From growing a beard to complaining about porn: Here are the flimsy excuses China uses to throw Uighur Muslims into prison camps

Alexandra Ma
xinjiang uighur man police

Thomas Peter/Reuters


  • China has imprisoned at least one million Uighur Muslims in prisons and detention camps in recent years, claiming that their religion could lead to terrorism.
  • Authorities have used a slew of bizarre and draconian reasons to lock Uighurs up.
  • They include growing a beard, talking to people in foreign countries, and complaining about people's porn habits.
  • Scroll down to see a list of excuses China has given to lock people up.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority in China, are subject to some of the most severe surveillance and repression in the country's history.

Around one million of them are reportedly imprisoned in detention centers or prisons in the western region of Xinjiang, where most of them live. Uighurs refer to the region as East Turkestan.

The detentions are part of China's hardline counterterrorism policy in the region, which purports to clamp down on religious radicalism. Beijing sees Uighurs' religion as a threat, and often conflates Islam with extremism.

As part of this crackdown, China has used a slew of flimsy and draconian reasons to lock Uighurs up — from growing a beard, to talking to people in foreign countries, to complaining about people's porn habits.

Scroll down to see some of the most bizarre excuses China has allegedly used to imprison Uighurs.

Setting clocks to two hours after Beijing time.

Kevin Frayer/Getty

One man was arrested and detained for being a terrorist suspect because he set his watch to "Urumqi time," an unofficial time zone set two hours behind Beijing's, Human Rights Watch said in a wide-ranging report published last year.

China has one official time zone for the entire country — China Standard Time (CST) — which follows Beijing hours. But because the country is so big, Beijing is actually two hours ahead of the natural daylight schedule in Xinjiang, which is in the west.

Setting clocks to "Urumqi time" is therefore seen as a form of resistance against the Chinese Communist Party.



Going to religious gatherings — because China sees Uighurs' religion as a threat.

Thomson Reuters

China frequently refers to Islamic beliefs as extremist ideology, and likens the religion to a cancer or disease.

The atheist Communist Party also tightly controls religion in the country, only allowing citizens to practise if their sect is officially sanctioned by the government. 

Hoshur, a Uighur man from southern Xinjiang, told Human Rights Watch that his mother and 20 other women in their 60s were detained and charged with "attending a religious gathering" at their neighbors' house in 2013.



Showing distinct markers of Islam, like having a beard or wearing a veil.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China has prohibited the distinct markers of Islam, such as growing long beards and wearing veils in public, since at least 2017.

Erkin, a Uighur who was previously held in a political education camp, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that not following those rules is a cause for detention.

"There was an [ethnic] Uighur, who was our leader" in the detention camp cell, Erkin said. "He'd been detained for having a beard."

A 23-year-old Muslim Uighur, identified by the pseudonym Guli, also told The Guardian that she was interrogated by local authorities because they heard reports that she wore a hijab and prayed. She was later sent to a detention center for eight days, although her charge is not clear.

While detained Guli added that she had met a woman was imprisoned because police found a message saying "Happy Eid" on her phone.



Sharing Islamic beliefs, like telling people to stay away from porn.

Thomas Peter / REUTERS

One Uighur man was imprisoned in Qakilik County, southeastern Xinjiang, in 2018 for "the crime of incitement of ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination," a leaked court document published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) said.

The man's name was redacted. Qakilik County is also known as Ruoqiang in Chinese.

His alleged crimes included telling his colleagues to pray, not to watch porn, and not to accept food from people who smoke or drink alcohol.

Here's what he told his colleagues, according to the court documents:

  • "Do not say dirty words, do not watch porn, or you will become a kafir." Kafir is an Arabic word that means "non-believer" or "infidel."
  • "If you don't pray and watch porn, your soul will not be clean for 40 days and God will not accept your prayers."
  • "If you eat without praying, you will become a kafir. If you do not pray, you will be in hell and God will not forgive you."

China's apparent encouragement of watching porn is ironic because the government has reportedly ordered video-streaming sites to censor footage of "flirtatious" dancing and being shirtless in the past. Authorities had called those actions "obscene."



Exhibiting other Muslim behaviors and practices, such as not serving alcohol in restaurants.

Kevin Frayer/Getty

Erkin, the former detainee, told Human Rights Watch: "I know three restaurant owners [who] ran 'Islamic' restaurants — they got detained because they don't allow smoking or drinking in their restaurants."

The unidentified Uighur man who was sentenced to prison for allegedly inciting "ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination" had also told his colleagues not to accept food from "women who do not pray" or "people who smoke and drink alcohol," the court document said.

Another Uighur who had been detained, identified by the pseudonym Nur, told Human Rights Watch last year that he met a man who got locked up because "because he told his neighbor that they shouldn't drink because they are Muslims."

That incident got reported to the local shequ — or neighborhood authority — which ultimately resulted in the man's arrest and detention, Nur said. It's not clear who made the report, though Chinese officials often urge villagers to investigate and inform on their relatives and neighbors.



Sharing digital files of Islamic religious teachings.

Kevin Lee/Getty

In 2017, China identified 40,577 Uighurs to send to prison camps by tracking their use of Zapya, a popular Chinese file-sharing app, according to a leaked party document published by ICIJ.

The app encourages users to download the Quran and share audio and video files of religious teachings, the ICIJ reported. China described the material shared by those 40,577 individuals as encouraging terrorism.

The document then instructed officials to crack down on those people "one by one" and to detain them in prison camps unless they were able to prove themselves innocent.

It's not clear how officials accessed the app's users and the contents they received and sent. Chinese officials have the power to obtain user data whenever it wants.

Another former prison-camp detainee, identified by the pseudonym Alim, told Human Rights Watch last year he had met a 60-year-old and his daughter who were imprisoned for sending audios of Islamic teachings to other people.

The 60-year-old "had sent a tabligh audio — it is a form of Islamic religious teachings — to his daughter, and his daughter passed it to a friend," Alim said, according to the rights group.

The father was sentenced to six years, and the daughter three years, in detention.



Owning computer files in the Uighur language.

Pavel Mikheev/Reuters

Alim also told Human Rights Watch: "There was a guy who got [convicted and imprisoned for] eight years — he said he had some e-books in Uighur and he said the police counted that as religious materials."

The ICIJ's trove of leaked Communist Party documents contained an insistence on teaching Uighurs in prison camps solely in Mandarin Chinese — an apparent effort to force them to shed their culture and traditions.



Using a VPN to do homework.

Reuters/Stringer

A woman identified by the pseudonym Sofia said her daughter, a college student studying outside China, got detained for using a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass China's strict internet firewall to do her homework while visiting Xinjiang.

The daughter was "visiting relatives [in Xinjiang] and needed to access her school's website for homework ... and [she] used a VPN," Sofia said.

"But throughout my daughter's detention, they never told us why they were holding her. I only knew about the VPN after my ex-husband made enquiries about why she was detained and those [who knew] told him."



Communicating with relatives outside the country via messaging apps.

Florence Lo/Illustration/Reuters

Texting people outside the region can land Uighurs in interrogation and detention, according to multiple relatives of disappeared Uighurs.

Four relatives told Business Insider earlier this year that their relatives had blocked them on WeChat, China's most popular messaging app, for fear of getting rounded up by the authorities.

Chinese authorities can monitor private messages on the app without asking for users' permission.

Omerjan, another Uighur living abroad, told Human Rights Watch last year he sent a greeting to his father in Xinjiang via WhatsApp — which got his father taken into interrogation.

"I downloaded WhatsApp on my father's phone when he was here [in a foreign country] and I wanted to check if he can use WhatsApp over there, so I sent him a message," he said. "After he received it, he was taken away."

"I didn't even say anything, I just sent a greeting. He was taken away for a day, during which they asked him all kinds of questions about his WhatsApp."

Using WhatsApp — a foreign messaging service owned by Facebook — also appears to be a crime in itself.

Medina, who said her husband was detained for traveling abroad, also said authorities "found WhatsApp on his phone and they accused him of speaking to someone [in a foreign country] through WhatsApp."



Traveling out of the region.

Shutterstock

A 42-year-old Uighur woman, identified by the pseudonym Medina, told Human Rights Watch her husband and his relative had been sent into detention for traveling abroad.

She did not say where her husband went, but said his cousin's brother got detained "for going to Malaysia as a tourist."

Some Uighurs have also reported having to obtain official approval prior to their travels.

Omerjan, the Uighur who left Xinjiang as a teenager, also told the rights group: "We had to go to the neighborhood office to sign various papers saying that we won't participate in any religious activities and afterwards we were allowed 10 days away from the country."

Chinese Muslims embarking on Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, were photographed wearing GPS trackers around their necks as they prepared for their journey last year.



Knowing people who had traveled out of the region.

Shutterstock/Nadezda Zavitaeva

The man identified as Nur, who had been locked up, reported meeting fellow detainees who were held just for knowing people who had left the country.

"It's not even that they have close relatives abroad," Nur told Human Rights Watch. Having friends or neighbors who have gone abroad" was enough to get detained, he said.



Planning a move out of the country.

Flickr/ninara

A woman whose husband and three children were sent to political camps, identified as Enlik, said authorities had read her husband's phone messages and detained him for discussing the possibility of moving out of China.

It is common for Xinjiang law-enforcement officials to seize Uighurs' phones and search them for incriminating content. The ICIJ reported that officials often take Uighurs' phones to see if they had used Zapya, the file-sharing app authorities used to identify 40,000 people for prison camps.

"Police came and checked my husband's phone and they found that he's been discussing the possibility of migrating to [a foreign country]," Enlik told Human Rights Watch.

"And they said: 'Why are you talking about moving to [that foreign country]?'

"Fifteen days later they took him to the political education camp.

"He's not a criminal, but how come he's detained just for talking about [a foreign country]?"



Visiting one of 26 countries that China deems "sensitive." Almost all of these countries are majority-Muslim.

Samantha Lee/Business Insider

Xinjiang residents can be punished for having ties with any of the 26 countries. All of them are either majority-Muslim or have large Muslim populations.

The countries are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.



Attempting suicide while in detention.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A former detainee, who was given the pseudonym Ehmet, said he attempted suicide during his detention — and was given seven extra years in prison for doing so.

He told Human Rights Watch he woke up in hospital with a serious head injury after his suicide attempt, and said the guard simply told him: "We're going to sentence you for another seven years for having attempted suicide.'"



China has repeatedly denied operating prison camps, claiming instead that they offer "free vocational training" for people who had been infected by religious extremism.

REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool

Relatives of detained Uighurs have dismissed China's claims that they need skills training because many of the inmates are professionals, like doctors and journalists.

The Communist Party has also stood up to international criticism of the Xinjiang camps time and time again, saying that "re-educating" Uighurs has led to a decrease in violence and that its tactics in the region were "worth learning from."