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‘They Don’t Want Moderate Uighurs’

Ian Johnson
The moderate Uighur activist Ilham Tohti is on trial in Beijing on “separatism” charges. I talked to several Chinese intellectuals about his case.
Ilham Tohti.jpg

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Ilham Tohti lecturing in Beijing with a surveillance camera above him, June 12, 2010

In my series of interviews with Chinese intellectuals, there is an empty chair for Ilham Tohti, the economist and Uighur activist. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of him or hadn’t been in China long enough to have met him before he was arrested earlier this year. I had, but foolishly had put off pursuing a meeting, thinking that of all the people who might be snapped up by the authorities, he was the least likely. We had many mutual friends and I knew him to oppose independence for Xinjiang, the giant, sparsely populated province in China’s far west that is now the source of a serious terrorism problem. Even though Ilham Tohti is a fierce critic of the government and often followed by state security agents, I didn’t think the forty-four-year-old professor at Beijing’s Minzu University would be lumped in with those who want independence for China’s minority regions.

I was wrong. In January, Ilham Tohti was detained. And unlike in a previous detention, he was not released. Last week he was put on trial in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on charges of “separatism,” a loosely defined crime of seeking independence for a part of China that can carry severe penalties. The only suspense about the verdict was how long his sentence will be. [Update: On September 23 Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison. He plans to appeal the verdict.] Over the last few months, I have asked several prominent public intellectuals who knew him for their thoughts on him and his trial. Some of these people have appeared separately in this series, but their views on Ilham Tohti appear here for the first time.

The Tibetan activist Tsering Woeser, who usually goes by Woeser, and the Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong were close friends of Ilham Tohti and his family. Woeser has written about visits made to his wife, Guzelnur, who is now under house arrest, and collected some of Ilham Tohti’s statements and views about Xinjiang, which were recently translated into English.

Wang Lixiong: First, I’d like to clarify his name. His real name is just Ilham. For Uighurs, the second name isn’t their family name; it’s their father’s name. So if you call him Tohti or Mr. Tohti, you’re addressing his father! The meaning of the name Ilham Tohti is “Tohti’s son, Ilham.” But if Ilham had a son say named Mehmet, his name would be Mehmet Ilham, not Mehmet Tohti.

I met him in 2008. Friends introduced us because they knew we had strong interests in ethnic issues in China. But back then he was much more optimistic than I was. After we talked, he couldn’t understand why I was so pessimistic. He was very critical of my view of how many Uighurs want independence. I believe it’s a relatively high number. My view is that they have this hope, but realize it’s not possible. If it were possible, they’d want it. But Ilham believed those people weren’t that many. Sometimes I wondered if he just didn’t want to tell me.

He kept thinking that the government would definitely change its position. He thought that it had become so bad, they had to change their policy [on the treatment of Uighurs]. Up to the moment of his arrest he remained optimistic. But that’s not how the government thinks. The government doesn’t think it’s in an impossible position.

Why was he arrested?

Wang: It is really strange. It’s something I can’t understand. Whenever police asked me, I’d tell them that Ilham is a very important person. In the future, if there’s to be a solution, he’s important. The government might not be able to control the situation and what they’d need are civil society actors who can play a role. I think that Ilham is that kind of a person. In fact, he’s the only Uighur who as a public intellectual can stand up and speak out. At least as far as I know, he’s the only one who can express himself so clearly, and someone who doesn’t want independence, who wants to live in China and says he’s a Zhongguoren [an umbrella term for a Chinese person of any ethnicity] but wants Xinjiang to have more autonomy. By contrast, the Uighurs abroad, basically all of them want independence.

The investigation into Ilham and his personal contacts has been quite extensive. Who have they investigated?

Woeser: Many are students who attended his class. They want evidence that he’s advocated independence in his teaching or given away secrets. I went and visited his wife and she said the students were so good. They all said that Teacher Ilham isn’t like that—he never taught us those things. So I think it’s hard for them to find a charge that will stick.


His criticism of China’s Uighur policies did not get him arrested in the past.

Woeser: I think the police in Xinjiang wanted to. They have more latitude and have a tougher line. We visited him a week before he was arrested. He said authorities in Xinjiang wanted to arrest him but Beijing didn’t agree. And then a week later he was arrested.

Wang: We all thought he wouldn’t be in trouble. But the only conclusion is dark: it’s that they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.

The forty-one-year-old lawyer Teng Biao, who teaches at the University of Law and Politics in Beijing, is currently a visiting fellow at Harvard University. We spoke in Berlin in August.

Do you know Ilham?

Yes, he is my close friend.

Why was he arrested? Wang Lixiong thinks it might be because the government can’t tolerate moderates—that it wants to eliminate those voices so that it can claim no moderate Uighurs exist.

It’s a reasonable idea. Ilham was so influential among Uighur people and he is an important bridge between Uighur and Han people. He’s like Woeser in Tibetan circles. I think the central government wants to start a severe crackdown on the Xinjiang area. They want to find some excuse to control the whole area. So they are trying to eliminate any independent voices. This is part of a bigger trend.

When did this shift occur in Beijing?

March of 2013. This was when Xi Jinping formally took over [as president of China, after assuming control of the party the previous autumn]. On March 31 they arrested the Four Gentlemen of Xidan [four activists who met in the Xidan area of Beijing: Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng, Li Wei, and Hou Xin]. Since then hundreds of human rights defenders, such as the New Citizens Movement, or Pu Zhiqiang or Ilham. Before that their purpose was to control civil society—to arrest those who are active, or who cross the red line. I mean people like Pu Zhiqiang or Hu Jia or Chen Guangcheng—those who are active or influential and those the government cannot tolerate.

But now it seems that their purpose is to destroy the ability of civil society to exist. So many human rights activists have been arrested, including those who have not been so active, but who are potential leaders.

Hu Jia is one of China’s most prominent dissidents.

How long have you known Ilham?

Before I went to jail I’d heard of him and he’d heard of me but it was only after I got out that we knew each other. It’s now almost been three years since I got out of this prison [Hu spoke italicized words in English in the original conversation]. My wife took me there to his home to get to know him. I feel lucky to have known him.

When do you think his troubles began?

It started last year, on October 28. A family in a jeep carried out an [attack](( on Tiananmen Square, the Jinshui Bridge. That started everything. Ilham began accepting interviews, maybe more than one hundred, all from western media. Then on November 2, late at night he called me. He said he had to go to the airport to meet his mother. But then those political policemen crashed into his car and said they wanted to nong si (弄死) him.

What does nong si mean?

Nong si means kill your entire family. He called me to tell me this and asked me to put this out on Twitter. At the time, I was under house arrest myself for ten days, because it was the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress. [The Communist Party has congresses every five years and plenums every year. Last year’s third plenum was widely hailed as introducing new economic reforms.] But I could take his call and he told me that he was being criticized. They said to him, “You’re talking nonsense online. Stop it!” They meant the interviews. He gave interviews to American, British, French media. He was on television and in magazines, trying to explain the situation in Xinjiang. He talked to everyone, Reuters, AP.

Why? Because he was the only Uighur with such a strong voice inside China. Just like Woeser is for Tibetans, Ilham was for Uighurs. There was no one close to him. Those high-level Uighurs, their skin is like a Uighur’s, but their heart is Han. Those people realize that there’s no way back for them. Their people can never forgive them. Only Ilham could speak for the Uighurs. That’s why officials in Xinjiang wanted to arrest him a long time ago. For a long while Beijing said house arrest is enough, don’t take him into custody.


But after this October 28 incident—the attack took place just 400 meters from the Ministry of Public Security’s headquarters and only 400 meters to the Xinhuamen [the “Gate of New China” the formal entrance to Zhongnanhai leadership compound]—it caused the Minister of Public Security, Guo Shengkun, to be criticized by Xi Jinping.

So as this is going on, Ilham kept speaking out and saying, Not all Uighurs are terrorists. Uighurs have been oppressed on their own territory by the Communist Party’s ethnic minority policy. From economics to politics, in every field, Han have the say, he said. Han carry out nuclear tests—boom—and plant fields and drill for oil. There are basically no Uighurs in positions of power.

Ilham made this point in his interviews. He said they shouldn’t be using martial law and military force to control the Uighurs and to turn them all into terrorists. This made the Ministry of Public Security really angry. So the differing attitudes of the Xinjiang and the Beijing police toward Ilham came into line. In the past, the Beijing police said, “It’s not worth arresting him, just put him under house arrest when something comes up.” He was under house arrest last summer, for example, on 7/5.


On July 5, 2009, there were riots in Urumqi. Since then that’s been a sensitive date. On those anniversaries, he’d be under house arrest. But this time he was actually arrested and for charges of “separatism,” which is a serious crime.

What do you think will happen to him?

Most people in these cases are sentenced for seven to fifteen years. If you ask me to guess, I’d say six to eight years. But I’ll tell you something about Ilham. He doesn’t like this tiexue [iron and blood] policy of killing, killing, killing. When he talked, he really moved me. He’s a Muslim you know, and when he talks about something important he puts his hand on his heart like this (gesturing) to show his honesty. He wanted autonomy for his people, as is promised in the name of the region: Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

A lot of other Uighurs cursed him. They said, this guy is too weak. But Ilham did a lot of research in geology, economics, history. So I think he’d thought this out. He absolutely doesn’t want China to split. He wants to live in a system that respects the rights of ethnic minorities, in a free and equal space. He believes in peace.

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