Beijing's Self-Defeating Arrest of Ilham Tohti

A reasonable critic is treated like a criminal. Stability would have been better served by heeding his warnings.

On the afternoon of January 15, Chinese authorities arrested prominent Uyghur intellectual and Minzu University economics professor Ilham Tohti. Over twenty public security and police officers from Beijing and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) searched his apartment and confiscated thirty-eight bags of documents as well as computers and cell phones. His elderly mother was also detained by police, but returned home late that evening. At least six of Professor Tohti’s Uyghur students were reportedly detained as well. The ‘Uyghurs Online’ Twitter account posted his wife Guzelnur’s detailed eyewitness account of the police search and arrest. “My husband,” she proclaimed, “has long served as an advocate for the legal rights and interests of the Uyghur people.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated the following day that “Ilham [Tohti] is suspected of breaking the law. The public security organs have detained him in accordance with the law. The relevant departments will now deal with him in accordance with the law.”

A Dangerous Mind?

Chinese view Minzu University (中央民族大学) as the nation’s most renowned place to study the fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China. Authorities tout it as ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse. Nevertheless, official appreciation of diversity does not extend to the classroom. Neither professors nor students are encouraged to express any viewpoint that deviates from the official party line. Ethno-religious minorities in particular are expected to subvert any individual or collective sense of political identity or historical consciousness that separates them from their Han classmates. Displaying ‘love for the Chinese Motherland’ is strongly encouraged, but ‘local nationalism’ is condemned.

Ilham Tohti penned a contemplative autobiographical essay entitled, “My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen (我的理想和事业选择之路).” Written in Chinese, the language and tone of the piece is meant to appeal to a broad audience, rather than simply the Uyghur and scholarly communities. He reveals that many of his family members have served with honor in the military as well as public security apparatus, and laments that his cause has made their lives difficult.

In 1994, Ilham Tohti began advanced graduate work at the Minzu University Economics Research Institute. There, he studied not only the economy of Xinjiang, but also foreign economies. His insatiable curiosity and love of learning spurred him to travel extensively to such places as South Korea, Russia, Pakistan and Central Asia. Already fluent in Uyghur and Chinese, he also studied a wide range of foreign languages, including English, Korean, Japanese, Urdu and Russian. His academic interests expanded into sociology, ethnicity and geopolitics. He examined American and European case studies to discover how other countries grappled with ethnic/racial and social problems.

He asserted that many people in Xinjiang are nostalgic for the Hu Yaobang-Song Hanliang era. Upon his appointment to the position of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary in 1980, Hu Yaobang spearheaded unprecedented opening and reform by enacting policies that revitalized minority cultures and cultivated minority cadres. Song Hanliang was subsequently appointed CCP Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 1985. Ilham Tohti argues that during this period, there existed relative “equality among ethnic groups” and a more “relaxed political atmosphere.” Although people used the relative freedom to voice their grievances openly, he asserts that greater societal trust and fewer government restraints actually fostered “strong social cohesion” in Xinjiang. The implication is that political openness does not necessarily result in social instability or chaos. Internal and external factors nevertheless exacerbated feelings of discontent among Uyghurs and Tibetans by the late 1980s. The Tian’anmen student movement as well as ethno-religious upheaval ultimately led Beijing to reevaluate these liberalized social policies and conclude that they had failed.

Ilham Tohti founded the website ‘Uyghurs Online’ at the end of 2005. He envisioned it as a platform for cultural and social exchange between the Han and Uyghur peoples. According to Ilham Tohti, we “should not fear disputes and disagreements, but rather the silence and suspicion that exist within hatred.”