China Uighurs: A model's video gives a rare glimpse inside internment


Merdan Ghappar was used to posing for the camera.

As a model for the massive Chinese online retailer Taobao, the 31-year-old was well paid to flaunt his good looks in slick promotional videos for clothing brands.

But one video of Mr Ghappar is different. Instead of a glitzy studio or fashionable city street, the backdrop is a bare room with grubby walls and steel mesh on the window. And in place of the posing, Mr Ghappar sits silently with an anxious expression on his face.

Holding the camera with his right hand, he reveals his dirty clothes, his swollen ankles, and a set of handcuffs fixing his left wrist to the metal frame of the bed - the only piece of furniture in the room.

The video of Mr Ghappar, along with a number of accompanying text messages also passed to the BBC, together provide a chilling and extremely rare first-hand account of China's highly secure and secretive detention system - sent directly from the inside.

The material adds to the body of evidence documenting the impact of China's fight against what it calls the "three evil forces" of separatism, terrorism, and extremism in the country's far western region of Xinjiang.

Over the past few years, credible estimates suggest, more than one million Uighurs and other minorities have been forced into a network of highly secure camps in Xinjiang that China has insisted are voluntary schools for anti-extremism training.

Thousands of children have been separated from their parents and, recent research shows, women have been forcibly subjected to methods of birth control.

In addition to the clear allegations of torture and abuse, Mr Ghappar's account appears to provide evidence that, despite China's insistence that most re-education camps have been closed, Uighurs are still being detained in significant numbers and held without charge.

It also contains new details about the huge psychological pressure placed on Uighur communities, including a document he photographed which calls on children as young as 13 to "repent and surrender".

And with Xinjiang currently experiencing a spike in the number of coronavirus infections, the dirty and crowded conditions he describes highlight the serious risk of contagion posed by this kind of mass detention during a global pandemic.

The BBC sent detailed requests for comment to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Xinjiang authorities but neither responded.

Mr Ghappar's family, who have not heard from him since the messages stopped five months ago, are aware that the release of the four minute, thirty-eight second video of him in his cell might increase the pressure and punishment he faces.

But they say it is their last hope, both to highlight his case and the plight of the Uighurs in general.

His uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar, who now lives in the Netherlands, believes the video could galvanise public opinion in the same way that footage of the police treatment of George Floyd became a powerful symbol of racial discrimination in the US.

"They have both faced brutality for their race," he says.

"But while in America people are raising their voices, in our case there is silence."

 

In 2009, Merdan Ghappar - like many Uighurs at that time - left Xinjiang to seek opportunity in China's wealthier cities in the east.

Having studied dance at Xinjiang Arts University, he found work first as a dancer and then, a few years later, as a model in the southern Chinese city of Foshan. Friends say Mr Ghappar could earn up to 10,000 Rmb (£1,000) per day.

His story reads like an advert for the country's dynamic, booming economy and President Xi Jinping's "China Dream". But the Uighurs, with their Turkic language, Islamic faith and ethnic ties to the peoples and cultures of central Asia, have long been viewed as an object of suspicion by Chinese rulers and faced discrimination in wider society.