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…