News Coronavirus Dual threat: Coronavirus not the only battle in Uighur ‘re-education’ camps

Dual threat: Coronavirus not the only battle in Uighur ‘re-education’ camps

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While the world has been focused on fighting COVID-19, alarming footage has emerged of a Uighur fashion model handcuffed to a bed inside one of China’s so-called “re-education camps”.

The footage of detained model Merdan Ghappar, 31, was published by the BBC this week as coronavirus cases in the Xinjiang region reportedly climbed beyond 600.

And there are fears those case numbers may rise.

A series of Mr Ghappar’s WeChat text messages, obtained by the BBC, describe the squalid and closely confined living conditions inside the facility where he was being held in January.

He said many inmates had lice and were made to share a handful of plastic bowls and spoons between them all.

“Before eating, the police would ask people with infectious diseases to put their hands up and they’d be the last to eat,” he wrote in the messages, translated for the BBC by James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University.

“But if you want to eat earlier, you can remain silent. It’s a moral issue, do you understand?”

Mr Ghappar’s messages also described brutal quarantine measures inside the camp in late January, when the coronavirus was first taking hold of China.

He said in one incident four young men were caught playing a baseball-like game outside and were “beaten until they screamed like babies, the skin on their buttocks split open and they couldn’t sit down”.

What is happening in the Xinjiang region?

Mr Ghappar’s story is not an unusual one.

More than a million Uighurs are believed to be locked up inside mass “re-education camps” run by the Chinese Communist Party, aimed at stamping out alleged “extremism” among the local ethnic Muslim population.

For years, tight-lipped Party officials have long denied what really happens in the camps – officially called “Vocational Education and Training Centres”.

But Dr Michael Clarke, Associate Professor at the Australian National University’s national security college, said the camps were “broadly consistent with what you would define as cultural genocide”.

Unlike Germany’s Nazi concentration camps, which were explicitly designed to kill an entire population, Dr Clarke said there has been no evidence of this happening in Xinjiang.

The CCP claims Uyghurs are living a ‘free and normal’ life in the camps. Photo: Chinese TV
The Chinese Communist Party claims Uyghurs are living a ‘free and normal’ life in the camps. Photo: Chinese TV

However, there have been multiple anecdotal reports of children being separated from their parents, women being forcibly sterilised and Uighurs punished for speaking their native tongue.

“The Communist Party officials believe there is something inherently threatening or wrong with the Uighur identity, and you have to break it and reassemble it,” Dr Clarke said.

“If you can control the ability of a minority to physically reproduce, you’re really preventing the reproduction of that culture.”

Coronavirus fears

To combat Xinjiang’s rising cases, the region’s capital, Urumqi, has reduced public transport services and closed down some areas of the city.

According to Chinese state media, the region reported 28 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Monday – all in Urumqi. By day’s end Xinjiang had 606 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 114 asymptomatic cases.

Dr Clarke said Mr Ghappar’s translated messages “give credence to the idea there are conditions that are ripe for the rapid spread of COVID-19 within the re-education system”.

“It shows very crowded facilities, and a very relaxed approach to basic public health precautions,” he told The New Daily.

Dr David Brophy, a senior lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Sydney, said Mr Ghapper’s description of the police station in which he was held was “shocking, it’s obviously unsanitary”.

“His account shows that during the initial response to COVID, local Xinjiang police were using beatings and arbitrary detention in holding cells to enforce the lockdown,” Dr Brophy told The New Daily.

“It’s troubling to think such practices may well be continuing today.”

But he said despite the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Xinjiang, we still don’t know if the virus has spread into detention facilities yet.

“It’s unlikely that we’d ever know about an outbreak among detainees or prisoners, unless of course it came via leaked testimony,” Dr Brophy said.