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.”
Despite the political and cultural capital he accrued as well as the social and business relationships he built during his travels, Tohti writes that following the 5 July 2009 unrest, he has avoided accepting foreign funding, whether from governments or NGOs. He remarks that Han Chinese scholars cannot imagine the pressure and challenges that their Uyghur colleagues face in the current political and financial environment. Last year, Ilham Tohti accepted a position as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. He planned to bring his teenage daughter with him to the United States. However, he was stopped at the airport and interrogated by Chinese security officers, who barred him from leaving the country. His daughter was allowed to continue on to Bloomington.
Crime and Punishment
Chinese authorities have not yet officially stated any crimes with which they plan to charge Ilham Tohti. Under Chinese criminal law, police can hold individuals accused of serious crimes in secret locations for up to six months. Authorities are not required to inform family members of their whereabouts, and may deny access to attorneys. One may speculate that authorities will eventually charge Ilham Tohti with “inciting public subversion of state power” or “inciting ethnic separatism,” either of which could result in years of incarceration.
The Chinese state-run tabloid, Global Times, published a
The U.S. State Department expressed deep concern over the arrest of Professor Tohti and his students. Spokesperson Jen Psaki called the “detention of Mr. Tohti, who has been outspoken in support of human rights for China’s ethnic Uighur citizens... part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions.” The outgoing European Union Ambassador to China, Marcus Ederer, also expressed his concerns over continued human-rights abuses in China.
This writer consequently reached out to Human Rights Watch for comment. Asia Division Senior Researcher Nicholas Bequelin stated that
the Chinese government should immediately free Ilham Tohti, whose only crime is to have voiced moderate and legitimate criticism of Chinese policies in Xinjiang, mostly from a scholarly perspective. His arrest is an indirect admission of guilt by a government that knows that it is engaging in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the region, and in justifying its hardline policies by manipulating and exaggerating the threat of terrorism. Jailing Tohti will only serve to demonstrate that it is futile to try to engage objectively and rationally with the government on Uighur issues, a policy that ultimately drives dissent underground and makes radicalization more appealing.
He added that Human Rights Watch is disappointed by Beijing’s “refusal... to look objectively at the roots of disenfranchisement and ethnic polarization in Xinjiang.” Thus, two extremely different portraits of the accused scholar emerge in the public sphere. On the one hand, a moderate Uyghur intellectual, a courageous man who stands for ethnic equality and social harmony. On the other hand, a Uyghur Professor James Moriarty, a criminal mastermind who has used the facade of academic scholarship to foment social unrest.
Sense and Sensibility
In 1945, Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong stated that “Communists must be ready at all times to stand up for the truth, because truth is in the interests of the people; Communists must be ready at all times to correct their mistakes, because mistakes are against the interests of the people.” Yet, to borrow a page from the Michel Foucault philosophical playbook, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has spent well over half a century attempting to construct authoritative paradigms of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ in Chinese society. By shaping the public discourse on which issues are acceptable to discuss, and which ‘truths’ are acceptable to believe, the CCP attempts to police and control the production and dissemination of knowledge. When articulate intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti produce and disseminate new ideas or an alternative vision of the future that conflicts with the CCP worldview, it threatens the Party’s official version of ‘truth.’ Beijing fears social instability, but is loath to admit that its own policies lie at the root of the problem. Leaders are also extremely hesitant to experiment with new policies that they believe may potentially erode their legitimacy or otherwise decrease the power of the party-state over time.
Ilham Tohti has condemned counterproductive policies causing instability in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The failure to adequately protect religious, linguistic and cultural freedoms not only hurts Uyghur and other Central Asian minorities, but also threatens the very stability and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. If the government truly wants to “stand up for the truth” and correct mistakes, then it must listen to the voices of the people and heed their words well.
Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.