China Muslims: Xinjiang schools used to separate children from families
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Xinjiang
China is deliberately separating Muslim children from their families, faith and language in its far western region of Xinjiang, according to new research.
At the same time as hundreds of thousands of adults are being detained in giant camps, a rapid, large-scale campaign to build boarding schools is under way.
Based on publicly available documents, and backed up by dozens of interviews with family members overseas, the BBC has gathered some of the most comprehensive evidence to date about what is happening to children in the region.
Records show that in one township alone more than 400 children have lost not just one but both parents to some form of internment, either in the camps or in prison.
Formal assessments are carried out to determine whether the children are in need of “centralised care”.
Alongside the efforts to transform the identity of Xinjiang’s adults, the evidence points to a parallel campaign to systematically remove children from their roots.
China’s tight surveillance and control in Xinjiang, where foreign journalists are followed 24 hours a day, make it impossible to gather testimony there. But it can be found in Turkey.
In a large hall in Istanbul, dozens of people queue to tell their stories, many of them clutching photographs of children, all now missing back home in Xinjiang.
“I don’t know who is looking after them,” one mother says, pointing to a picture of her three young daughters, “there is no contact at all.”
Another mother, holding a photo of three sons and a daughter, wipes away her tears. “I heard that they’ve been taken to an orphanage,” she says.
In 60 separate interviews, in wave after wave of anxious, grief-ridden testimony, parents and other relatives give details of the disappearance in Xinjiang of more than 100 children.
They are all Uighurs – members of Xinjiang’s largest, predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has long had ties of language and faith to Turkey. Thousands have come to study or to do business, to visit family, or to escape China’s birth control limits and the increasing religious repression.
But over the past three years, they have found themselves trapped after China began detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other minorities in giant camps.
The Chinese authorities say the Uighurs are being educated in “vocational training centres” in order to combat violent religious extremism. But evidence shows that many are being detained for simply expressing their faith – praying or wearing a veil – or for having overseas connections to places like Turkey.
For these Uighurs, going back means almost certain detention. Phone contact has been severed – even speaking to relatives overseas is now too dangerous for those in Xinjiang.
With his wife detained back home, one father tells me he fears some of his eight children may now be in the care of the Chinese state.
“I think they’ve been taken to child education camps,” he says.
New research commissioned by the BBC sheds light on what is really happening to these children and many thousands of others.
Campuses have been enlarged, new dormitories built and capacity increased on a massive scale. Significantly, the state has been growing its ability to care full-time for large numbers of children at precisely the same time as it has been building the detention camps.
And it appears to be targeted at precisely the same ethnic groups.
In just one year, 2017, the total number of children enrolled in kindergartens in Xinjiang increased by more than half a million. And Uighur and other Muslim minority children, government figures show, made up more than 90% of that increase.
As a result, Xinjiang’s pre-school enrolment level has gone from below the national average to the highest in China by far.
In the south of Xinjiang alone, an area with the highest concentration of Uighur populations, the authorities have spent an eye watering $1.2bn on the building and upgrading of kindergartens.
Mr Zenz’s analysis suggests that this construction boom has included the addition of large amounts of dormitory space.
Xinjiang’s education expansion is driven, it appears, by the same ethos as underlies the mass incarceration of adults. And it is clearly affecting almost all Uighur and other minority children, whether their parents are in the camps or not.
In 2018 work began on a site for two new boarding schools in Xinjiang’s southern city of Yecheng (known as Kargilik in Uighur).
Yecheng County Middle Schools 10 and 11
Dragging the slider reveals the pace of construction – the two middle schools, separated by a shared sports field, are each three times larger than the national average and were built in little more than a year.
In April last year, the county authorities relocated 2,000 children from the surrounding villages into yet another giant boarding middle school, Yecheng County Number 4.
Government propaganda extols the virtues of boarding schools as helping to “maintain social stability and peace” with the “school taking the place of the parents.” And Mr Zenz suggests there is a deeper purpose.
“Boarding schools provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies,” he argues.
Just as with the camps, his research shows that there is now a concerted drive to all but eliminate the use of Uighur and other local languages from school premises. Individual school regulations outline strict, points-based punishments for both students and teachers if they speak anything other than Chinese while in school.
And this aligns with other official statements claiming that Xinjiang has already achieved full Chinese language teaching in all of its schools.
Speaking to the BBC, Xu Guixiang, a senior official with Xinjiang’s Propaganda Department, denies that the state is having to care for large numbers of children left parentless as a result.
“If all family members have been sent to vocational training then that family must have a severe problem,” he says, laughing. “I’ve never seen such a case.”
But perhaps the most significant part of Mr Zenz’s work is his evidence that shows that the children of detainees are indeed being channelled into the boarding school system in large numbers.
There are the detailed forms used by local authorities to log the situations of children with parents in vocational training or in prison, and to determine whether they need centralised care.
Mr Zenz found one government document that details various subsidies available to “needy groups”, including those families where “both a husband and a wife are in vocational training”. And a directive issued to education bureaus by the city of Kashgar that mandates them to look after the needs of students with parents in the camps as a matter of urgency.
Schools should “strengthen psychological counselling”, the directive says, and “strengthen students’ thought education” – a phrase that finds echoes in the camps holding their parents.
It is clear that the effect of the mass internments on children is now viewed as a significant societal issue, and that some effort is going into dealing with it, although it is not something the authorities are keen to publicise.
Some of the relevant government documents appear to have been deliberately hidden from search engines by using obscure symbols in place of the term “vocational training”. That said, in some instances the adult detention camps have kindergartens built close by, and, when visiting, Chinese state media reporters have extolled their virtues.
These boarding schools, they say, allow minority children to learn “better life habits” and better personal hygiene than they would at home. Some children have begun referring to their teachers as “mummy”.
We telephoned a number of local Education Bureaus in Xinjiang to try to find out about the official policy in such cases. Most refused to speak to us, but some gave brief insights into the system.
We asked one official what happens to the children of those parents who have been taken to the camps.
“They’re in boarding schools,” she replied. “We provide accommodation, food and clothes… and we’ve been told by the senior level that we must look after them well.”
In the hall in Istanbul, as the stories of broken families come tumbling out, there is raw despair and deep resentment too.
“Thousands of innocent children are being separated from their parents and we are giving our testimonies constantly,” one mother tells me. “Why does the world keep silent when knowing these facts?”
Back in Xinjiang, the research shows that all children now find themselves in schools that are secured with “hard isolation closed management measures.” Many of the schools bristle with full-coverage surveillance systems, perimeter alarms and 10,000 Volt electric fences, with some school security spending surpassing that of the camps.
The policy was issued in early 2017, at a time when the detentions began to be dramatically stepped up. Was the state, Mr Zenz wonders, seeking to pre-empt any possibility on the part of Uighur parents to forcibly recover their children?
“I think the evidence for systematically keeping parents and children apart is a clear indication that Xinjiang’s government is attempting to raise a new generation cut off from original roots, religious beliefs and their own language,” he tells me.
“I believe the evidence points to what we must call cultural genocide.”
Chinese authorities claim the Uighurs are being educated in “vocational training centres” designed to combat extremism.
But evidence suggests that many are being detained for simply expressing their faith – praying or wearing a veil – or for having overseas connections to places like Turkey.
More than a million people are thought to be held within the system.
After parents are detained, formal assessments are then carried out to determine whether the children need “centralised care”.
One local official told the BBC that children whose parents had been detained in camps were sent to boarding schools.
“We provide accommodation, food and clothes… and we’ve been told by the senior level that we must look after them well,” she said.
But Dr Adrian Zenz, who carried out the research commissioned by the BBC, said boarding schools “provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies.”
“I think the evidence for systematically keeping parents and children apart is a clear indication that Xinjiang’s government is attempting to raise a new generation cut off from original roots, religious beliefs and their own language,” he said.
Dozens of Uighur parents living in Turkey spoke to the BBC about their desire to be united with their missing children.
“I don’t know who is looking after them… there is no contact at all,” one mother said.
Thousands of Uighurs have moved to Turkey to do business, to visit family, or to escape China’s birth control limits and what they call religious repression.
Many stayed after China began detaining hundreds of thousands of Uighurs over the past three years.
Mr Liu, however, described the parents who spoke to the BBC as “anti-government people”.
“You cannot expect a good word [from them] about the government,” he said. “If they want to be with their children they can come back.”
Searching for truth in China’s Uighur ‘re-education’ camps
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Xinjiang
The Chinese region of Xinjiang is home to millions of ethnic Muslim Uighurs who have lived there for decades. Rights groups say hundreds of thousands have been detained in camps without trial, but China argues they voluntarily attend centres which combat “extremism”. The BBC went inside one of them.
I’d been to the camps before.
But the closest I’d managed to get on previous visits were snatched glimpses of the barbed wire and watchtowers from a passing car, while the plainclothes police officers tailing us tried to stop us getting any closer.
Now I was being invited inside.
The risks of accepting were obvious. We were being taken into places that appeared to have been carefully spruced up – with satellite images revealing that much of the security infrastructure had recently been removed.
And one by one the people we spoke to inside, some of them visibly nervous, told us similar stories.
All of them members of Xinjiang’s largest, mainly Muslim ethnic group – the Uighurs – they said they’d been “infected by extremism” and that they’d volunteered to have their “thoughts transformed”.
This was China’s narrative in the mouths of people selected for us, and for whom any cross-examination might pose a serious risk.
What might be the consequences if they did let something slip? How could we safely separate the propaganda from the reality?
Radicalised and reborn
There are plenty of precedents for this kind of reporting dilemma.
There was the heavily managed 2004 press tour of the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in the wake of the abuse scandal, with reporters herded away from detainees clamouring to have their voices heard, some while waving their prosthetic legs.
In Xinjiang though, there is one big difference. The authorities grant access not only to show that the conditions inside the facilities are good, they also want to prove that they are not prisons at all.
We were shown adults seated in rows at school desks in brightly lit classrooms, chanting in unison while learning Chinese.
Some performed highly staged and choreographed music and dance routines for us, wearing traditional ethnic costumes, whirling around their desks, smiles fixed in place.
And what was quite clear was that the Chinese officials accompanying us believed wholeheartedly in the narrative on display, some almost moved to tears as they looked on.
These people, we were urged to recognise, were reborn. Once dangerously radicalised and full of hatred for the Chinese government, they were now safely back on the road to reform thanks to the timely, benevolent intervention of that same government.
The West could learn a lot from this was the message.
Referring to the date the re-education policy began, one senior official looked me sternly in the eye.
“There has not been a single terror attack in Xinjiang in 32 months,” he said. “This is our patriotic duty.”
‘Oh my heart don’t break’
But in accepting the access, our job was to try to peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could.
There were the bits of graffiti we filmed, written in Uighur, that we later had translated.
“Oh my heart don’t break,” read one. Another in Chinese said simply: “Step by step.”
There were the answers, in extended interviews with the officials, that revealed much about the nature of the system.
Those in it were “almost criminals,” they said, viewed as a threat not because they’d committed a crime, but because they might have the potential to do so.
And there was the admission that, once identified as having extremist tendencies, they were given a choice – but not much of one.
The option was “of choosing between a judicial hearing or education in the de-extremification facilities”.
“Most people choose to study,” we were told. Little wonder, given the odds of a fair trial.
And we know, from other sources, that the definition of extremism is now drawn very widely indeed – having a long beard for example, or simply contacting relatives overseas.
We saw the dormitories in which these “extremists” slept, up to 10 per room, in bunk beds and with a toilet at one end, shielded with only a thin sheet of fabric.
And then there was the cautious questioning that revealed much, not in what they could say, but what they couldn’t.
China Uighurs: All you need to know on Muslim ‘crackdown’
By Roland Hughes
China is facing growing criticism over its persecution of some Muslim minority groups, huge numbers of whom are allegedly being held in internment camps.
In August 2018, a UN committee heard that up to one million Uighur Muslims and other Muslim groups could be being detained in the western Xinjiang region, where they’re said to be undergoing “re-education” programmes.
The claims were made by rights groups, but China denies the allegations. At the same time, there’s growing evidence of oppressive surveillance against people living in Xinjiang.
We’ve developed this new format to try to explain the story to you better.
What’s happened to the vanished Uighurs of Xinjiang?
By John Sudworth
China is accused of locking up hundreds of thousands of Muslims without trial in its western region of Xinjiang.
The government denies the claims, saying people willingly attend special “vocational schools” which combat “terrorism and religious extremism”.
Now a BBC investigation has found important new evidence of the reality.
Detention in the desert
On 12 July 2015 a satellite swung over the rolling deserts and oasis cities of China’s vast far west.
One of the images it captured that day just shows a patch of empty, untouched, ashen-grey sand.
It seems an unlikely place to start an investigation into one of the most pressing human rights concerns of our age.
But less than three years later, on 22 April 2018, a satellite photo of that same piece of desert showed something new.
A massive, highly secure compound had materialised.
It is enclosed with a 2km-long exterior wall punctuated by 16 guard towers.
The first reports that China was operating a system of internment camps for Muslims in Xinjiang began to emerge last year.
The satellite photograph was discovered by researchers looking for evidence of that system on the global mapping software, Google Earth.
It places the site just outside the small town of Dabancheng, about an hour’s drive from the provincial capital, Urumqi.
To try to avoid the suffocating police scrutiny that awaits every visiting journalist, we land at Urumqi airport in the early hours of the morning.
But by the time we arrive in Dabancheng we’re being followed by at least five cars, containing an assortment of uniformed and plain-clothes police officers and government officials.
It’s already clear that our plan to visit a dozen suspected camps over the course of the next few days is not going to be easy.
As we drive up the wide approach road we know that sooner or later the convoy behind is going to try to stop us.
While still a few hundred metres away, we see something unexpected.
The wide expanse of dusty ground, shown on the satellite image to the east of the site, is empty no more.
In its place, a huge extension project is taking shape.
The site at Dabancheng seen from the road
Like a mini-city sprouting from the desert and bristling with cranes, are row upon row of giant, grey buildings – all of them four storeys high.
With our cameras rolling we try to capture the extent of the construction, but before we can go much further one of the police cars swings into action.
Our car is stopped – we’re told to turn off the cameras and to leave.
But we’ve discovered something of significance – a huge amount of extra activity that has so far gone unnoticed by the outside world.
In remote parts of the world, Google Earth images can take months or years to update.
Other public sources of satellite photography however – like the European Space Agency’s Sentinel database – provide much more frequent images, although they’re of a much lower resolution.
It is here that we find what we are looking for.
An October 2018 Sentinel image shows just how much the site has grown compared with what we’d expected to see.
What we suspected to be a big internment camp, now looks like an enormous one.
And it is just one of many similar, large prison-type structures that have been built across Xinjiang in the past few years.
Before our attempt to visit the site, we’d stopped in the centre of Dabancheng.
It was impossible to speak openly to anyone – minders lurked menacingly close by and would aggressively debrief anyone who even exchanged a greeting with us.
Instead, we telephoned random numbers in the town.
What was this large complex with its 16 watchtowers that the authorities were so desperate to stop us filming?
“It’s a re-education school,” one hotelier told us.
“Yes, that’s a re-education school,” another shopkeeper agreed.
“There are tens of thousands of people there now. They have some problems with their thoughts.”
This giant facility would of course fit no objective definition of a school.
In Xinjiang “going to school” has come to take on a meaning all of its own.
“I have deeply understood my mistakes”
A still from a Chinese state TV report on the Uighur “schools”
China has consistently denied that it is locking up Muslims without trial.
But a euphemism for the camps has long existed – education.
Almost certainly as a response to the mounting international criticism, the authorities have begun to double down on this description, with a full-on propaganda drive.
State-run TV has been showing glossy reports, full of clean classrooms and grateful students, apparently willingly submitting themselves to the coursework.
There is no mention of the grounds on which the students have been chosen for this “study” or how long the courses last.
But there are clues.
The interviews sound more like confessions.
“I have deeply understood my own mistakes,” one man tells the camera, vowing to be a good citizen “after I get home”.
The main purpose of these facilities, we’re told, is to combat extremism, through a mixture of legal theory, work skills and Chinese language training.
That last item shows that whatever you want to call them – schools or camps – the intended target is the same.
The facilities are exclusively for Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities, many of whom do not speak Chinese as their mother tongue.
The video suggests the school is operating a dress code – not a single one of the female students is wearing a headscarf.
There are more than 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang.
They speak a Turkic language and resemble the peoples of Central Asia at least as much as they do China’s majority population, the Han Chinese.
The southern city of Kashgar, it is often pointed out, is geographically closer to Baghdad than it is to Beijing – and it sometimes feels culturally closer too.
And with a history of rebellion and resistance to Chinese rule, the relationship between the Uighurs and their modern-day political masters has long been as fraught as it is distant.
Before Communist rule, Xinjiang occasionally slipped from China’s grip with brief periods of independence. Ever since, it has constantly tested that grip with sporadic outbreaks of protest and violence.
The mineral wealth – in particular oil and gas – of a region almost five times the size of Germany has brought huge levels of Chinese investment, rapid economic growth and large waves of Han Chinese settlers.
Resentment among Uighurs over the perceived uneven distribution of the proceeds of that growth has simmered.
In response to such criticisms, the Chinese authorities point to rising living standards for Xinjiang’s residents.
But in the past decade or so, hundreds of lives have been lost to a mixture of riots, inter-community violence, premeditated attacks and the police response.
October 2013: Tiananmen Square sealed off after a car attack which killed two people
In 2013, an attack on pedestrians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which claimed two lives as well as the three Uighur occupants of the car, marked a significant moment.
Although relatively small in terms of fatalities it rattled the foundations of the Chinese state.
March 2014: Police in Kunming on patrol after the killing of 31 people
The following year, 31 people were slaughtered by knife-wielding Uighur attackers at a train station in the Chinese city of Kunming, more than 2000km away from Xinjiang.
Over the past four years, Xinjiang has been the target of some of the most restrictive and comprehensive security measures ever deployed by a state against its own people.
These include the large-scale use of technology – facial recognition cameras, monitoring devices that read the content of mobile phones and the mass collection of biometric data.
Harsh new legal penalties have been introduced to curtail Islamic identity and practice – banning, among other things, long beards and headscarves, the religious instruction of children, and even Islamic-sounding names.
The policies appear to mark a fundamental shift in official thinking – separatism is no longer framed as a problem of a few isolated individuals, but as a problem inherent within Uighur culture and Islam in general.
It coincides with a tightening grip on society under President Xi Jinping, in which loyalties to family and faith must be subordinate to the only one that matters – loyalty to the Communist Party.
The Uighurs’ unique identity makes them a target for suspicion.
That view has been reinforced by credible reports that hundreds have travelled to Syria to fight with various militant groups.
Uighurs are now subject to ethnic profiling at thousands of pedestrian and vehicle checkpoints while Han Chinese residents are often waved through.
A police checkpoint in Kashgar, March 2017
They face severe travel restrictions, both within Xinjiang and beyond, with an edict forcing residents to surrender all passports to the police for “safe keeping”.
Uighur government officials are prohibited from practising Islam, from attending mosques or from fasting during Ramadan.
A Chinese flag flies above a closed mosque in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar
Given all this, it is perhaps not that surprising that China has introduced another older and blunter solution to the perceived disloyalty of many of its Uighur citizens.
Despite the government’s denials, the most compelling evidence for the existence of the internment camps comes from a trove of information from the authorities themselves.
Pages of local government tendering documents inviting potential contractors and suppliers to bid for the building projects have been discovered online by the German-based academic, Adrian Zenz.
They provide details about the construction or conversion of dozens of separate facilities across Xinjiang.
In many cases the tenders call for the installation of comprehensive security features, such as watchtowers, razor wire, surveillance systems, and guardrooms.
Cross-referencing this information with other media sources, Zenz suggests that at least several hundred thousand and possibly over a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities could have been interned for re-education.
The documents, of course, never refer to the facilities as internment camps, but as education centres, or in a more accurate translation, “re-education centres”.
One of them almost certainly relates to the giant site we visited – a July 2017 tender for the installation of a heating system in a “transformation through education school” somewhere in the district of Dabancheng.
In these euphemisms, and in the mundane measurements and quantities described, there is the unmistakable substance of a rapidly expanding network of mass confinement.
“They want to delete Uighur identity”
In 2002, Reyila Abulaiti travelled from Xinjiang to the UK to study.
She met and married a British man, took British citizenship and started a family.
Last year, her mother came for her usual summer visit, spending time with her daughter and grandson and doing a bit of London sightseeing.
Xiamuxinuer Pida, 66, is a well-educated former-engineer with a long service record at a Chinese state company.
She flew back to Xinjiang on 2 June.
Having not heard from her, Reyila called to check she’d got home OK.
The conversation was brief and terrifying.
“She told me that the police were searching the house,” Reyila remembers.
It was Reyila who appeared to be the target of the investigation.
She needed to send copies of her documents, her mother said – proof of UK address, a copy of her British passport, her UK telephone numbers and information about her university course.
And then, after asking her to send them via a Chinese mobile chat service, Xiamuxinuer said something that sent a chill down Reyila’s spine.
“Don’t call me again,” her mother told her. “Don’t call me ever.”
It was the last time her daughter would hear her voice.
She believes she has been in a camp ever since.
“My mum has been detained for no reason,” she says. “As far as I know, the Chinese government wants to delete Uighur identity from the world.”
The BBC has conducted lengthy interviews with eight Uighurs living overseas.
Their testimonies are remarkably consistent, providing evidence of the conditions and routines inside the camps and the broad basis on which people are detained.
Mainstream religious activity, the mildest dissent and any link with Uighurs living in foreign countries appear to be enough to sweep people into the system.
Ablet Tursun Tohti
Each morning, when 29-year-old Ablet Tursun Tohti was woken an hour before sunrise, he and his fellow detainees had one minute to get to the exercise yard.
After lining up, they were made to run.
“There was a special room to punish those who didn’t run fast enough,” Ablet says. “There were two men there, one to beat with a belt, the other just to kick.”
The exercise yard can clearly be seen on the satellite photo of the camp where he says he was held, in the oasis town of Hotan in southern Xinjiang.
“We sang the song called ‘Without the Communist Party There Can Be No New China,’” Ablet says.
“And they taught us laws. If you couldn’t recite them in the correct way, you’d be beaten.”
A 2018 satellite image showing a camp in Hotan where Ablet says he was detained
He was there for a month in late 2015 and, in some ways, he is one of the lucky ones.
In the early days of the internment camps, the lengths of the re-education “courses” appear to have been shorter.
And since there has now been a mass recall of passports, Ablet was one of the last Uighurs able to leave China.
He has sought refuge in Turkey, a country with a sizeable Uighur diaspora because of strong cultural and linguistic links.
Ablet tells me that his 74-year-old father and eight of his siblings are in the camps. “There is no-one left outside,” he says.
Abdusalam Muhemet, 41, is also now living in Turkey.
He was detained by the police in Xinjiang in 2014 for reciting an Islamic verse at a funeral.
They eventually decided not to charge him, he says, but he still wasn’t free.
“They told me I needed to be educated,” he explains.
The facility he found himself in did not look like a school.
On the satellite photo, you can make out the guard towers and the double perimeter fencing of the Han’airike Legal Education Training Centre.
The rolls of razor wire can be identified from the shadows they cast under the harsh desert sun.
He describes the same routine of exercise, bullying and brainwashing.
Satellite image of the site in Hotan where Abdusalam says he was held
Twenty-five-year-old Ali, not his real name, is one of those too scared to talk openly.
In 2015 he says he ended up in a camp after the police found a picture of woman wearing a niqab, a face veil, on his mobile phone.
“One old lady was there for having made a pilgrimage to Mecca,” he tells me, “and an old man for not paying his water bill on time.”
Ali (not his real name) is unwilling to be identified
During one of the forced exercise sessions an official’s car entered the camp and the gate was briefly left open.
“Suddenly, a small child ran in towards his mother who was running with us.
“She went towards her child, embraced him and started crying.
“Then a policeman grabbed the woman by her hair and dragged the small child out of the camp.”
In place of clean surroundings shown on state TV, a very different picture emerges.
“The doors of our dormitories were locked at night,” Ablet says. But there were no toilets inside, they just gave us a bowl.”
There is no way of independently verifying these accounts.
We asked the Chinese government about the allegations of abuse but have received no reply.
For Uighurs outside Xinjiang news has almost completely dried up.
Fear breeds silence.
Reports of people being deleted from family chat groups, or told never to call again, are now commonplace.
Two of the things most central to Uighur culture – faith and family – are being systematically broken.
As a result of the detention of whole extended families, there are reports that many children are being placed in state orphanages.
Bilkiz Hibibullah arrived in Turkey in 2016 with five of her children.
Her youngest daughter, Sekine Hasan, who by now would be three and a half years old, stayed in Xinjiang with Bilkiz’s husband.
She did not yet have a passport and the plan was that, when she got one, the family would reunite in Istanbul.
She never got that passport.
Bilkiz’s daughter Sekine, whom she has not seen for more than two years
Bilkiz believes her husband was detained on 20 March last year.
She has since lost contact with the rest of her family and now has no idea where her daughter is.
“In the middle of the night, after my other children have gone to bed, I cry a lot,” she says.
“There is nothing more miserable than not knowing where your daughter is, if she is alive or dead.
“If she could hear me now, I’d say nothing but sorry.”
The view from above
Satellite image of site in Hotan enhanced by GMV
Using only publicly available, open-source satellite data, it’s possible to shed light on Xinjiang’s dark secret.
GMV is a multinational aerospace company with experience of monitoring infrastructure from space on behalf of organisations like the European Space Agency and the European Commission.
Their analysts went through a list of 101 facilities located across Xinjiang – drawn up from the various media reports and academic research about the re-education camp system.
One by one, they measured the growth of new sites and the expansion of existing ones.
They identified and compared common features such as watchtowers and security fencing – the kind of things needed to monitor and control the movement of people.
And they categorised the likelihood of each site actually being a security facility, placing 44 of them in the high or very high category.
Then they plotted the first detection by satellite of each of those 44 facilities over time.
Images show the extent of the building work that has taken place at part of the camp where Abdusalem Muhemet was held.
GMV cannot say what the sites are being used for. But it is clear that over the past few years China has been building a lot of new security facilities, at remarkable and increasing speed.
It is likely to be an underestimate of the true picture.
There is a striking conclusion – the recent trend is towards larger facilities.
The number of new construction projects this year has fallen when compared with 2017.
However, in terms of overall surface area of the facilities being built, there is more this year than last.
GMV calculates that, from this set of 44 sites alone, the surface area of secure facilities in Xinjiang has expanded by some 440 hectares since 2003.
This measurement refers to the whole site within the external security walls, not just the buildings.
But 440 hectares represents a lot of additional space.
For context, a 14-hectare site within the city of Los Angeles – containing the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Men’s Central Jail – holds a combined total of almost 7,000 prisoners.
Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Los Angeles
We took one of GMV’s findings – the increase in building size at the facility in Dabancheng – and showed it to a team with long experience in prison design at the Australian-based Guymer Bailey Architects.
Using the measurements from the satellite images they calculated that, at an absolute minimum, the facility could provide space for about 11,000 detainees.
Even that minimum estimate would place it alongside some of the biggest prisons in the world.
Riker’s Island in New York, the largest in the US, has space for 10,000 prisoners.
Silivri Prison outside Istanbul, often referred to as Europe’s largest, is designed to house 11,000.
Guymer Bailey Architects (GBA) provided us with this analysis of the possible functions of the various buildings on the site.
Their minimum estimate for occupancy at Dabancheng assumes that the detainees are held only in single rooms.
If dormitories were used instead then the total capacity at Dabancheng would increase dramatically, GBA suggests, with an outer limit of about 130,000.
We also showed the images to Raphael Sperry, an architect and the president of the US-based organisation, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility.
“This is a truly massive and bleak detention facility,” he told me.
“It appears as a place designed to pack as many people into as small an area as possible at the lowest construction cost.
“I think 11,000 is likely a significant underestimate… From the available information we can’t tell how the interior is configured or what portion of the buildings is used for detention rather than other functions. Even so, your dormitory estimate of 130,000 people seems, sadly, quite possible.”
The lack of access to the site means there’s no way of independently verifying this analysis.
We asked the authorities in Xinjiang to confirm what the site at Dabancheng is used for but have received no response.
The padlocked door to a house in the city of Kashgar
Not all of Xinjiang’s internment camps are the same.
Some of the secure facilities have not been built from scratch, but are conversions of structures previously used for other purposes, like schools or factories.
These are often smaller and located closer to the centre of towns or cities.
In the northern county of Yining we tried to visit a number of such camps.
We’d seen local government procurement documents for a project to create five “vocational skills education training centres” for the purposes of “safeguarding stability”.
In the centre of town we stop outside a large group of buildings that used to be Yining Number 3 Middle School.
A high, solid blue steel fence now surrounds the site and there’s heavy security on the front gate.
There’s a new watchtower by the playground and another one by what used to be the football pitch.
The pitch is now completely covered by six long steel-roofed buildings.
Outside, visiting family members are queueing up at the security check.
Once again, wherever we go in the town, two or three cars follow us.
When we try to get out to film at one of the camps, this one surrounded by a grey fence, we’re stopped.
The officials, with hands over our camera lenses, tell us that there’s important military training taking place in the area today and we’re instructed to leave.
Outside the former school we see a family, a mother and two children, standing quietly by the fence.
One of the minders tries to stop them from talking but another appears to over-rule him.
“Let them speak,” she says.
I ask them whom they’re visiting.
There’s a pause, before the young boy answers, “My dad”.
The hands cover our lenses once again.
In the city of Kashgar, the once bustling, beating heart of Uighur culture, the narrow streets are eerily quiet. Many of the doors are padlocked shut.
On one, we see a notice instructing people how to respond to questions about where their family members have gone.
“Say they’re being looked after for the good of society and their families,” it says.
The city’s main mosque is more like a museum.
We try to find out when the next prayer time is but no-one seems to be able to tell us.
“I’m just here to deal with tourists,” one official tells us. “I don’t know anything about prayer times.”
In the square, a few beardless old men sit chatting.
We ask them where everyone else is.
One of them gestures to his mouth, holding his lips together to signal that it’s too risky for him to talk to journalists.
But the other whispers: “No-one comes anymore.”
A helmeted policeman, some distance away, is cleaning the mosque steps.
In the silence we can hear the sound of the slop of the water in the bucket and the swish of the mop, echoing across the square.
Chinese tourists are taking photos.
We leave Kashgar on the highway, heading southwest towards an area dotted with Uighur villages and farms, and a great many suspected camps.
We’re being followed as usual but soon we run into an unexpected obstacle.
Ahead of us, the highway appears to have just been closed.
The police officers manning the roadblock tell us that surface of the road has melted in the hot sun.
“It’s not safe to proceed,” they say.
We notice that the other cars are being directed into a car park in a shopping mall, and over the radio, we hear instructions to hold them there “for a while”.
We’re told the wait could be four or five hours and we’re advised to turn around.
We look for alternative routes, but another roadblock always seems to materialise, although the explanations change.
One road is closed for “military training”.
Four times, on four separate roads, we’re turned around before we finally have to admit defeat.
Just a few kilometres away lies another giant camp said to hold around 10,000 people.
System of control
There are Uighurs in positions of authority in Xinjiang.
Many of the government officials and police officers who tailed and stopped us were Uighurs.
If they feel in any way conflicted they cannot say it of course.
A wall poster in Xinjiang reads: “Stability is a blessing, instability is a calamity”
But while the system of profiling and control has been likened by some to Apartheid, clearly that is not entirely accurate.
Many Uighurs do have a stake in the system.
In reality a better parallel can be found in China’s own totalitarian past.
As in the Cultural Revolution, a society is being told that it needs to be taken apart in order to be saved.
Shohrat Zakir, a Uighur and, in theory, the second most powerful politician in the region, suggests the battle has almost been won.
Shohrat Zakir is the chairman of Xinjiang province and an ethnic Uighur
“In the past 21 months, no violent terrorist attacks have occurred and the number of criminal cases, including those endangering public security, has dropped significantly,” he is reported to have told state media.
“Xinjiang is not only beautiful but also safe and stable.”
But when the detainees are released, what then?
The former camp inmates we spoke to were all burning with resentment.
And the world has yet to hear from anyone who has spent time in facilities like Dabancheng, the sinister and secretive facility of such immense proportions.
Our reporting adds to the evidence that the mass re-education programme is internment by any other name – the locking up of many thousands of Muslims without trial or charge, in fact with no access to any legal process at all.
China is already proclaiming it to be a success.
But history holds many troubling precedents about where such a project might end up.
China forcing birth control on Uighurs to suppress population, report says
China is forcing women to be sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices in Xinjiang in an apparent attempt to limit the population of Muslim Uighurs, according to new research.
The report, by China scholar Adrian Zenz, has prompted international calls for the United Nations to investigate.
China denies the allegations in the report, calling them “baseless”.
The state is already facing widespread criticism for holding Uighurs in detention camps.
It is believed about one million Uighur people have been detained over the past few years in what what the Chinese state defines as “re-education” camps.
China previously denied the existence of the camps, before defending them as a necessary measure against terrorism, following separatist violence in the Xinjiang region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to “immediately end these horrific practices”.
In a statement, he urged “all nations to join the United States in demanding an end to these dehumanizing abuses”.
China has faced mounting global scrutiny over its treatment of Uighurs in recent years. An investigation by the BBC in 2019 suggested that children in Xinjiang were being systematically separated from their families in an effort to isolate them from their Muslim communities.
What’s in the report?
Mr Zenz’s report was based on a combination of official regional data, policy documents and interviews with ethnic minority women in Xinjiang.
It alleges that Uighur women and other ethnic minorities are being threatened with internment in the camps for refusing to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas.
The report also says that Uighur women with more than the legally permitted number of children – but also many women who had not exceeded birth quotas – were involuntarily fitted with intra-uterine devices (IUDs), while others were coerced into receiving sterilisation surgery.
“Since a sweeping crackdown starting in late 2016 transformed Xinjiang into a draconian police state, witness accounts of intrusive state interference into reproductive autonomy have become ubiquitous,” the report says.
According to Mr Zenz’s analysis of the data, natural population growth in Xinjiang has declined dramatically in recent years, with growth rates falling by 84% in the two largest Uighur prefectures between 2015 and 2018 and declining further in 2019.
“This kind of drop is unprecedented, there’s a ruthlessness to it,” Mr Zenz told the Associated Press. “This is part of a wider control campaign to subjugate the Uighurs.”
Former detainees in internment camps in Xinjiang said they were given injections that stopped their periods, or caused unusual bleeding consistent with the effects of birth control drugs.
“Overall, it is likely that Xinjiang authorities are engaging in the mass sterilization of women with three or more children,” the report said.
Politicians call for UN investigation
In a statement on Monday, the Interparliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international cross-party group of politicians including Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, and US senator Marco Rubio, called on the UN to “establish an international, impartial, independent investigation into the situation in the Xinjiang region”.
“A body of mounting evidence now exists, alleging mass incarceration, indoctrination, extrajudicial detention, invasive surveillance, forced labor, and the destruction of Uyghur cultural sites, including cemeteries, together with other forms of abuse,” the statement said.
“The world cannot remain silent in the face of unfolding atrocities. Our countries are bound by solemn obligations to prevent and punish any effort to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group ‘in whole or in part’.”
According to a report by the Associated Press published on Monday, women in Xinjiang have faced exorbitant fines and threats of internment for breaching childbearing limits.
Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born Kazakh, was ordered to get an IUD inserted after having her third child, the AP reported. Two years later, in January 2018, four officials in military camouflage knocked at her door anyway and handed Omirzakh, the penniless wife of a detained vegetable trader, three days to pay a 17,5000 RMB (£2,000) fine for having more than two children.
She was reportedly warned that she would join her husband in an internment camp if she refused to pay.
“God bequeaths children on you. To prevent people from having children is wrong,” Omirzakh told the AP. “They want to destroy us as a people.”
Responding to the report on Monday, China’s foreign ministry said the allegations were “baseless” and showed “ulterior motives”.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused media outlets of “cooking up false information on Xinjiang-related issues”.
For decades, under China’s one-child policy, urban minorities were instead allowed two children, or three for rural families. A 2017 policy change, under President Xi Jinping, removed the ethnic distinction, permitting Han Chinese to have the same number of children as minorities, while preserving the urban-rural distinction.
But according to the AP, Han Chinese have been largely spared the abortions, sterilisations, IUD insertions and detentions implemented against minority populations, including the Uighurs.
Mr Zenz’s report characterises the alleged campaign of coercive birth control in Xinjiang as part of a “demographic campaign of genocide” against the Uighurs.
“These findings provide the strongest evidence yet that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang meet one of the genocide criteria cited in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” he writes.
Uyghur imams targeted in China’s Xinjiang crackdown
By Joel Gunter
China has imprisoned or detained at least 630 imams and other Muslim religious figures since 2014 in its crackdown in the Xinjiang region, according to new research by a Uyghur rights group.
The research, compiled by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and shared with the BBC, also found evidence that 18 clerics had died in detention or shortly after.
Many of the detained clerics faced broad charges like “propagating extremism”, “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”, and “inciting separatism”.
According to testimony from relatives, the real crimes behind these charges are often things like preaching, convening prayer groups, or simply acting as an imam.
The UHRP, working with rights group Justice for All, tracked the fates of 1,046 Muslim clerics — the vast majority of them Uyghurs — using court documents, family testimony and media reports from public and private databases.
While all 1,046 clerics were reportedly detained at some point, in many cases corroborating evidence was not available because of China’s tight control over information in the region.
Among the 630 cases where it was, at least 304 of the clerics appeared to have been sent to prison, as opposed to the network of “re-education” camps most closely associated with China’s mass detention of the Uyghurs.
Where information was available from court documents or testimony about the length of the prison sentence, the punishments reflect the harsh nature of Xinjiang justice: 96% sentenced to at least five years and 26% to 20 years or more, including 14 life sentences.
The database, which drew on research by the Uyghur activist Abduweli Ayup, as well as the Xinjiang Victims Database and Uyghur Transitional Justice Database, is by no means exhaustive — representing only a fraction of the total estimated number of imams in Xinjiang — and much of the data cannot be independently verified.
But the research shines a light on the specific targeting of religious figures in Xinjiang, appearing to support allegations that China is attempting to break the religious traditions of the Uyghurs and assimilate them into Han Chinese culture.
China denies those allegations, saying the purpose of its so-called “re-education” programme in Xinjiang is to stamp out extremism among the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
Tying religion to extremism
China is believed to have detained more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, a large region in north-western China that is home to various ethnically Turkic peoples. The state has been accused of human rights abuses in the region, including forced labour, sterilisation and rape.
Most of those detained in Xinjiang are sent to “re-education” facilities — prison-like camps where they are held for indeterminate periods of time without charge. But others have been given formal prison sentences, the number and severity of which have increased dramatically since 2017.
Publicly available detention or charging documents are rare, but those that do exist demonstrate how the state has worked to tie ordinary religious expression in Xinjiang to extremism or political separatism.
According to the arrest notice for Oken Mahmet, a 51-year-old Kazakh imam from Qaba in Xinjiang, Mahmet was charged with “propagating extremism”. According to testimony collated by the Xinjiang Victims Database, his family says he was arrested for leading Friday prayers and officiating marriages at a mosque.
Mahmet’s initial detention notice says he was detained for “inciting people to violate national laws pertaining to the reading of marriage vows, education, and public governance, as well as making and propagating items related to extremism”. His sentence was reportedly eight to 10 years.
Baqythan Myrzan, a 58-year-old state-approved imam from Hami prefecture, was also arrested for “propagating extremism”. Myrzan was detained in August 2018 and held at a detention facility until May 2019, when he was sentenced to 14 years at the Bingtuan Urumqi Prison. Myrzan’s family says his only crime was going about his duties as an imam.
And the only clues to the alleged offence committed by Abidin Ayup, a prominent scholar and imam from Atush city, were a few lines that appeared in a long court document from a separate case against a Han Chinese official. The official was accused of allowing Ayup’s son to visit him at a hospital detention facility after he was arrested. The court document refers to Ayup, who was 88 when he was detained in 2017, as a “religious extremist”.
Ayup’s niece Maryam Muhammad told the BBC the imam was a “kind, hardworking, charitable man, cultured and knowledgeable, who encouraged young people to study not only religion but all the school subjects”.
Muhammad, who is now in the US, said nearly 60 members of her extended family had been detained since Ayup’s arrest, including her husband and all of the imam’s eight children.
Extremism charges were being issued on a “flimsy legal basis” in Xinjiang for “offences that shouldn’t even qualify as offences”, said Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University who specialises in Chinese law.
“Setting to one side for a moment whether you accept ‘propagating extremism’ as a valid charge, the question is do the facts make a plausible case for that charge?” he said. “And the alleged offences we have seen — things like having a beard, not drinking, or travelling abroad — suggest they don’t.”
The real reason imams were being targeted was “because of their ability to bring people together in the community”, said Peter Irwin, senior programme officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
“The state has been carefully dealing with imams for a long time because it knows the influence they have,” he said. “The detentions and imprisonments of the past few years are just the culmination of three decades of repression designed to constrict Uyghur culture and religion.”
A spokesman for the Chinese government told the BBC that Xinjiang “enjoys unprecedented freedom of religious belief”.
“Xinjiang’s ‘de-radicalisation’ effort has effectively contained the spread of religious extremism and made a great contribution to global ‘de-radicalisation’ efforts,” he said.
The beginnings of ‘re-education’
Targeting of the Turkic ethnic groups in north-western China is not a new phenomenon. Muslim minorities suffered long periods of repression between the 1950s and 1970s, when Qurans were burned, mosques and cemeteries desecrated, and traditional dress and hair styles prohibited.
The 1980s brought a period of relative openness and revival. Damaged mosques were repaired and new mosques built; religious festivals allowed and imams and other figures permitted to travel; and the Quran translated for the first time into Uyghur, by the prominent Uyghur scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim.
But a violent uprising by Uyghur militants in 1990, in the town of Baren in Xinjiang, precipitated a crackdown by the Chinese state and the beginning of a two-decade period of gradually tightening control. Imams, seen by authorities as influential community figures, were increasingly required to demonstrate loyalty to the state.
In the early 2000s, many imams were compelled to attend formalised education courses that foreshadowed the mass “re-education” programmes pursued today against the general population. According to Human Rights Watch, roughly 16,000 imams and other religious figures underwent “political re-education” between 2001 and 2002.
Among them was Tursun, an imam who was first detained in 2001 for translating prayers from Arabic into Uyghur for his congregation, according to his niece.
Tursun’s two-year stint in a “re-education through labour” camp marked the beginning of a two-decade ordeal at the hands of the state, his niece told the BBC from outside China. Her uncle was freed from the labour camp in 2002 but constantly harassed by police, she said, and frequently taken away again for two-week periods of “study”. Then in 2005, he was detained again but this time sentenced to four years in prison.
“We were not given any notice from the court,” his niece said. “My family went to the police station to enquire about his fate and the police gave them a handwritten note containing information about his prison sentence and the address of the prison.”
Tursun was released from prison in 2009, only to be detained again in 2017 after the hardline politician Chen Quanguo was put in charge of Xinjiang and escalated the campaign against the Uyghurs.
As appears to be the case with other imams in the region, Tursun’s family was subsequently targeted en masse, said his niece, who had left China by that time.
“After I heard the news of my uncle and his wife’s arrests, I heard that my mother and many of my relatives were also arrested. Anyone over 14 was taken away,” she said. “For the last four years I have been trying to find information regarding their whereabouts, especially my mother.”
About a month ago, Tursun’s niece learned that her mother had been sentenced to 13 years in prison and her younger brother to five years. She doesn’t know what the charges were. Her father is already serving a life sentence, she said, issued in 2008 for “illegal preaching” and “separatism”.
“My mother was a simple housewife and she was sentenced to 13 years,” she said. “I cannot imagine how long my uncle has been sent to prison for.”
They were targeted “because of their invisible authority”, she added. “The state has tried everything to break them, to destroy them. And not only the religious leaders but also those who practise Islam quietly, and take pride in being Uyghur. They have made every effort to dig them out and destroy them.”
Some that disappear into detention never come out. Eighteen imams named in the database were reported to have died while in custody or shortly after.
Nurgazy Malik, a father of two, graduate of the official Xinjiang Islamic Institute and editor-in-chief of a state-approved religious magazine, reportedly died in detention in November 2018. Unconfirmed reports say Chinese authorities acknowledged his death to his family, but did not produce a body — a situation echoed in other, similar reports. Malik’s friends and relatives held a funeral for him in Kazakhstan all the same.
A secret prayer
In late 2019, as its network of “re-education” camps drew intense international scrutiny, China claimed it had released everyone from the system. Significant numbers had been released, into house arrest or into the otherwise controlled environment of Xinjiang, but rights groups say many were simply transferred to formal prisons.
There is also evidence that many thousands had been in prison all along. Incarceration rates exploded in Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018, according to reporting by the New York Times and others, sweeping up at least 230,000 people — about 200,000 more than in previous years.
According to Chinese government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for 21% of the country’s total in 2017, despite the region having about 1.5% of the population.
Unlike the “re-education” system, formal prison sentences should create a paper trail. But the court documents are “nowhere to be found”, according to Gene Bunin, the researcher behind the Xinjiang Victims Database.
According to Bunin, only 7,714 criminal verdicts are available for Xinjiang for 2018, despite the region logging 74,348 criminal cases that year. The near total absence of verdicts on charges typically levied against religious Uyghurs, like “propagating extremism” and “inciting separatism”, suggests China is intentionally scrubbing the record.
Where official documents are available and contain details, offences can be shocking in their innocuity.
In one 2018 verdict, now deleted from the government records but archived by the Xinjiang Victims Database, a 55-year-old Uyghur farmer already serving 10 years for “propagating extremism” had his sentence doubled after he “used a disguised and simplified method to perform the namaz prayer in the prison dormitory”.
Essentially, Ismayil Sidiq secretly prayed in prison. He was reported by a cellmate and charged with “illegal religious activities” and “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” — the latter charge for allegedly shouting that Uyghurs should not inform on one another. He will be eligible for release in 2038.
Those who are detained in camps stand a better chance of release after a few months or years, but release in Xinjiang does not necessarily mean freedom.
Memet, a Uyghur who fled Xinjiang, told the BBC his father was detained in 2017 after many years serving peacefully as an imam. Memet had been able to learn news of his family over the years from an acquaintance in Xinjiang — someone distant enough from the family that she felt safe messaging abroad from her WeChat account — but Memet heard virtually no news of his father’s condition for four years.
Then recently he heard his father had been released, and Memet imagined speaking to him for the first time in years. He asked the family acquaintance if she would be willing to find his father and connect them again via her phone.
On the appointed day, Memet received a message on his WeChat account from the acquaintance. She said she had found his father, but he had told her it would be better if he didn’t speak to his son. And after she sent the message, she blocked Memet from contacting her again.
By James Clayton
North America technology reporter
Apple has taken down one of the world’s most popular Quran apps in China, following a request from officials.
Quran Majeed is available across the world on the App Store – and has nearly 150,000 reviews. It is used by millions of Muslims.
The BBC understands that the app was removed for hosting illegal religious texts.
The Chinese government has not responded to the BBC’s request for comment.
The deletion of the app was first noticed by Apple Censorship – a website that monitors apps on Apple’s App Store globally.
In a statement from the app’s maker, PDMS, the company said: “According to Apple, our app Quran Majeed has been removed from the China App store because it includes content that requires additional documentation from Chinese authorities”.
“We are trying to get in touch with the Cyberspace Administration of China and relevant Chinese authorities to get this issue resolved”.
The company said it had close to one million users in China.
The Chinese Communist Party officially recognises Islam as a religion in the country.
However, China has been accused of human rights violations, and even genocide, against the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang.
However, it is not clear what rules the app has broken in China. Quran Majeed says it is “trusted by over 35 million Muslims globally”.
Last month, both Apple and Google removed a tactical voting app devised by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Russian authorities had threatened to fine the two companies if they refused to drop the app, which told users who could unseat ruling party candidates.
China is one of Apple’s biggest markets, and the company’s supply chain is heavily reliant on Chinese manufacturing.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been accused of hypocrisy from politicians in the US for speaking out about American politics, but staying quiet about China.
Mr Cook criticised Donald Trump’s ban of seven Muslim-majority countries in 2017.
However, he is also accused of complying with the Chinese government over censorship – and not publicly criticising it for its treatment of Muslim minorities.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that Apple takes down apps in China if deemed off limits by the Chinese government. Topics that apps cannot discuss include Tiananmen Square, the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, and independence for Tibet and Taiwan.
Benjamin Ismail, project director at Apple Censorship, said: “Currently Apple is being turned into the censorship bureau of Beijing.
“They need to do the right thing, and then face whatever the reaction is of the Chinese government.”
Another popular religious app, Olive Tree’s Bible app, was also taken down this week in China. The company told the BBC they had removed the app themselves.
“Olive Tree Bible Software was informed during the App Store review process that we are required to provide a permit demonstrating our authorization to distribute an app with book or magazine content in mainland China,” said a spokesperson.
“Since we did not have the permit and needed to get our app update approved and out to customers, we removed our Bible app from China’s App Store.”
On Friday, The Mac Observer reported that Audible, the Amazon owned audiobook and podcast service, removed its app from the Apple store in mainland China last month “due to permit requirements.”
On Thursday, Microsoft said it was shutting down its social network, LinkedIn, in China, saying having to comply with the Chinese state had become increasingly challenging.
The decision was made after the career-networking site faced questions for blocking the profiles of some journalists.