could Have Imagined”

Because of his American education and the kindergarten he ran in Xingjiang that taught the Uyghur language, the linguist Tahir Hamut was incarcerated by the Chinese government for fifteen months in 2013 and 2014.

“China tortured me,” Hamut told the journalist and author Geoffrey Cain.  “They sleep-deprived me.  They wanted me to renounce it all.  It wasn’t an old-style genocide with the intent of killing an entire group.  They were more sophisticated.  They wanted to erase my thoughts, my identity, everything – who I was and everything I had written. History and culture are where our memories are.  Erase the memory, the being, the spirit, and you can erase a people.”

“Who controls the past,” George Orwell has totalitarian Big Brother say in his famous dystopian novel 1984, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

A blurb on the back of the book in which Hamut’s recollection and reflection appears –— Cain’s The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future –— hails Cain for exposing how the Chinese surveillance state “is beyond anything George Orwell could have imagined.”

That seems sound. Something truly terrible has been happening in authoritarian, state-capitalist China, with Xingjiang as a new kind of totalitarian laboratory.  The erasure that Hamut talks about is a central project of the ubiquitous technological surveillance and intrusion state that China has created to crush Uyghur resistance and autonomy.  As detailed in Cain’s chilling and heavily researched volume, the so-called People’s Republic of China (PRC)[1] has transformed the country’s westernmost region into a human rights nightmare, merging the latest digital technology – artificial intelligence, DNA tracking, facial recognition, internet protocol cameras – with concentration camps, torture, ethno-ideological re-education, and even the placement of state-monitored cameras and literal human big brothers in the homes and beds of Uyghur households deemed “untrustworthy.”

Capitalism, NOT Socialism

Cain’s book would no doubt be seen by the neo-McCarthyite US right as proof that “Chinese communism” is the great enemy of America and the world, but the police state in China actually has nothing to with “socialism” or “communism.”  The PRC took the capitalist road nearly half a century ago and the “Orwellian social experiment” undertaken in Xingjiang has been made possible by private for-profit global technology firms, including many based in the United States.

“After reading The Perfect Police State,” Blaine Harden writes, “it is impossible to regard the Chinese leadership with anything other than contempt – and fear.”  It’s an understandable sentiment, to be sure, but I wonder how Harden (and Cain) feel about their own country, the supposed homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy. US tech companies have been centrally involved in developing the cutting-edge AI software and hardware that the Chinese state has used to intimately monitor and control human beings on an unprecedented scale in Xingjiang. We live in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff calls it, a global phenomenon. Its main headquarters has been Silicon Valley in the militantly capitalist-imperialist United States, where human autonomy, social solidarity, and democracy are under constant assault from Big Tech giants who relentlessly and stealthily mine US-Americans’ hearts, minds, and bodies for data in order to more perfectly monitor, influence, and manipulate us. Digital technology and culture have played central roles in the lethal rightward and neofascist drift and polarization of politics within and beyond the US, with so-called social media in the at once Orwellian, HuxleyanBradburyan, and (John) Brunnerean[2] lead.

Speaking of Police and Prison States and the Fascist Erasure of History

The giant domestic US police and mass incarceration state locks up a larger share of its population than any nation on Earth. Accounting for less than 5 of the world’s population, the US holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, filling its jails and prisons with 2 million very disproportionately Black inmates.  (How about that great “Land of Liberty,” where “at least we know we’re free”?) Cutting-edge digital technologies are regularly employed and systemically embedded in this great American race-class round-up.

At the same time, authoritarian and ethno-racially driven efforts to erase history in order to crush dissent and protest are well underway in the “democratic” USA. With the Christian white nationalist Florida governor and no. 2 Republi-fascist presidential contender Ron “Anti-Woke” DeSantis in the lead, Republikaner legislators in 44 states have proposed bans on teaching the roles that racism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and sexism have played in US history and society past and present. Eighteen “red” (try brown) states have passed such white-nationalist and patriarchal laws, which seek to make nonwhite and female persons’ subordinate status in the US unintelligible as the result of anything more or other than personal and cultural failure.

Two and a half centuries of savage, torture-practicing Black chattel slavery (the key source of profit fueling the United States’ rise to power in the world capitalist system by the mid-19th Century), the lynching of thousands of Black people, a century of Jim Crow racial terrorism, racist residential and educational segregation, racist mass incarceration and felony-branding, the forced removal and mass murder of Indigenous first nations – all this and more that drips with blood and is central to the British colonial North American and US-American historical experience past and present is considered by “red” states to be too troubling to white folks and their children to be accurately presented and honestly discussed in classrooms, assignments, and libraries.

“These laws,” philosopher Jason Stanley writes, “are meant to intimidate educators, to punish them for speaking freely by threatening their jobs, their teaching licenses, and more. The passing of these laws signals the dawn of a new authoritarian age in the United States, where the state uses laws restricting speech to intimidate, bully and punish educators, forcing them to submit to the ideology of the dominant majority or lose their livelihoods, and even their freedom. It is clear that the chief agenda of the GOP is to advance a set of speech laws that criminalize discussion in schools of anything but the white heterosexual majority’s perspective.”

This is white nationalist authoritarianism,  also known as fascism.

Imagine the uproar if vast parts of Germany decided that it was just too troubling for German youths to learn about the Third Reich’s massive European racist genocide between 1939 and 1945.

Sadly, as Stanley points out, the media trivializes this horrifying legislation as just more of the same old “culture war” conflict that has long through US politics, ignoring their fundamentally fascist essence.  Again, imagine how it would respond to regions of Germany banning teaching and books about the Nazi Holocaust.

“Ideology of the dominant majority” (Stanley)? Not quite. The “anti-CRT” legislation reflects the ideology of the nation’s absurdly over-represented Amerikaner/neofascist Christian white nationalist minority, which is horrified at the thought that their country’s dominant “European” (white) culture is being swamped by people they considered “untrustworthy” (to use the term that pops up on Chinese government and consumer screens when facial recognition software detects a person digitally/algorithmically deemed politically suspect) and not to be “real Americans” deserving of basic citizen rights like, you know, the vote.

To Delete People’s Movements from the Popular Memory and Toolbox  

The fascist (as Stanley properly labels it) anti-CRT legislation has exploded over the last two years in response to the emergence of one of the largest protest movements in US-American history – the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake Black Lives Matter Rebellion of May-August 2020, sparked by the racist murder and maiming of Black people by racist cops in the final summer of the “wannabe fascist strongman” (Eric Draitser’s excellent phrase) and Confederate monument and Kyle Rittenhouse fan Donald Trump’s disastrous (and first?) administration. Despite obvious differences (the George Floyd uprising was national and not just regional, for one), there is a significant parallel with the Chinese assault on Uyghur identity and history in Xinjiang.  It was a great Uyghur rebellion against Han Chinese oppression there in the summer of 2009 that led the Chinese to turn Xingjiang into a digital dystopia meant to exterminate Uyghur memory, history, and resistance.

The goal of the “Orwellian” erasure in both China and the USA is not merely to delete the past and ongoing history of racial oppression from collective memory but to wipe out recollections of popular resistance and how past popular gains were achieved.  Here in the self-proclaimed homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy, the Christian white nationalist wars on Black history and an honest and correct understanding of American history aims to send great racial justice activists like Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (especially the real and radical King), Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton (among other great Black social justice champions) “down the memory hole” (Orwell) along with the oppression systems those leaders rose up against.

The white nationalist Amerikaner fear is not just that people of color (POC) and anti-racists of all colors (ARoAC) will understand that Blacks and other nonwhites are not the cause of their own oppressed status, but also that POC and ARoACs) will learn how resistance is both justified and effective.  Here the “anti-CRT” (white anti-history) madness intersects not only with the anti-feminist and anti-LGBT impulses of the Republi-fascist right (both impulses are also reflected in recent “red” state educational repression measures including many of the CRT bills themselves) but also with a bipartisan US ruling class fear of something that a serious peoples’ history demonstrates – that the “We the People” win significant gains not by relying on elites and their “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) but by organizing, protesting, and fighting for the common good and social justice from the bottom up. To paraphrase the great people’s historian  Howard Zinn, the main thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House and the suites, it’s who sitting in the public squares and the streets.

“Bipartisan?” Oh yes. The dismal, dollar-drenched Weimar Dems are deeply committed to spreading what Zinn called “The Election Madness” that “seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple-choice test so narrow, so specious,” Zinn wrote in early 2008. “that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.”  And it is total bullshit, since, as Zinn noted:

“Even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore… The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism. So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.”

This is part of why the Republican/Amerikaner/Orwellian/fascist war on history meets (like so much else in the neofascist agenda) so little serious resistance from the horrifyingly Weimarian “Blue MAGA” Democrats, whose urban political machines and ever more militarized police departments are core institutional components and drivers of the nation’s racist mass incarceration state.  The corporate-imperialist Hollow Resistance Dems are all about steering the masses’ anger and energies into the “killing confines” of the nation’s right-tilted elections and party system. It may still cling to bourgeois-democratic electoral and rule of law norms, unlike the now fascist and post-republic Republican Party, but the undemocratic Democratic Party’s elitist and neoliberal capitalist-imperialist sponsors and operatives have no interest in “rebellion from below” and every interest in fueling the depressing, demobilizing, and ever more digitalized “election madness” that regularly functions as the graveyard of social movements in the US.


+1. Mao Ze Dong correctly predicted that the capitalist-roaders would keep the name given to China by its socialist revolutionary leadership if and when the bourgeois revisionists executed a counterrevolution against socialism. Both things happened.

+2. This is borderline freaky: “In the [novel] Stand on Zanzibar published in 1968, the American science fiction writer John Brunner predicted with uncanny accuracy that the world would be overpopulated with 7 billion people in 2010, that its inhabitants would read their news in short bursts and respond with real-time takes on a social network akin to Twitter, that China would emerge as the United States’ main rival, and that an African American president named ‘President Obomi’ would sit in the White House” — Geoffrey Cain, The Perfect Police State, p. 218.

This essay first appeared on The Paul Street Report.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).