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Report: Muslim man detained in China on terrorism suspicion for setting his watch to wrong time zone

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A Uighur family gathers for a meal during the Corban Festival in September 2016 in Turpan County, in the far western Xinjiang province, China. The Chinese government has been cracking down against religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A member of China's Muslim Uighur minority has reportedly been detained by the Chinese government for deliberately setting his watch to the wrong time zone. According to the report, the government said that the man's stance against the single Chinese time zone made him a terror suspect.

Why would setting your watch to the wrong time zone be a crime?

In an attempt to bring about “national unity,” Mao Zedong combined all of China's time zones into one huge time zone in 1949. Before this consolidation, China had five separate time zones. Because this universal time zone is the same as the one originally in the capital city of Beijing, communities in the far west of China are most affected.

As the government continues to restrict both their religious freedom and their ability to study their own language, Chinese Muslim Uighurs have long viewed their traditional time zone, which is two hours off from the official one, as a source of independence.

In August, a United Nations human rights panel announced that it had “many numerous and credible reports” that 1 million Uighurs were being held in what appeared to be a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

The Chinese government has insisted that these internment camps do not exist. The Urumqi province that the Uighurs inhabit has been largely autonomous, but the government has increased its efforts to bring the region further under Beijing's control. Following a string of attacks by pro-independence groups in the region, the government has used accusations of terrorist activities against the Uighurs to justify its scrutiny against the ethnic minority.

What happened this time?

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, a Uighur man, who remains unnamed, was arrested for having his watch set to the pre-Mao Urumqi time zone instead of the single Chinese time zone. According to former prisoners of Chinese detention camps interviewed by Human Rights Watch and identified by the pseudonyms Nur and Alim:

I know of a guy … who was taken away for having set his watch to [the unofficial] Urumqi time – they say that’s what makes him suspicious for terrorism. I know three restaurant owners …[who] ran ‘Islamic’ restaurants – they got detained because they don’t allow smoking or drinking in their restaurants…. [The authorities] are banning everything Islamic. Not to talk about your clothing, or your beard; they think many things show you have incorrect thoughts.

Nur and Alim also said that guards at a detention center had told them that “Uyghurs and Kazakhs are the enemies of China, and that they want to kill us, and make us suffer, and that there’s nothing we can do about it.”

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