In May of 2019 — in the good old days, back when campaign stops could be packed with people — former Vice President Joe Biden, then a recently declared as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, said something extraordinary about President Donald Trump’s tough stance on China.
“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains in the east, I mean in the west,” Biden told a campaign rally, according to The Hill.
He added that the communist nation “can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not, they’re not competition for us.”
By “not bad folks,” given that it came directly after how China couldn’t deal with corruption, there’s little doubt Biden was referring to the Chinese government. We knew plenty, at that point, regarding China’s flagrant violations of human rights, including so-called “re-education camps” in Xinjiang Province where members of the Uighur ethnic group — who are primarily Muslim — were being imprisoned.
We knew all of this at that time — but we didn’t know about the case of Merdan Ghappar.
According to the BBC, Ghappar is a Uighur and a former model who was put into the Xinjiang camps earlier this year. His relatives hadn’t heard anything from him — until he was reportedly able to get access to a phone and send texts and video from inside a detention facility.
The 31-year-old Ghappar, born in Xinjiang, left the province in 2009 for the wealthier southern Chinese city of Foshan. He became a model, including a face for Chinese retail giant Taobao, earning up to 10,000 Chinese yuan (about $1,430) a day for his services.
He faced the usual prejudices visited upon Uighurs in China, the BBC reported. He would tell prospective employers his facial features were “half-European” to escape scrutiny and, when he purchased an apartment, had to register it in the name of an ethnically Han Chinese friend.
Things turned sour in 2018 when Ghappar was arrested for allegedly selling cannabis. For whatever it’s worth, there’s some doubt as to his culpability in reports; the BBC says his friends called the charges “trumped up”; those Radio Free America talked to denied he was guilty.
Ghappar served 16 months. A month after his November 2019 release, Ghappar was contacted by authorities who told him to return to Xinjiang, with authorities saying “he may need to do a few days of education at his local community” — a euphemism for being interred in the re-education camps, the BBC says.
Ghappar’s family didn’t hear from him until March, where he sent them text messages and a video from inside the camp.
“A propaganda announcement can be heard in the background: “Xinjiang has never been an ‘East Turkistan,'” the announcement says, spoken in both Mandarin and Uighur.
“Separatist forces at home and abroad have politicized this geographical term and called for those who speak Turkic languages and believe in Islam to unite.”
Experts told the BBC the video appeared to be genuine.
The texts sent to the BBC paint an even darker picture.
“I saw 50 to 60 people detained in a small room no bigger than 50 square meters, men on the right, women on the left,” Ghappar wrote in one message.
“Everyone was wearing a so-called ‘four-piece-suit,’ a black head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting the cuffs to the shackles.”
When Ghappar told guards he couldn’t sleep with the handcuffs and leg shackles, he was threatened with death.
“I lifted the sack on my head and told the police officer that the handcuffs were so tight they hurt my wrists,” he wrote.
“He shouted fiercely at me, saying ‘If you remove your hood again, I will beat you to death’. And after that I dared not to talk.
“Dying here is the last thing I want.”
A picture of a document sent from the camp, meanwhile, shows officials saying children as young as 13 should “repent for their mistakes and voluntarily surrender.”
As for food, Ghappar says the inmates only had a few bowls and spoons for a room full of prisoners.
“Before eating, the police would ask people with infectious diseases to put their hands up and they’d be the last to eat,” he writes.
“But if you want to eat earlier, you can remain silent. It’s a moral issue, do you understand?”
Torture was another constant Ghappar described in the camp. In one text, he talks about hearing screams from “Interrogation rooms.”
Then he described a group of young people between 16 and 20 who broke quarantine during the height of the coronavirus in China.
“During the epidemic period they were found outside playing a kind of game like baseball,” he writes.
“They were brought to the police station and beaten until they screamed like babies, the skin on their buttocks split open and they couldn’t sit down.”
The prisoners had to wear masks along with the hoods, which made it difficult to breathe, Ghappar’s texts said. Then his temperature tested above normal, which had him moved upstairs to a room with the windows open. Freezing temperatures made sleep impossible. It also meant he could hear the torture more clearly.
“One time I heard a man screaming from morning until evening,” he said.
When the prisoners were being moved, the BBC said Ghappar was separated sent to what he described as an “epidemic control center” because of a cold. He described the conditions there as filthy — but more relaxed, meaning he could get the texts and videos out.
“My whole body is covered in lice. Every day I catch them and pick them off from my body – it’s so itchy,” he wrote.
“Of course, the environment here is better than the police station with all those people. Here I live alone, but there are two people guarding me.”
The videos and texts were sent, according to Radio Free America, to his Ghappar’s aunt Ayshemgul Ghappar, who forwarded the material to her brother, Abdulhakim Ghappar, who is based in the Netherlands.
“We exchanged messages for a week … [and for the last time] around March 9 or 10, I can’t remember exactly,” Abdulhakim Ghappar told Radio Free America.
“He sent me a message and then he and my sister were just gone. I’ve heard nothing from my sister since.”
Abdulhakim Ghappar says Chinese authorities “undoubtedly took his phone away.”
“It seems clear that he got in even worse trouble after sending the video — I think this is why he disappeared,” he told Radio Free America.
Chinese authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment on the whereabouts of either Merdan or Ayshemgul Ghappar, BBC reported.
Ghappar’s professional career has been erased, according to the BBC:
“Taobao, the online retailer that had hired Merdan as a model, no longer has any record of him on its website, while any mention of him has been scrubbed from Baidu, China’s most popular search engine.”
There are over 1 million Uighurs in the Chinese Communist Party’s network of camps, by every reliable estimation. There’s no president, no politician, no world body that can compel Beijing to disassemble this vile apparatus. They can put pressure on them, however — which makes Biden’s recent change of tone curious.
“Time and again, President Trump has surrendered our values and reassured China’s autocrats they have a like-minded partner in the White House,” Biden said in a statement.
“Trump’s record on Beijing’s human rights abuses is indefensible, marked by desperation for a failing trade deal, fealty to Xi Jinping, and an open admission that he’s willing to turn a blind eye to even the worst atrocities.”
What changed, one wondered, in that intervening year? We knew as much about human rights abuses in China, particularly against the Uighur people, as we do now. Trump has to deal with Beijing on a number of fronts — economically, militarily and otherwise. He’s in office.
Biden, meanwhile, is just running for office. He can promise whatever he wants. And last May, he wasn’t promising to “take stronger steps” on goods imported to the U.S. from Xinjiang or “stand against” repression there like he did in July.
Remember, last May, it was just that Beijing “can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks.”
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