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Merdan Ghappar is a Uyghur who has been in Chinese custody in the Xinjiang region since January. Video shot by Mr. Ghappar on a smuggled cellphone shows him in his small room handcuffed to a bed with propaganda blaring from speakers outside. The Globe and Mail

For the duration of the 4 minute and 38 second video he took of himself, Merdan Ghappar does not make a sound. It is the images that speak.

Staring into the cellphone camera with the ease of the successful fashion model he once was, Mr. Ghappar’s face flashes with a grimace of discomfort as he adjusts the camera to show his left hand. It is handcuffed to a bed. He pans to show a floor covered in dirt and a badly stained wall, before turning the camera to the windows, which are covered in bars. Outside, red banners proclaim “the uprightness and purity of Party conduct” and call on people to “love China and strive to be in the vanguard.”

In messages sent to his family earlier this year, Mr. Ghappar, 31, described himself as being in quarantine, one of the countless people in China sequestered in recent months to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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But Mr. Ghappar is Uyghur, a member of the largely Muslim minority group that Chinese authorities have placed under great pressure in recent years, with large numbers of people imprisoned, placed into centres for political indoctrination and training, and moved to factories where they work for low wages with few freedoms. The Chinese government has said it is confronting radicalization and extremism in the region.

Last December, however, officials in Xinjiang, the northwestern region where most of the country’s Uyghur population lives, said people in such “re-education” centres had all “graduated.”

Little more than a month later, police came to Mr. Ghappar’s home in Foshan, a southern manufacturing city near Guangzhou, and took him away. Officers told a friend of his that he had been sent for “education” in Xinjiang, nearly 3,500 kilometres away. It’s not clear where Mr. Ghappar is today. His family has lost contact with him. Months later, they have received no information on his whereabouts.

Before he disappeared, however, Mr. Ghappar was able to send videos and text describing the conditions of his detention, which included being shackled in a crowded police cell with a black sack over his head and listening to the screams of others who sounded as if they were being tortured – before he himself vanished.

His account provides a rare look into the continuing incarceration of Uyghurs, including during a pandemic in which the Xinjiang region has seen large numbers of people placed in quarantine. What happened to Mr. Ghappar points to the breadth of the Chinese government’s plans for the Uyghur population, said Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based scholar who has been a global leader in tracking policies toward Uyghurs in the past half-decade.

“It’s actually quite likely that at one point, almost every Uyghur is going to experience some form of testing, or internment, or re-education,” he said. Uyghurs of all backgrounds – from subsistence farmers to scholars and a fashion model such as Mr. Ghappar – must prove their loyalty to the country and its rulers, Mr. Zenz said.

“Everybody is going to be subjected to the system,” he said. “The main point of the system is to test people, but also to break them.”

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suspected Internment camps

in xinjiang region

The heat map below shows the size and distri-

bution of dozens of camps. The map was com-

piled in November, 2018, by the Australian

Strategic Policy Institute. The darker shade

represents a higher density of camps. There are

thought to be many more.

RUSSIA

DETAIL

0

250

Altay

KM

CHINA

MONGOLIA

Urumqi

KAZAKH.

Turpan

Kucha

KYRG.

Amanxia

TAJ.

Korla

Aksu

Kashgar

XINJIANG

TARIM BASIN

Hotan

CHINA

AFG.

PAK.

QINGHAI

TIBET

INDIA

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: australian

strategic policy institute; graphic news

(base map); google maps

suspected Internment camps

in xinjiang region

The heat map below shows the size and distribution of

dozens of camps. The map was compiled in November,

2018, by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The

darker shade represents a higher density of camps.

There are thought to be many more.

RUSSIA

DETAIL

0

250

Altay

CHINA

KM

MONGOLIA

Urumqi

KAZAKH.

Turpan

Kucha

KYRG.

Amanxia

TAJ.

Korla

Aksu

Kashgar

XINJIANG

TARIM BASIN

Hotan

CHINA

AFG.

PAK.

QINGHAI

TIBET

INDIA

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: australian strategic

policy institute; graphic news (base map);

google maps

suspected Internment camps in xinjiang region

The heat map below shows the size and distribution of dozens of camps. The map was

compiled in November, 2018, by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The darker shade

represents a higher density of camps. There are thought to be many more.

RUSSIA

DETAIL

0

250

Altay

KM

CHINA

MONGOLIA

Urumqi

KAZAKHSTAN

Turpan

Kucha

KYRGYZSTAN

Amanxia

TAJIKISTAN

Korla

Aksu

GANSU

Kashgar

XINJIANG

TARIM BASIN

Hotan

CHINA

AFG.

PAKISTAN

QINGHAI

TIBET

INDIA

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: australian strategic policy institute;

graphic news (base map); google maps

Mr. Ghappar's hand is shown cuffed to a bed. He had been detained in the city of Kucha.

Handout

China’s Foreign Ministry declined comment about Mr. Ghappar, and a senior police officer in Kucha, the Xinjiang city where Mr. Ghappar was taken, hung up the phone when asked about his case. The Xinjiang government propaganda office did not respond to multiple faxes and phone calls requesting comment.

Beijing has denied mistreatment of Uyghurs, or any effort to target people by religion or ethnicity. It has instead pointed to figures that show significant economic improvement in the region in recent years.

Chinese officials say they have sought to combat extremism and terrorism, but dismiss the considerable evidence of harsh tactics in the region – including individual testimony, satellite imagery and government procurement records – as fabrications.

“There’s no such concentration camp in Xinjiang,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, said in late July. “People in Xinjiang enjoy a happy life.”

Mr. Ghappar’s account, jointly reported with the BBC, is based on interviews with the man’s family and friends, as well as their documentation of what they learned as they sought to understand what happened to him. Social-media accounts belonging to Mr. Ghappar and a modelling agency validate additional elements of his account, as does a digital court record.

Identifiable buildings in video sent by Mr. Ghappar match buildings in Kucha, where he says he was taken – and where police told his family that he was being held in quarantine. A document Mr. Ghappar photographed and sent to his family also includes the name of the neighbourhood in that location – and includes previously unknown details about a sweeping local campaign that required self-confession of what the state considers wrongdoings from children as young as 13.

As a fashion model, Mr. Ghappar had to mask his Uyghur roots to avoid discrimination.

Handouts

Born in Xinjiang, Mr. Ghappar grew up in an extended family that has expressed discontent with Chinese rule. In 2009, his uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar, helped to promote a protest against the killing of two Uyghur migrant workers. That protest turned into a deadly riot.

But Mr. Ghappar expressed little interest in politics. He was keen to make money. As a teen, he worked at a company run by Han Chinese, members of the country’s ethnic majority. He went three months without being properly paid, said one of his close family members. So he decided to leave Xinjiang to seek better fortunes elsewhere. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they fear reprisal for speaking publicly.

Mr. Ghappar’s grandfather was a poet who spent a decade in prison for writing anti-Communist poems during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Ghappar, too, showed an interest in the arts, studying dance performance at Xinjiang Arts University, where he graduated in 2007. Broad-shouldered, smooth-skinned and handsome, he was soon asked to model for fashion brands that have built their business on Taobao, the vast Amazon-like digital-buying platform run by Alibaba.

Mr. Ghappar moved first to Beijing, then to Guangzhou, the southern city at the heart of China’s Pearl River Delta manufacturing and production colossus. Here, close to the factories that churned out the clothing he was modelling – brands such as Free Breath (ZYHX), SEE and Playboy China – his career began to blossom. In hundreds of photos posted online, he poses in trench coats and hoodies, slim pants, jean jackets and a parka bearing a Canada Goose badge. He is a picture of studied cool, often wearing a sullen, bad-boy look.

“He was a famous model. A star. He loved his own job and he was working very hard to make money,” said Abdulhakim, who knows his nephew well. Mr. Ghappar’s father abandoned the family. But he grew up nearby his uncle in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, and Abdulhakim became like a father to him. The two spoke regularly.

But if Mr. Ghappar’s success was rooted in his appearance, it also required masking what made him unique: his ethnic identity. “If the audience knew he was Uyghur, he would be blocked. Because Chinese people discriminate against Uyghurs,” Abdulhakim said. “His boss knew it, and told Merdan: ‘If you want to be successful in this field, you need to cover up your Uyghur identity.‘” Better, his boss said, to promote Mr. Ghappar – and explain his less-Asian features – by saying he was of mixed Chinese and European descent.

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Mr. Ghappar quickly found a comfortable place in Chinese society. Fluent in Mandarin, he dated Chinese women. He earned large amounts of money, up to 10,000 yuan – roughly $2,000 – a day, enough to buy an apartment just after his 28th birthday, a friend said. The Globe is not identifying the person because they fear reprisal for speaking to the foreign press.

Still, his success was not sufficient to break him free from suspicions in a country where Uyghurs, even before the campaign of mass incarceration for political indoctrination, were widely seen as terrorists, particularly after authorities said a series of deadly attacks – including in Beijing – were perpetrated by Uyghurs. “Because of his Uyghur identity, Chinese authorities said he cannot buy a house,” Abdulhakim said. He bought his apartment under a Chinese friend’s name instead.

Such an experience is common for Uyghurs in China, particularly those living outside Xinjiang, said Darren Byler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the treatment of Uyghurs in China. “Basically, the local police don’t want to have a Uyghur in residence in their neighbourhood, and they’ve been directed not to allow people to rent or buy,” he said.

In the summer of 2018, authorities arrested Mr. Ghappar, accusing him of selling five grams of marijuana. He was sentenced to prison. A brief online court record confirms that he was detained for a drug offence. On Aug. 13, 2018, the modelling agency where Mr. Ghappar worked posted to social media that he was “out of China” and not available for bookings.

His family and friends say he was sentenced to 16 months in prison. They deny the charges against him. “Why would he sell drugs?” his friend said. “Being a model, he was really popular at the time. He was popular and could earn a lot of money.”

People line up beyond the gates of the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Centre in 2018, part of the network of indoctrination camps set up for Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

By 2018, China’s newest campaign to incarcerate and indoctrinate Uyghurs had taken firm hold. Across Xinjiang, Uyghurs were taken from their homes and placed in centres for forced indoctrination, where they were told that religion is “stupid,” and that Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, and the Communist Party are great. A region-wide network of indoctrination and training centres was created in haste, some in converted schools, some in enormous new facilities built like prisons, with high walls and night-time floodlights.

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Western scholars estimate that hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps more than a million – were incarcerated. Particular attention was paid to those with overseas relatives, as police treated international ties as evidence of foreign influence. Mr. Ghappar’s uncle, Abdulhakim, lives in the Netherlands, where he fled in 2011 after police sought his arrest in Xinjiang. Abdulhakim had helped to distribute flyers and online promotional materials for a July 5, 2009, protest in Urumqi against the death of two Uyghur migrant workers.

In the Netherlands, Abdulhakim has attended protests and posted pictures on his Facebook account of Rebiya Kadeer, who is among the most prominent international Uyghur activists. He regularly receives threatening phone calls from people speaking in Mandarin. Sometimes, the caller threatens, “We can finish you any time, as well as your family members” in China.

Abdulhakim believes he is the reason Mr. Ghappar has disappeared. “He was detained just because I am abroad and doing my human-rights protests against Chinese human-rights abuses,” Abdulhakim said.

In late 2019, Mr. Ghappar was released from prison.

Two months later, police arrived at his apartment in Foshan, posing as neighbours. On Jan. 15, they took him from his home and then to Xinjiang, saying he needed to attend to some paperwork.

But when he arrived in Kucha, he was locked in a basement room with dozens of others. He estimates 50 to 60 people were together in a room of only 50 square metres.

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“I was shocked,” he wrote on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app. Men and women were “divided up and locked in cages,” he wrote. And they were all dressed, head to toe, in “four-piece suits.” Each person was handcuffed and shackled, with a chain linking the two. Black sacks covered heads. The space was so small that only some people could lie down to sleep. When Mr. Ghappar removed the sack to complain that his handcuffs were too tight, an officer told him: “I will beat you to death if you remove it again.”

The days were punctuated with “the sounds of screaming, of both men and women,” Mr. Ghappar wrote. It was “awful, whatever it was, just terrifying.”

The large group of people shared seven or eight bowls and spoons. They were fed a diet of rice or noodle soup. “We could not drink water every day, because we were afraid of bothering the police officers. They had to take us to toilet if we wanted to pee. We were afraid of being yelled at,” he wrote.

On Jan. 22, the day China moved to lock down Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, officers ordered everyone to wear masks. They then took the temperatures of those in the crowded room, where the windows were closed. Mr. Ghappar was found to have a high temperature. He was segregated in a different room, where he could more clearly hear the screams emanating from what he understood to be interrogation rooms.

“One time I heard someone screaming the whole day long. To me it was no different from psychological torture. I was scared, worrying that I would be next,” he said.

In his account, he makes no reference to any charges against him, or accusations of wrongdoing.

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Mr. Ghappar's feet and the floor of the room where he was confined. He said his body was covered with lice.

Eighteen days after he entered the basement, minibuses arrived to take people away. Mr. Ghappar got onto a bus, only to be called back by a local official. He was held in a room with an old man whose hands and feet were covered with cotton gauze, as pus seeped out from wounds where police had dragged him while wearing handcuffs. The old man had angered officers by asking to use the toilet.

Later in the day, four young people were brought into the room, the youngest 16. “They were arrested for playing an outdoor game, something like baseball, during the pandemic,” Mr. Ghappar wrote. “In the evening, they were brought to the police station and beaten until they screamed like babies. The skin on their buttocks split open, they couldn’t sit down.”

Later that night, Mr. Ghappar was taken to a hospital for a lung examination. Doctors found nothing unusual.

“Then I was taken here and handcuffed to the bed,” he wrote. “My whole body is covered with lice. Every day I catch many of them and pluck them from my body.”

He was allowed to leave the room twice a day to use the bathroom. He told family members that he managed to secure his phone by persuading guards to let him access a change of clothes he had brought, and in which he had stashed the device.

Mr. Ghappar said he was brought to a community virus-prevention station. Local authorities told friends and family that Mr. Ghappar had a fever and was placed in quarantine.

Mr. Ghappar managed to get his cellphone into the room in a bag of clothing.

Handout

There are signs that China’s COVID-19 response has taken unusually severe form in Xinjiang. At the beginning of March, before the region had reported a single confirmed case, it had placed thousands of people under medical observation, which commonly means quarantine at home or in a place chosen by authorities. On March 1, of those under medical observation in Chinese regions outside Hubei province – the pandemic’s epicentre – more than 22 per cent were in Xinjiang, which makes up less than 2 per cent of the population.

Over the past two weeks, a new outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Xinjiang has prompted a rigorous response. Digital maps show roads across the region blocked, while videos posted to social media show Uyghur homes sealed from the outside with cable locks. Uyghurs in Xinjiang have told friends living outside the country that they have been placed for quarantine in facilities that have been used as centres for forced political indoctrination and skills training.

Chinese authorities say they have adopted “wartime” measures in the region; the Uyghur Human Rights Project, based in Washington, has said it is worried such measures could give authorities reason to “lock people in their homes for weeks without prior warning.”

But in the videos that Mr. Ghappar sent from the room where he is handcuffed to the bed, there is little evidence that he is in a medical facility. The view from his window looks like a residential community. A person stationed at an entry gate is wearing camouflage-patterned clothing, with only a mask for protective gear. A loudspeaker plays a verbal recounting in Mandarin and Uyghur of China’s officially sanctioned version of Xinjiang history, in which East Turkestan – a name for the region used by many Uyghurs – has never existed but is instead the product of “separatist forces at home and abroad.”

The regular playing of loudspeaker propaganda, a technique widely employed by Mao Zedong, has returned to many places across China under President Xi. It would not be surprising for such broadcasts to be played in residential complexes in Xinjiang to “remind the population of what is the correct thinking,” said Mr. Zenz, the U.S.-based scholar, who is a senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Mr. Ghappar found further evidence of such efforts in a document he photographed. Dated Jan. 22, 2018, the single-page document describes a campaign to “fully commence the self-surrender and repentance work in our administrative district.” Across Xinjiang at the time, according to government reports, large groups of Uyghurs were called in to publicly repent their wrongdoings.

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The document says this work must be “wide to the utmost and strict to the margin” and intended to produce “true surrender,” “true remorse” and “true reports.” It threatens severe punishment for those who do not self-disclose and repent of errors not discovered by local authorities.

“Actively encourage party cadres, religious personnel, ordinary residents (over 12 years old) to give themselves in and repent,” says the document.

Though the document does not define what constitutes a wrongdoing, scholars say people were likely required to confess to religious thoughts or activities that Chinese authorities consider erroneous – and perhaps to transgressions such as children born in violation of family-planning policies. Later, those confessions could be used to punish people.

“This is not a campaign to root out a small number of supposed terrorists. This is a campaign directed at the entire population,” said James Millward, a historian at Georgetown University who has written extensively on Xinjiang.

“What the Chinese Communist Party has done has really stumbled into the same kind of eugenically tainted, assimilative, highly discriminatory practices toward diversity that we really saw during the nadir of the 20th century,” he said.

What Mr. Ghappar describes “is a kind of gratuitous cruelty and a blurring of categories from someone who is ostensibly ill with this dangerous disease being treated as a terrorist simply because of his ethnicity,” said Prof. Millward.

Mr. Ghappar himself makes little comment on his situation. His conditions in forced quarantine are better than in the police station, he said.

He allows only one criticism of what he has endured, and those who have locked him up.

“People here,” he said, “are not in their right minds.”


From the archives: Nathan VanderKlippe on the Uyghurs

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Inside China’s campaign against the Uyghurs

‘I felt like a slave:’ Inside China’s complex system of incarceration and control of minorities

‘It is about Xi as the leader of the world’: Former detainees recount abuse in Chinese re-education centres

Exporting persecution: Uyghur diaspora haunted by anxiety, guilt as family held in Chinese camps

Nathan VanderKlippe recounts surveillance, threats of arrest, destruction of photos while reporting in Xinjiang


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