Last Tuesday the Chinese government sentenced Ilham Tohti, one of the country’s most prominent Uyghur intellectuals, to life imprisonment. The verdict signals President Xi Jinping’s continuing determination to clamp down on even moderate forms of dissent in China. During the last year there has been increased control of the internet, the media (including foreign journalists), and civil society (of which the imprisonment of human rights activist Xu Zhiyong in April is only one example).
Tohti was convicted on charges of “separatism”; the government argued he had been trying to promote independence for his home region, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the west of the country. His real “crime,” however, has been to publicly question the government’s policies in Xinjiang, which have produced social, cultural, and economic inequalities amongst Uyghurs and have fueled a series of violent incidents in the region, especially since 1990. In Xinjiang, Uyghurs and Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China) often have little social contact outside of work, which has fostered an atmosphere of mutual mistrust.
At the end of 2005 Tohti founded the “Uyghur Online” website, in his words, “to provide Uyghurs and Han with a platform for discussion and exchange.” China’s state news agency, Xinhua, viewed the purpose of the site differently. According to Xinhua’s account of the case, Tohti used the website to exploit “his status as a teacher to bewitch, lure and coerce ethnic minority students” into “forming a separatist clique.” The article goes on to justify Tohti’s life sentence by arguing that “His attitude was utterly vile, and therefore he should be heavily punished.”
When Tohti was arrested in January of this year, along with ten of his students, it wasn’t obvious how much danger he was in: Tohti has been under surveillance for more than a decade, including in the classroom, and has been arrested on a number of previous occasions (most recently in 2009, when he was quickly released). But when the authorities charged him with separatism in July, it became apparent that they meant to silence him for good.
What made this charge especially perverse is that Tohti has never advocated that Xinjiang should be an independent country (unlike compatriots who would like to see the province become “East Turkestan”). He has also maintained a flexible attitude toward Uyghur identity, unlike many Uyghurs who feel their culture is under attack from the continuing influx of Han migrants from inner China, the increasingly severe restrictions on Muslims in Xinjiang, and the marginalization of the Uyghur language in education. Tohti has argued that “Any thinking that doggedly stresses a particular group’s cultural uniqueness and superiority, thus making it non-inclusive, is closed-minded and a thing of the past. It will inevitably kill the culture it means to enshrine and protect.” However, he has also criticized the government’s efforts to “oppose a false and calculated ethnic harmony. Use of administrative means to keep ethnic groups together is, in essence, a use of force that breeds division, whereas tolerance as a means to encourage diversity will lead to mutual harmony and unity.”
The most likely reason for Tohti’s sentencing was the shift in the political climate in China since Xi Jinping took power in early 2013. This has also coincided with a series of high-profile violent incidents in which Uyghurs were involved, most of them in Xinjiang—the details of many of which remain unclear—but also in other parts of China. In October 2013 an SUV crashed into a wall on the edge of Tiananmen Square in Beijing and exploded, killing five people, including the three passengers, all of whom were said to be Uyghur. Though the government was quick to label the incident an act of terrorism by Islamic militants, Tohti, like many others, suggested that other factors may have been the cause. “The use of violent means happens because all other outlets for expression are gone,” he told Reuters.
After making this statement, Tohti began being followed by unmarked cars. In November plainclothes security agents rammed his car while his two young children rode in the back seat. The agents got out and threatened to kill him and his family if he kept speaking to the foreign press. After his arrest he was held in leg shackles for a month, according to his lawyer, even when he went to sleep. The prosecuting attorney’s office defended this practice with the bizarre allegation that Tohti had been deliberately coughing to disturb other prisoners, which had led to fights with them. He was also not served halal food, prompting him to go on hunger strike for ten days.
The verdict in high-profile cases like Tohti’s are always predetermined. The actual trials take only a few days (Tohti’s took two), which speaks volumes about the current state of China’s legal system. Although China today is far from being the totalitarian state that many people still imagine it to be, its judiciary remains inextricably tied to political power. Tohti has said he will appeal the sentence, but his chances of overturning the conviction are virtually nonexistent. Barring some major political shift in China, he is unlikely to be released for a very long time.
Meanwhile, the need for the kind of constructive, reasoned discussion about Chinese policies in Xinjiang that Tohti sought to promote has never been greater. In the last week, reports have emerged of more violence in Xinjiang, with a series of bomb blasts and the ensuing police response killing fifty in Luntai County, near the provincial capital Urumqi. Tohti’s sentencing is not only an injustice but also a further impediment to finding a peaceful solution to the unrest in Xinjiang.
Nick Holdstock is the author of The Tree That Bleeds, which describes the year he spent living in Yining. China’s Forgotten People, a book about Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, will be published by IB Tauris in spring 2015.