When I heard that the Uyghur public intellectual Ilham Tohti had been given a life sentence for allegedly promoting ethnic separatism, I was living on a university campus just a few kilometers from the courthouse where he was sentenced in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. In whispered conversations, my Uyghur classmates and mentors told me how troubled they were by the news. Tohti had used his training in economics and Chinese to communicate to government authorities and the general non-Muslim public about how Chinese history was experienced from a Uyghur perspective. He gave a voice to the feelings of nearly everyone I knew, and he was widely admired and respected for his courage. Now he had been labeled a criminal, and that voice had been taken away.
His conviction felt like a state crime not just against Tohti—punishing him for having the audacity to think and speak the truth—but against every Uyghur I met. They did not read Tohti’s imprisonment as simply a miscarriage of justice or a symptom of systematic human rights abuses; they saw it as an attack on a body of work that served as a primary source for understanding the material conditions at the heart of the Xinjiang emergency. Tohti was trained as a Marxist economist and developed his thought within that historical-materialist analytical framework. As he has laid out in a number of essays, interviews, and policy papers, at the core of Uyghur discontent is the way Han settler “pioneers” set in motion a process of dispossessing Uyghurs of their way of life when they arrived in Xinjiang in the 1990s as part of China’s drive to secure resources such as oil and natural gas. What sparked Uyghur protest was the discrimination they faced in hiring, the loss of control over their education and religious systems, and the capture of real-estate development, banking, grassroots political organizations, and police by the new arrivals.
In this short essay, “The Need to Mount Long-Term Resistance to Totalitarianism and Ethnonationalist Chauvinism,” drawn from a new collection of Tohti’s work titled We Uyghurs Have No Say: An Imprisoned Writer Speaks, Tohti describes the pioneer ethos of the Han settlers as both a result and driver of an emergent Chinese ethnonationalism. Writing in 2006, after a nationally organized development campaign called “Open up the West” had brought millions of new settlers into Uyghur-majority areas, he explains how this ethnonationalism produces a blindness to the perspectives and experiences of minoritized others. He notes that the Chinese law purportedly protects non-majority ethnic nationalities, he calls for greater dialogue, and he ends by expressing hope that digital forums might help grassroots resistance movements.
Unfortunately, Tohti’s sentencing in 2014 cast a great chill on such forms of reflective thought and action. And advanced dataveillance technology now automates the detection of digital speech, so even the most private communication that departs from state-supported narratives can lead to repression. Yet the courage of Tohti’s words lives on. In translation, they provide readers around the world, and even back in China, a way of coming to terms with the state violence that Tohti predicted was on the horizon. —Darren Byler
As part of our self-understanding as a people, the most important thing we need to do is carry out long-term resistance to totalitarian ideology and ethnonationalist chauvinism to prevent it from coming back and occupying our national ideology and political sphere.
For an ethnonationalist girded by totalitarianism, minority peoples are in essence a “social blank space”—an open field in which social experiments can be conducted at will. This picture of a supposed “blank space” gives rise to all manner of fanciful, imagined possibilities. The millennia-long historical culture of Uyghurs, Mongols, Hui, and other ethnic groups, as well as their contributions to the nation and their real existence as distinct peoples, count as nothing in the eyes of ethnonationalist, chauvinist totalitarians—they can be disregarded and ignored entirely. Yet for the peoples themselves, these are sacred things. For these and many, many other reasons, the needs of minority peoples and the demands of ethnonationalist totalitarians are in irreconcilable conflict.
By using slogans like “developing terra nullius” and “developing the wasteland” and other ignorant slogans [about the colonization of Xinjiang by Han people], countless young people have been influenced to treat minority ethnic people and regions with utter disregard. These slogans inculcate them with the idea that they’re the pioneers on this land. Fortunately, historical facts will restore everything, and it has become a part of the spiritual world of all living in Xinjiang to learn about the great, inspiring, and exciting culture of this land, including its social economy and ethnic history. But we must always remember the lessons history has given us about ethnonationalist totalitarianism, and this will always remain a painful memory in the history of our people.
If ethnonationalist totalitarianism really gains the upper hand, the only outcome will be to lead this great nation and people to a dead end. The great misfortune is that when the state today promotes the “construction of a harmonious society” and “harmonious China”—for example, with websites like Han Net (www.cnhan.com), which use the most advanced and expedient internet technologies—they’re firmly pushing for, propagandizing, and insisting on ethnonationalism. This is not an accident—and seeing this fact as an accident of history is an unforgivable mistake. Looking at this phenomenon with merely superficial contempt, and as a perfectly understandable historical ethnic experience, will serve to obscure the true dangers that lurk in the future. We all know how history punishes its lazy students.
Of course, in our country’s governmental and legal system, ethnonationalist totalitarianism has no place. Though we can indeed use a few isolated phenomena to explain these circumstances, the key is that we also step back and look at the big picture. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the closed nature of ethnonationalist chauvinism and the preconditions for technological innovation, which include the free flow of information. As time passes, the attempt to maintain such control will be increasingly inefficient, and will in the end lead down a blind alley. Ethnonationalism in the context of an open internet and technological sector is bound to lose out. And a people caught in an ethnonationalist totalitarian ideology will find themselves falling behind and will ultimately fail.
The most important thing for our national consciousness is to wage long-term resistance against ethnonationalist totalitarianism and prevent it from once again invading and occupying our social consciousness and political system.
Darren Byler is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City.
Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economist, writer, and professor who is a co-founder of the website Uyghur Online, also known as Uyghurbiz, which aimed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. On September 23, 2014, he was found guilty of separatism, and he is currently serving a life sentence. He has been incarcerated incommunicado since 2017, with no access to his family or his lawyers.
This piece was originally published in 2006 on Uyghur Online and is excerpted from We Uyghurs Have No Say: An Imprisoned Writer Speaks by Ilham Tohti, translated by Yaxue Cao, Cindy Carter, and Matthew Robertson (Verso, 2022).