After year-long stint in detention camp, Uyghur footballer Erfan Hezim signs with new Chinese club

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

The recent case of Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi — detained in Thailand, threatened with extradition to Bahrain, then returned to Australia where he has refugee status — garnered headlines around the world last month.

But last summer, the story of a detained Chinese footballer barely made a ripple.

While reported in these pages and a few other places, the case of Uyghur player Erfan Hezim (a.k.a. Ye Erfan 叶尔凡) drew a brief mention from professional footballers’ union FIFPro, but otherwise saw none of the #SaveHakeem-style campaigns from the wider football world.

Hezim’s Weibo profile pic is a selfie with soccer legend Lionel Messi

Hezim, now 20, was reportedly placed in a forced detention camp in his native Xinjiang, allegedly for traveling overseas without permission, even though those trips — to Dubai and Spain — were for football training camps.

Fortunately, Hezim has now been released after an 11-month spell in confinement, and he’s just signed with League One club Shaanxi Chang’an Athletic, having moved from CSL side Jiangsu Suning, where he played prior to his detention.


A prodigious talent at youth levels, it will be interesting to see if Hezim’s enforced absence from the sport has affected his career, or if he is able to make his way back up to the CSL.

But this is just one example of how the cards can be stacked against Xinjiang players in China.

In a previously unreported story, a foreign coach once associated with the U19 Chinese squad said that at a training camp for squad selection, he immediately picked out Hezim, claiming he was head and shoulders above the rest of the other players on show.

But his Chinese colleague advised against selecting Hezim by saying first that he wasn’t a very good player and then — once the foreign coach had squarely rejected that assessment — that he still shouldn’t be picked because, as a Xinjiang native, he would surely struggle to get a visa to travel overseas for international competitions, a line that turned out to be somewhat ironic given that overseas travel was precisely the reason given for his detention.

On this occasion, the foreign coach won out and Hezim was selected for the squad — and promptly scored one of the goals of the year in an U19 game against Turkey.

Half a year later, he was detained.

China’s second tier isn’t exactly the highest standard of play, but with time still on his side, here’s to hoping Hezim can rediscover his form and score a few more bicycle kicks like that.

Major League Baseball announced the signing of three Chinese prospects this week — and they’ve all joined the Milwaukee Brewers.

MLB first established player development centers in China back in 2007, with Itchy Xu 许桂源 the first graduate to sign with the major leagues, when he joined the Baltimore Orioles in 2015.

Since then, just three others have followed a similar path, with Sea Gong 宫海成, Justin Qiangba 强巴仁增, and Bruce Wang 王洋 signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively.

But with the Brewers’ trio almost doubling the total number of graduates, it appears as if the grassroots system is now beginning to bear fruit.

Of course, there’s still a long, long way to go before a Major League debut, especially given that the three Brewers prospects are still teenagers.

Pitcher Jolon Zhao 赵伦, 17, looks to be the pick of the bunch, already reportedly throwing at speeds of up to 95 mph a year ago, and will report to Single A after spring training.

Generously listed at 5’10” and 180 pounds, it’s clear Zhao needs to bulk up before he’s ready to launch an attack on the big leagues, but he’s already had some experience of playing above his natural level, appearing for the Alexandria Aces in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League last summer, when he pitched three shutout innings in two games while striking out five of 14 batters — players who were all several years older.

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This is by far the most impressive performace I have seen all spring. 16yr old Jolon Lun from China pitching in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League for the @alexandria_aces @prime_time_baseball sitting 91-93 topping 95 with a absolute hammer of a curveball. I can't wait to work with him and the entire Aces pitching staff all summer. Thanks Chris Berset for finding this hidden gem • Like/Comment♥️✏ Tag Friends👥 Save 💾 Repost and tag @coachgiblin for more content • #mlb #china #chinese #mlbchina #90club #gas #baseball #asia @prime_time_baseball @perfectgameusa @pbrvirginiadc @joeykamide @novabaseballmag @mlb @prospectdugout @prospectwirebaseball @baseball_lifestyle101 @thebaseballclub

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Zhao in fact inked his deal with the Brewers last June, while pitcher Ian Yi 伊健 and infielder Coco Kou 寇永康 both signed later in the summer, though this week’s signing ceremony in Beijing was held as part of the official announcement as well as to mark the 10th anniversary of the development centers in Wuxi, Changzhou, and Nanjing.

While grassroots operations in China are funded equally by all teams, the Brewers are among those with a particular focus on global talent development, especially China. And while U.S. baseball often proves a step too far for Chinese players, with most of the previous graduates stuck in the lowest levels of minor league ball, there are other options, such as time spent playing in the ABL in Australia.

Jim Small, senior vice president of Major League Baseball’s international business, talked about these signings becoming “ambassadors for the sport’s development in China,” and it’s clear that they could still have a sizable impact even if their Major League dreams are never achieved.

Song Andong

Song Andong 宋安东, who in 2015 became the first China-born hockey player to be drafted by the NHL, will almost certainly never play for the Islanders — or any other NHL team — but he’s become a well-known face in winter sports circles and was used — alongside Yao Ming, no less — to help secure the 2022 Winter Olympics for Beijing.

Rick Dell, the MLB’s general manager of baseball development in Asia, who, alongside the legendary Ray Chang, has been overseeing MLB development centers in China, talked about the concept of the student athlete — something that Song has become now that he’s playing at Cornell University.

It’s a smart goal on two levels: first, it’s far more achievable than attempting to become the Yao Ming of baseball, and, second, it’s something that Chinese parents can get on board with.

Growth from the grassroots takes time, but if Zhao and the others are able to break new ground, it will make it that much easier for those who come next.

The China Sports Column runs every Friday on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.