Making the Case for Nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize – My Remarks at the European Parliament
China Change, 31 May 2016
By Yaxue Cao – I’m not always acutely aware of identity as a Han Chinese, but this is one of those few occasions when I am. I am deeply honored to be here, speaking about Ilham Tohti. You will see why.
The Chinese government has a long standing ethnic policy since the beginning of the founding of the People’s Republic: it selects the brightest ethnic youth, whether Tibetans, Uighurs or from other ethnic groups, and brings them to study and attend colleges in Beijing or other cities in interior China. With better education, they eventually become the elites of their ethnic groups; many become party cadres, others become writers, and others university faculty or successful businessmen.
Ilham Tohti was one of the Uighur elite educated in interior China, as was his father before him. So were his two brothers. He was born in 1969 and grew up in a government compound where Han and Uighur party cadres and their families lived. He was selected to study in Beijing when he was 16. He studied economics and eventually became a professor at Minzu University in Beijing. He is an expert in Xinjiang studies and Central Asia studies, including geopolitics, culture, economic development, and religion. In recent years, he has focused his research on the Uighurs’ economic, religious and political rights, and the increasingly difficult relationship with Han Chinese who have migrated in large numbers to Xinjiang over the last six decades. He is interested in the technicality of governing a multi-ethnic society where groups co-exist peacefully, enjoying equal rights, while preserving their cultural identity. He studied cases of successes and failures in many countries, including in Europe. Not surprisingly, through his research, he saw that his ideals of peaceful ethnic coexistence and good governance would require values and institutions that are rejected by the Chinese government.
His research has inevitably led to criticism of Chinese government’s ethnic policies. In his writings, he analyzed problems in Xinjiang and made policy recommendations that, as far as we can see, have fallen on deaf ears.
Ilham Tohti evoked the ire of the government from the very beginning of his teaching career. In 1994 he was tracked down and threatened by domestic security police (political police, in essence) for the first time, for questioning in a paper he had written the truthfulness of some official data. Over the years he has been alternately barred from publishing and teaching, from traveling to Xinjiang, and from traveling overseas. He was videotaped when he taught, and the government sent minders to sit in his classes. He had been subjected to short detentions and house arrest. In January 15, 2014, he was arrested, and in September, 2014, sentenced to life in prison. Ilham was charged with separatism despite his well-known insistence on peaceful ethnic coexistence.
Long before the Chinese government embarked on the so-called One Road One Belt strategic development blueprint that seeks westward economic expansion along the old Silk Road through Xinjiang, Central Asia and onto Europe, Ilham Tohti believed that China can and should play a more active and effective role in Central Asia, and that Uighurs can take part in that process and contribute to it significantly, because of their cultural affinity with the people of Central Asia.
In his widely-read 2009 essay “Farewell, Ilham,” Ilham’s long-time friend, Chinese writer Huang Zhangjin wrote, “Ilham believes that, if China is a free and democratic country and Xinjiang is a region with true autonomy, the Uighurs will be very proud of being part of China, that China will have strong soft power in Central Asia, and that the Uighurs will become the natural force in expanding China’s influence in the culture and economy in Central Asia, because of their linguistic advantages.” According to Huang, Ilham had planned to propose this national development strategy to leaders. “The situation will be so different even if the Uighurs are treated with some equality,” Ilham Tohti told his Han friend.
But the reality is, ethnic tension between Uighurs and the government, and between Uighurs and Han Chinese, has been deteriorating steadily since the late 1990s. What’s worse, in addition to the intrinsic problems he pointed out, China has seized on the international campaign against terrorism and exploited it through disinformation and distortion for the brutal suppression of the cultural and religious identity of Uighurs. Uighurs have lived in unprecedented fear: they have been subjected to arbitrary detention; they are given long imprisonment for everyday scuffles, or any number of minor offenses; discrimination against them is written in policy announcement across China. Any violent events are quickly labeled terrorist attacks, while similar acts by Han Chinese are described in non-politicized terms.
It was against this backdrop that Ilham Tohti, the Uighurs’ foremost public intellectual, emerged, answering a call of duty.
Now, let’s pause to consider again: 1) Ilham is an elite Uighur with advanced education and research expertise about his homeland and his people; 2) He speaks fluent Chinese and teaches and lives in Beijing, China’s political and economic center; 3) He knows like the back of his hand the views of Han Chinese and the Chinese government’s approach to his people; and 4) As an intellectual, regardless of his ethnicity and religion, he is firmly in the camp of the liberal intelligentsia in China who embrace freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. How many Uighurs inside China are like Ilham Tohti? Very few. So he felt he had a responsibility to his people, and for peace and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese.
Ilham wrote in his autobiographical essay “My Ideals and the Career Path I have Chosen” in 2011, “I know very well that there are not many people from my ethnic group like me who have enjoyed quality education and have had opportunities and experiences. Similarly, few people in China possess the same advantages as I do with regard to Xinjiang issues and Central Asian issues. The challenges facing Chinese society are so arduous that I can’t rightly dismiss my responsibility.” He understands perfectly that, to answer this call of duty, “not only knowledge and training, but above all, courage” will be required.
Part of his answer to this call of duty was to set up the website Uighur Biz in 2006. It was a Chinese-language website that posted news, commentaries, and discussions about what was happening in Xinjiang and to Uighurs and other ethnic groups that the mainstream Han Chinese seldom cared about and hardly knew. The idea was to facilitate access to information and mutual understanding. Ilham Tohti believes in the power of communication. He said that confronting differences is not dangerous, but silent suspicion and hatred are. The site was repeatedly hacked or ordered to shut down. At around the time of his arrest, it had ceased permanently.
Over the years, Ilham Tohti repeatedly emphasized that he is a scholar, not a political figure, and that he serves his people’s interest best as a scholar rather than a political symbol. Yet today he is the No. 1 political prisoner in China in that he is the only person since China’s opening up more than three decades ago who has been sentenced to life in prison for his ideas and expression. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for drafting and spreading Charter 08, a blueprint for democratic transformation in China. Ilham Tohti’s recommendations to the Chinese government are sound, and they are also measured and realistic. He is punished so much more severely simply because he is a Uighur.
Recently, around the world, there has been much looking back at the Cultural Revolution among journalists, academics and China watchers, given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Mao Zedong’s notorious political campaign that laid China to ruins. Ilham Tohti’s father, like hundreds and millions of Chinese, died during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 28 when Ilham Tohti was two years old and his younger brother was eleven months. Fifty years later, Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence for speaking out for his people.
In a nutshell, this is how much China has changed politically over the last fifty years and how bad ethnic tensions have become.