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Wear your Mask Under your Hood: An Eyewitness Account of Arbitrary Detention in Xinjiang during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic.

By Merdan Ghappar (Mai-er-dan A-ba 麦尔丹∙ 阿巴)

Translated by James Millward. Reporting from BBC and Toronto Globe and Mail.

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Merdan in a quarantine room in Kucha, February 2020

The text translated below was provided to the BBC and Toronto Globe and Mail as a series of overlapping screenshots taken from a single long text message (I’ve included the original screenshots at the end of this post.) The message describes the captivity of a young Uyghur man, Merdan Ghappar, in a police station in Kucha, Xinjiang. Ghappar, an artist and former dancer, worked as a model for the on-line retail company Taobao and lived in Guangdong in southern China. In 2018 he was arrested on a marijuana charge and served 16 months in prison. In January 2020, a little more than a month after his release from prison, agents from Xinjiang came to Ghappar’s home. They had been dispatched from Kucha, where Ghappar is registered in the PRC household registry system, to bring him back to Xinjiang, supposedly for re-registration and “study.” PRC authorities quite commonly force people to return to the place where their hukou 户口 is registered, and such demands have been commonly used to force non-Han people such as Uyghurs or Tibetans to leave eastern China.

After his arrival in Kucha, Ghappar was taken to the police station, where he was hooded, shackled, and thrown in a crowded cell. During his detention, authorities publicly announced the spread of the novel coronavirus to Xinjiang. Ghappar’s account gives an indication of how authorities treated detainees even after epidemic prevention procedures had supposedly been instituted in the city, and suggests how such conditions and treatment might have spread the virus. Later, the police, perhaps fearing that having recently arrived from eastern China Ghappar might himself be sick with COVID19, moved him to solitary quarantine in a bare room in an “epidemic prevention station” in a neighborhood compound 社区防疫站 . There, although handcuffed to a steel bed, he was able to retrieve his phone from belongings he brought from Guangzhou and write the following account which he sent to a relative in Europe. He also recorded video clips of his surroundings, as reported by the BBC and Toronto Globe and Mail.

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https://twitter.com/Uyghurspeaker/status/1236960347443126275

This account was provided to the BBC as a series of overlapping screenshots taken from a single long text message. In the style of Chinese language texting, it is largely unpunctuated, but in places phrases and sentences are divided by blank spaces. The original has no line breaks; I have added some paragraph breaks in the translation to highlight changes in topic. Merdan’s written Chinese is chatty and colloquial, but in places he uses more sophisticated phrases, such as 稚嫩 “fresh-faced, tender, youthful” and 雪上加霜 “adding frost on top the snow” (i.e. making things even worse). Despite official PRC claims that its mass detention of Uyghurs and other non-Han people is meant to steer uneducated farmers away from extremist thinking by teaching them Chinese, Merdan clearly enjoys native fluency in Chinese and was successfully employed in Guangzhou before being taken back to detention in Xinjiang. This account begins in mid-January 2020; Merdan makes reference to the alarm about the coronavirus being raised in Xinjiang on 22 January (Western news media reported the spread of the novel coronavirus to Xinjiang on 24 January). Merdan was held in the police station for some 18 days, then quarantined in February. He sent another text message on 29 February 2020. His family abroad has not heard from him since. They sought out news media to publicize Merdan’s plight following his disappearance.

Merdan’s account is consistent with, though more detailed than, other reports by Uyghurs and Kazakhs who have been arbitrarily detained in the PRC gulag in Xinjiang. Before being moved to prisons or the “concentrated educational transformation” camps, internees have often been held in such detention centers (kanshousuo 看守所) in crowded, unhygienic and brutal conditions. Merdan’s testimony corroborates previous accounts of beatings and torture from Uyghurs and Kazakhs who have managed to get out of China after their confinement. His account also shows that the practice of “rounding up everyone who should be rounded up” — a mandate under which Xinjiang authorities have especially targeted professionals and Uyghurs with contacts abroad — was still going on in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic and despite PRC claims that internees have “graduated” to work in labor gangs assigned to Xinjiang and eastern Chinese factories.

Merdan’s account:

The people here really have some problem in their head. When I was taken away, I was wearing a Uniqlo down jacket, really good quality, very warm. When I got to this police station, I saw 50–60 people were locked in a small room not 50 meters square in area — I was shocked. A third of the room was taken up by chairs for the duty cops. The rest was men on the right, women on the left, divided up and locked in cages. And from head to toe, they were all wearing four-piece suits. This so-called four-piece suit was a black cloth bag over the head; handcuffs; shackles; and a steel chain between the handcuffs and the shackles. No one was allowed to open the hood to look at each other or at the police. Otherwise they’d get shouted at really viciously.

The first day I was taken there I was screamed at. I was taken there at night. At night when it was time to sleep, because there were too many people and the space so small, not every person could sleep lying down. Some had to sit with their legs curled up. That night I was one of the ones who had to sleep sitting up. Others slept on their sides squeezed together really tightly. At night before sleeping they [the guards] would arrange us in sleeping positions. That night my handcuffs were locked too tightly — it was really painful for my wrists. Because that was the first night I was taken there I didn’t know the rules. I raised my hood to ask the cop who was arranging our sleeping positions, I said my cuffs were too tight, my wrists were aching, could you please loosen them a little bit for me? Then he just shouted fiercely at me: “if you lift that hood again I beat you to death!” I saw he was carrying a rifle on his back so I didn’t dare say anything else. I don’t want to die.

Here the cloth hood on its own is very thick — it’s very stuffy underneath. On top of that, given how many people there were, with few windows, no air circulating, there was little oxygen. Moreover, there was just one fan in a small window. Originally there’d been two, but the other fan was sealed up and wouldn’t run.

Every two police officers and one police assistant (that is, the guards who weren’t wearing police uniforms but a just a camouflage jacket),[1] would do a shift of about 3–6 hours together. While working a shift, smoking or whatever, their personalities were different. Some loved to scream at people, some were okay. The person wearing my hood before me had poked several holes in it. I could see everything in the room. I saw that a lot of police in uniform had a badge on their right arm that said “police assistant” (xieling 协警). Although those police were wearing uniforms, nearly all of them were assistants. If you didn’t see that badge, it was really hard to tell them apart. I saw that a lot of the assistants were kids — from their dewy youthful faces they looked about 17, 18, 20? Maybe. Anyway, they looked like kids dressed in a cop’s uniform. Some had no education — listening to how they talked I got the sense that their cultural level is pretty low.

After I’d been there for a while, I could often hear other interrogation rooms in that underground area? The sounds of horrible screams came through, from men and women. It was awful whatever it was, just terrifying. It scared the hell out of the people in the cages.

Some of the duty cops when they arrived in the morning or the evening would open the window to let some air in. Some wouldn’t. Although there was a fan in the window, if it was turned on it got really cold. It was winter, after all. And maybe it was because we were always sitting and couldn’t move around, so it was easy to get cold. If the window wasn’t open, it was really stuffy.

Some people had different kinds of infectious diseases. There was nothing we could do — we could only all breathe the same air together. For eating, there were only 7–8 plastic bowls and spoons — the spoons were one-time use, disposable ones. But everybody everyday would have to take turns using these 7 or 8 one-time-use spoons. Both the men and the women prisoners shared these bowls and spoons. The police washed the bowls and spoons, but they never washed them clean. Before meals, they would have anyone with an infectious disease raise their hand, and [the police] would say, “those with a disease eat last” or something like that. If you wanted to eat sooner, you could just keep your mouth shut. You understand what I’m saying? But this was a moral problem.

Our food was the leftovers after the cops had eaten, made into rice-soup. I mean that the cooked dishes and rice in the dining hall were clean. The leftovers were then thrown together with rice or noodles, with a bit of water dumped in and mixed up into a soup. In any case every meal always was mixed up with water. Because we normally couldn’t drink water — we were afraid if we drank water we’d need to go to the bathroom, and have to trouble someone to take us to the toilet, and we were afraid of getting yelled at. Of course, there were some who would ask to drink some water. That would depend on whether the duty cop agreed or not.

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Some of Merdan Ghappar’s modeling images. Uyghurs are popular as models in China, because they are thought to look partly “western.”

And the carpet was incredibly dirty, with lots of garbage and lice. On the 22nd [of January, 2020] when the news of the epidemic broke, the cops told us to wear masks underneath our cloth hoods. A hood + a mask. There was even less air. And that day they hadn’t opened the window. The room was really hot because there was a radiator in the room. Later a cop used an epidemic infrared forehead thermometer to check all of our temperatures. But I don’t think that thing is as accurate as an underarm thermometer. Body temperature is not the same when wearing clothes. Because of the various factors I mentioned above, my temperature and those of several people reached more than 37 or 38 degrees. Then they probably thought I was running a temperature, and I was also from eastern China.[2]

After a few days they took me to another room upstairs, pretty big, like a questioning room. There were lots of small cubicles inside, the kind with stainless steel bars. They had me stay alone in one of those rooms, with two people to guard me. I was still wearing the four-piece suit and a facemask. In this room the radiator wasn’t very effective, maybe was because the room was larger. The temperature varied greatly from morning to night. At night it was incredibly cold, there was no way to sleep, all I could do was curl up in a ball. Some of the duty cops, so as not to get sleepy, would open the window. That was like adding frost on top of the snow. And they wouldn’t let me sleep during the day, but made me sit up. This room was on the first floor — I could hear the screams more clearly. There was also an interrogation room on the first floor. One time I heard a man screaming from morning until evening. This was psychological torture to me — I was afraid, would the next one be me?

Two or three days after coming into this room I couldn’t handle the cold and really came down with something, but wasn’t feverish, just a runny nose. They took my temperature every day. Later they decided that that infrared thermometer thing wasn’t accurate and used an under-arm thermometer to take my temperature. Then I got clever. When they were going to take my temperature, I opened the zipper on my clothes. That way, my body temperature went down. This was because I was afraid they would misdiagnose me as having coronavirus and take me to a hospital and put me together with other people who really had coronavirus to observe or treat, and so on…that way the infection rate would be much higher….

By the 4th or 5th day — I forget — when they saw that my temperature always held at 35–36 they took me back down to that 50-meter square cage in the underground room. A few more days passed. Maybe it was the beginning of February, everyone in the cage was packed onto some kind of minibus and taken away. At the time I was also pressed onto the bus, but before it drove off, some official, I guess, told the bus to stop. Then I was taken back underground to the cage. I was the only one left.

Within a few hours, an old man whom they’d tortured before came back from the hospital or clinic. There were gauze bandages on his hands and feet, because in the place where the cuffs were on both his hands, his wrists, had been dragged, the skin was broken, oozing blood and pus. Besides torturing him in the interrogation room, this old man always wanted to go to the bathroom at midday. Only the police who were guarding us could take us to go to the bathroom upstairs. Every prisoner was assigned to the supervision of a different officer, so another prisoner’s cop wouldn’t be willing to take a prisoner who wasn’t his personal charge to go to the toilet. Moreover, these police usually weren’t in the underground room waiting around. They were probably working in an office, or interrogating someone else? For someone like this old man who wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the day, he’d have to request the duty cop to call his supervising cop on the intercom and ask him to come down and take him to the toilet. It would take them a long time to come down, and they probably found it a lot of trouble to come to the underground room. They’d be ticked off, so they’d yell at whoever wanted to go to the bathroom. The old man seemed to have high blood pressure, gout and such diseases. Both his feet swelled up.

In the evening, another four people came in, the youngest 16 and the oldest 20. The facts of their case were that during the epidemic period, they were outside playing a kind of game like baseball.[3] 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.

That same evening an ambulance came with a male and a female nurse to take me to the hospital to examine my lungs. The examination revealed that my lungs had no abnormalities, and then they took me here [i.e. to quarantine room in the neighborhood compound from which Merdan shot the video]. When I got here, they handcuffed me to the bed. My whole body is covered with lice — I catch a lot of them every day. It itches terribly. Here, too, I get to go to the bathroom just two times a day, morning and evening. Of course, the environment is a bit better than the police station with all those people. Here I live alone. But there are two people guarding me.

[1] Merdan usually refers to police with an incongruously cute policeman emoji. Here he draws a distinction between regular police officers and the auxiliary or assistant police (xiejing 协警) who were hired in great numbers after Chen Quanguo took over as party secretary in Xinjiang. These are poorly paid, poorly trained deputies, many hired from the ranks of unemployed Uyghurs, many of whom were unemployed because Chen drove them from larger cities back to their registered homes in small towns and villages with few opportunities. Merdan notes that some assistants are wearing uniforms similar to those of the police, marked with the words xieling on a shoulder patch. It is noteworthy how many police and assistants seem to be involved in handling these 50–60 people detained in the precinct holding cell: each officer has their own prisoners for whom they are responsible. Each time he was separated from the group, two guards were assigned to watch Merdan.

[2] I.e. Merdan had recently come from eastern China, where the coronavirus first broke out, so the guards were particularly concerned about him as a possible carrier.

[3] Baseball is relatively popular in Xinjiang. See “How to Grow Big, Beautiful Papayas: On the Baseball Film in Asia.”

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Written by

James A. Millward 米華健 is professor of history at Georgetown University and mandolinist for By & By.

James A. Millward 米華健 is professor of history at Georgetown University and mandolinist for By & By.

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