China’s Crackdown on the Uighurs and the Case of Ilham Tohti
The New York Times reports that Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor, has been arrested by Chinese authorities for separatism and inciting ethnic hatred. A number of his students are also seemingly being detained. Tohti is just one person and, perhaps unfortunately for him, his case is emblematic of larger regional tensions in China and Central Asia.
The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, about 80% of whom live in the southwestern part of the Xianjian Uighur Autonomous Region in Western China. Xianjiang is a geopolitical crossroads and is also important for China’s energy policy, with significant oil and natural gas reserves. Moreover, a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder on Xianjian and the Uighurs explains that
Xinjiang shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, some of which have minority communities of Uighurs. Because of the Uighurs’ cultural ties to its neighbors, China has been concerned that Central Asian states may back a separatist movement in Xinjiang.
The CFR also gives a précis of the last century:
Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Xinjiang has enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared independence in October 1933 and created the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (also known as the Republic of Uighuristan or the First East Turkistan Republic). The following year, the Republic of China reabsorbed the region. In 1944, factions within Xinjiang again declared independence, this time under the auspices of the Soviet Union, and created the Second East Turkistan Republic.
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory and declared it a Chinese province. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government in its white paper on Xinjiang says Xinjiang had been an “inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation” since the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE to 24 AD.
And then we come to the story of Ilham Tohti, the economics professor. The New York Times reports:
A vocal advocate for China’s embattled Uighur minority, Mr. Tohti, 44, was the rare public figure willing to speak to the foreign news media about the Chinese government’s policies in the vast region that borders several Central Asian countries. He was also the target of frequent harassment by the Chinese authorities, especially after he helped establish Uighurbiz.net, a website for news and commentary on Uighur issues.
There has been unrest in China’s west over the past year. Chinese officials have tried to frame the arrest of Tohti as part of a struggle against separatist forces. According to the New York Times, Chinese government security officials
accused Mr. Tohti of inciting violence against the Chinese authorities and recruiting people to join a movement for an independent East Turkestan nation. Uighurbiz, the statement said, had “concocted, distorted and hyped up” acts of ethnic bloodshed…
But how accurate is this description? The New York Times, again:
Analysts outside China have long questioned the official narrative about the violence in Xinjiang, including allegations that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a murky terrorist organization, was behind much of the bloodshed.
Mr. Tohti was among those who played down the strength and size of the organization, saying that many of the clashes involving Uighurs and the police were rooted in the daily frustrations experienced by Uighurs disenfranchised by repressive policies and uneven economic development. A significant portion of Mr. Tohti’s academic work delved into the high unemployment of young Uighurs unable to compete for jobs with recently arrived Han Chinese migrants.
In interviews with The New York Times, Mr. Tohti condemned the growing violence, but called on Beijing to re-examine its economic policies and ease its heavy-handed administration of the region.
Moreover, according to an Associated Press story reprinted on Uighurbiz:
[Tohti] has not joined calls for Xinjiang’s independence but his outspokenness on problems with China’s ethnic policies has made him a target of security forces…
“The Uighur people have become outsiders in the development of their own homeland and survival,” Ilham Tohti wrote in a post on his mobile social media account Wednesday morning. “It is here that the people’s anger begins to grow. Uighur people need an avenue to express their aspirations and protect their rights.”
Perhaps a more relevant context for this story is that China’s leadership has undertaken a crackdown on dissent in general. The New York Times notes that last week China prosecuted a respected Chinese legal scholar “who helped create a grass-root civic organization devoted to fighting social injustice and official corruption.” And, according the Los Angeles Times:
Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Tohti’s detention was “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.”
“We call on Chinese authorities to immediately account for the whereabouts of Mr. Tohti and his students and guarantee Mr. Tohti and his students the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including the freedom of expression,” she added.
Taking together China’s general crackdown on political dissent and its particular fear of Uighur separatism, the result is that Ilham Tohti is between a rock and a hard place.