VOA Interview with Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013

Translation published: January 15, 2016

Ilham Tohti was an economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing and the foremost Uighur public intellectual in the People’s Republic of China. He was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 for criticizing the government’s policies in Xinjiang and advocating basic economic, cultural, religious and political rights for the Uighur people. The translation is based on the Chinese transcript of a VOA interview with Ilham Tohti in November 2013, shortly after the car crash of a Uighur family in Tiananmen Square on October 28, 2013, and less than three months before his detention on January 15, 2014. You may also want to watch our 32-minute documentary about Ilham Tohti. – The Editors

伊力哈木采访2 (2)

Ilham Tohti. Photo: VOA


BEIJING – The Chinese government has included Xinjiang and Tibet in its category of “core interests.” After the eruption of violent incidents in many places in Xinjiang, the Chinese government has enhanced its security presence there. In a recent interview with Voice of America, Ilham Tohti, a scholar of Xinjiang issues at Beijing’s Central Minzu University, spoke about what is really happening in Xinjiang and offered some recommendations to central authorities about how to resolve the Xinjiang issue.

Voice of America (hereafter, “VOA”): After the deadly car crash at Tiananmen on October 28, the only reports available to the Chinese public all have to follow the official reporting from Xinhua. But some overseas media have pointed out that since Tiananmen Square is so densely covered with surveillance cameras, there should be video of the incident from a variety of angles and locations. However, as of today the Chinese official media has not released any video at all. Prof. Ilham Tohti, have you been able to use your Uighur Online website to publish any independent opinions and report on what actually happened?

Ilham Tohti: On the day of the incident, we issued a statement saying that we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to come to a judgment about what happened until there was more evidence. Over the following several days, out of consideration for the safety of others associated with Uighur Online, I began publishing opinions under my name only. For several days, I was constantly giving media interviews. But there aren’t very many of us, and I have to consider other people’s safety.

I worry that, in the absence of any non-government media outlets, many people will only get their information from official sources. I fear that, just as in the past, this will lead to misunderstanding and hatred. I am hoping that, through VOA and other friends in the media, we will be able to make our own voices heard. We want to stop the ethnic hatred. Uighurs and Han are friends, not enemies. The primary responsibility for [this incident] rests with the government.

I daresay I can predict what the government’s next steps will be, as I’ve been right about this in the past. In a few days, the government will release video showing several Uighurs, their faces covered, tearfully apologizing and saying: “I committed wrongdoing!” However, it will be very difficult to confirm the identities of these people and determine whether or not they are actors. Based on the evidence currently being put forward by the government, it’s hard for us Uighurs to believe [that this is a terrorist attack]. If the government actually has evidence of this, it ought to make it public since this would help its case.

“Preferential” policies towards Uighurs

VOA: During this year’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, we interviewed some members of the Xinjiang delegation. At that time, the delegates made a point of mentioning all the various kinds of preferential treatment being offered to Uighurs, like extra points on the university entrance exams, no enforcement of the one-child policy, and bilingual education for ethnic children. What do you think of these preferential policies toward ethnic minorities?


A market in Kashgar. Photo: UHRP

Ilham Tohti: I have long expressed support for bilingual education, but I feel this policy has come too late. What we Uighurs oppose is being misled with false promises. The so-called bilingual education currently being carried out in Xinjiang is really an education aimed at assimilation into Han culture. The quality of education of Uighurs is on the decline, and bilingual education is in reality not what it sounds like. Many Uighur children can’t understand Uighur, and they can’t really understand Mandarin Chinese either.

As far as preferential birth-control policies are concerned, it’s true that Uighurs are allowed to have two or three children. But Han Chinese living in Xinjiang are also able to have more than one child. And this is not a policy aimed at Uighurs; it’s aimed at all ethnic minorities in China. On the other hand, I don’t really consider this to be a preferential policy. As an ethnic group living in an autonomous region, we ought to be able to establish our own birth-control policies based on our own circumstances. Our population base is relatively small, only 10 million, and 80 percent are poor and live in rural areas that haven’t been urbanized or industrialized. The Uighur population in Xinjiang is also aging, resulting in labor shortages and other problems. Many policies have really hurt us. Currently the male-female sex ratio is severely unbalanced. This is not only a problem for demographers—many people have come to recognize it. Uighur females outnumber males, and many Uighur girls are unable to marry.

When it comes to development of the economy, I think the thing Uighurs feel most upset about is the unfair way that resources are distributed. Extra points on the university exam or preferential birth-control policies are only a small part of the problem, in my opinion. They’re not the essential problem. Receiving education in our own language ought to be our right. But over the past decade—especially since 2005—we’ve been deprived of these rights in Xinjiang. Outsiders don’t understand the reality and think we oppose bilingual education. That’s not the case. Many Uighurs were originally illiterate and have begun studying Chinese of their own initiative.


Karakul Lake and Muztaghata. Photo: FarWestChina

Unfair distribution of political power and social resources

VOA: I’ve heard people make the following argument: Xinjiang is a vast and rich territory, especially with regard to the rich mineral resources underground. If Xinjiang people possessed or controlled those resources, Xinjiang would become China’s Kuwait. What rights do you think Uighurs ought to have over Xinjiang’s natural resources?

Ilham Tohti: What I’d say is that the resources we’re talking about are not just natural resources. There is also the resource of [political] power. Of the 15 seats on the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Party Committee, only four go to Uighurs. Those members are responsible for the labor union, the ethnic and religious affairs committee, and other bodies without any real power. Then there’s the regional governor, Nur Bekri, but neither his two assistants, nor his driver, are Uighurs. None of the people responsible for departments connected to important matters like personnel, budget, land, finance, airlines, and railroads are Uighurs.

As far as natural resources are concerned, central state-owned companies like PetroChina, Sinopec, and China Nonferrous Mining have monopolized the extraction rights for the resources in Xinjiang. On the other hand, most of the so-called private companies operating in Xinjiang are companies from outside Xinjiang, many of them relying on powerful connections, such as people from their home provinces who serve as officials in Xinjiang.

As for Uighurs, our problem is survival—more basic than economic development. Some Han scholars contend that Uighurs and Han face essentially the same problems. To some extent, I agree with them, since we’re both facing common problems in terms of human rights, rule of law, and democracy. However, Uighurs also face a unique problem, one of social resources. We also face other problems like ethnic discrimination and religious issues, with pressures similar to those faced by China’s Catholic and Protestant house churches.

But the pressure facing us is even greater than that faced by house churches. This is because of our great differences from mainstream Han culture, including in terms of language, appearance, and religious beliefs. I tell Uighurs that we’re facing two Chinas. The misunderstandings between us and the Chinese public can only be resolved through strengthening mutual interaction and understanding. But when it comes to the government, we all have to work together to promote reform and democratization and fight for our human rights.


Uighur muslims praying outside the Ik’dah mosque in Kashgar. Photo: Twitter @AbdugheniSabit

Restrictions on religious activities

VOA: Can you share with us what you’ve observed about how Xinjiang Uighurs exercise freedom of religion and take part in religious activities?

Ilham Tohti: Last March, I wrote two pieces on the subject of religious freedom that were presented at an international academic conference held at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and included a great number of examples and photos. Uighurs’ religion puts them in conflict with the materialism of the Communist Party, so the repression we’ve faced is actually not a recent phenomenon.

Uighurs—like Han Chinese—were given an atheist education from an early age. However, we are a religious people. The government has never before tried to control religion in Xinjiang as tightly as it does right now. There are many regulations in Xinjiang, such as prohibiting cadres, state enterprise employees, students, teachers, women, university students, and any children under the age of 18 from entering mosques. Now I ask you: who is allowed to enter mosques?

In Xinjiang, Arabic has become a special language that no one is allowed to teach. If you study Arabic, you might be breaking the law. I want to ask the government, what isn’t illegal? Where can Uighurs go to study their own religion? If members of society aren’t allowed to study religion, then the government ought to provide an adequate number of Islamic colleges. I know that, in the United States and in the UK, there are such colleges.

VOA: The Chinese government called the October 28 incident at Tiananmen Square a terrorist attack. Is this a reflection of the increasingly acute trajectory of social and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang?

Ilham Tohti: I don’t agree with those who say that ethnic conflict is growing more and more acute. I believe that what’s getting more intense is the conflict between Uighurs and the government. No matter how you want to label it, the choice of Tiananmen for self-immolation, violent resistance, or protest is clearly an expression of dissatisfaction with the government.



Uighur Online (UighurBiz)

VOA: Next we’d like to discuss the website you’ve set up, Uighur Online. Has this website been blocked in China or can ordinary netizens in China access it?

Ilham Tohti: Our site has been blocked inside China since July 6, 2009. Now we’ve moved our servers to the United States. Many people are using iPhones to visit. Before it was blocked, Uighur Online would get 1.2–1.5 million visitors a day. Now we’re down to around 300,000 visitors a day. Recently, we also set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I think that China’s Great Firewall is a failure, because netizens seeking information—Uighurs included—all know how to get around it.

Han Chinese have other choices. There are plenty of television programs or newspapers that discuss Han culture, history, language, or literature. But there is virtually nothing like this for us. Uighurs like Uighur Online because it is the only website that speaks in our own voices. And [by trying to shut it down] the government is now helping to promote Uighur Online. CCTV called us out by name in 2009, giving us free “advertising.” Uighurs are like that: the more they say they don’t like something, the more we’ll like it. Articles on Uighur Online circulate quickly among Uighurs. I’ve even heard of illiterate old women who know about things we’ve published.

Problematic “visits” to Uighur homes and sources of Uighur resentment

VOA: Recently we’ve seen reports of a phenomenon in Xinjiang known as “visiting.” Can you tell us a bit about these “visits”? Who is paying visits to Uighur homes? Are they village cadres? Do they get permission before making these visits to Uighur homes?

Ilham Tohti: Uighur Online has published many pieces on this subject. Many of the conflicts in Xinjiang have their origins in these “visits.” Sometimes the “visits” are about your beard, your veil, the religious books or symbols in your home or the carpets Uighurs use during worship. These “visits” are like the fuse that has set off many conflicts, even involving some Uighur women.

The Quran is sacred to Uighurs. Although I currently don’t go to mosque every week, I am still a Muslim. Even if I only go to mosque for major holidays a few times a year, whenever someone burns or desecrates the Quran I will definitely be upset. It’s because this is our religion, part of what makes us Uighur. Even materialists who don’t believe in Islam get upset about the desecration of religion, as long as they are people of conscience.

Ever since Zhang Chunxian (张春贤) came to Xinjiang as party secretary, the policy has been “one police station per village, one police officer per household.” Some of the “visitors” are cadres, but the government also hires or provides subsidies to unemployed people and even juvenile delinquents to do the job. Sometimes regular and tactical police officers are also used. I’d be upset, too, if one of these people charged into my home without permission. Even if it were a university dormitory, as opposed to a private home, I’d still find it unacceptable to have someone barging in like that.

The unhappiness felt by Uighurs in Xinjiang has many sides to it. There’s dissatisfaction about the treatment of our religion, language, and culture, as well as about government policies on things including urban redevelopment, employment, cadre recruitment, passports, and even interference with the clothing we wear.

Uighurs are systematically excluded and discriminated against in Xinjiang, and the government is leading this. These days, I feel that Uighurs are undivided internally with respect to their unhappiness toward the government—those feelings are unanimously held.

For all the years the government has been in Xinjiang, it has never cultivated a group of Uighurs with vested interests in the existing system. A handful have vested interests, but they are few in number and don’t represent a significant segment of the Uighur population. Elsewhere, you see ruling elites try to develop their own interest groups, but in Xinjiang they haven’t done this. On this point, I think this shows that Xinjiang policy has been a failure—even this hasn’t been accomplished!


VOA: Just now, you mentioned urban redevelopment in Xinjiang. We’ve seen news about the demolition and renovation of the Old City in Kashgar. Does Xinjiang have the same problems with forced eviction and violent demolitions that exist in the rest of China?

Ilham Tohti: On my most recent trip to Xinjiang, some people from Aqsu came to see me. They said that there was a village there that had been turned into a new urban district where apartments were selling for ¥4000 – 5000 per square meter. They seized orchards and some cotton fields, paying the local people ¥420,000 per hectare and then selling the land to developers for ¥12 million per hectare. They did this to hundreds, even thousands of hectares of land. Of course the local people weren’t happy about this.

There are many conflicts like this in Xinjiang, but it’s different there than it is in the rest of China. Elsewhere in China, the media can get involved and there are bloggers and microblogs who can reveal details of this kind of thing. At our university, we had a student from Xinjiang who exposed a case like this, only to have state security police drive more than 400 km to arrest him at his home when he returned to Xinjiang. They immediately put him in handcuffs and shaved his head. Fortunately, I heard about the news that day and called up the officer in charge of my case at the Beijing domestic security unit to ask him to help me complain to his superiors, otherwise I was going to go public. Later, I guess the local police in Xinjiang got word and had the student call me on the telephone to say that he had already returned home.

Barred from traveling overseas or visiting Xinjiang freely; guilt towards family but the need to forge ahead

VOA: On February 2, you were on your way to Indiana University to be a visiting scholar when you were stopped at the airport. What happened?


Ilham Tohti with wife, daughter, and son.

Ilham Tohti: Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve been prevented from going overseas. For many years now I’ve been getting invitations from different universities. However, [the domestic security police] always blocked my travel in advance. Before, when I got an invitation from an American university, they put me under house arrest. This time I was very public, telling everyone that I was going to Indiana. Friends even sent me off and held a little going-away party. In the end, they were very barbaric in the way they prevented me from leaving, refusing me water and forbidding me from using the toilet for over 10 hours.

My daughter’s in the United States now, but this wasn’t her choice. Her original plan was to visit for 20 days and then come back. Later, we figured that she has freedom in America and we couldn’t choose for her to lose that freedom again. So, no matter how difficult, it’s best for her to stay there.

In addition to keeping me from traveling abroad, they also prevent me from leaving Beijing. Before, in 2009 and 2010, they wouldn’t let me travel to Xinjiang. They let me go to Xinjiang in 2011, but only in the company of four security officers. In 2012, I went to Xinjiang accompanied by three security officers. They bought their own plane tickets and accompanied me 24 hours a day. They arranged for drivers in Xinjiang and accompanied me wherever I went.

But the domestic security police in Xinjiang don’t even listen to their counterparts in Beijing. During the annual NPC meeting in 2012, the Beijing police wanted me to stay in Xinjiang and I agreed. They told me not to write any articles, and I agreed. But when I got to Xinjiang, the security police there didn’t want me to stay.

This turned into a real conflict. The domestic security police in Xinjiang are only concerned about Uighurs in Xinjiang, not the capital. Meanwhile, the domestic security police in Beijing don’t concern themselves with Xinjiang Uighurs. [The Xinjiang security police] publicly said: “We don’t want to make trouble for you or for ourselves, so why don’t you go back home.” My brother, sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, and mother would come to me in tears, asking me to leave. I had no choice and went back to Beijing.

The result? Arrangements for my son’s schooling were delayed for a year because they waited until after the NPC meeting was over to add my son’s name to my household registration. I only managed to resolve the issue this year, so my son had to start school a year later than other kids his age.

So, sometimes I feel that the path I’ve chosen not only makes my own life difficult, it also affects my innocent children. Sometimes I hold my son and tell him: “I’m sorry, my son.” He doesn’t understand and asks: “Sorry for what?” I feel truly guilty about my mother and my family. But this is the path I’ve chosen. Few among more than 10 million Uighurs dare to express themselves like me. Since I’ve been doing this for many years, I’ll continue to carry on—even if there’s risk of death ahead I guess I must forge ahead.

It’s even gotten to the point where I no longer feel that I belong to my own family. I belong to my people, to my friends, to China—it’s a major responsibility I have. I must promote Uighur-Han communication and prevent conflict and tragedy when political transition occurs in China in the future. I worry that many issues will evolve into major conflicts between Uighurs and Han, especially during the democratization process.

If we don’t start communicating now, and the government doesn’t hear our voices and demands and doesn’t know what we’re thinking, then there will be trouble. The tragedies that have already occurred in Xinjiang will most likely occur again, and other tragedies might occur as well. We might be experiencing what the Basques have gone through. So, I don’t just feel responsible to my people. I believe I have a duty to promote understanding between Uighurs and Han and a duty, along with my Han friends, to push Han and Xinjiang Uighurs to move forward together. I’m not only saying these things; I’m prepared to pay any price.


Local musicians at Meshrep in Yardand county. Photo: Twitter @AbdugheniSabit

Admiration for democratic values but no one’s “running dog”

VOA: Some people on leftist websites accuse independent Chinese intellectuals of being American running dogs and anti-Chinese traitors. How do you respond to these attacks?

Ilham Tohti: Up to this point, despite my difficulties, I have never sought any financial support from any country. I could never become anyone’s running dog. I am my own independent person, a Uighur intellectual who can think for himself. I am first and foremost responsible to my people, my homeland, my nation. I could never become anyone’s running dog.

I hold the American system in great esteem. I like American academic freedom and American values, such as the protection of human rights, respect for the minority, religious and press freedom, and democracy. But the thing is, I’m not an American. I don’t believe that Uighur problems can be solved by America. Ultimately, solving Uighur problems must rely on dialogue between Uighurs and Han Chinese. I have contacts with American scholars and even the American media. But I’m also in contact with media from many other countries. America was not the first country to invite me to visit. And I’ve never been to America; I’ve been to France.

I like to exchange ideas with Chinese intellectuals like Prof. He Weifang, whom I respect a great deal. China’s independent intellectuals are a valuable resource for China and the world. The United States needs rational Chinese intellectuals just like China needs the same in the United States. I really hate these ignorant leftists—they’re the running dogs. I don’t like to disparage others, but if you want to talk about dogs, they’re the ones who are dogs.

A scholar and a public ambassador for the Uighurs

VOA: The problems in Tibet and Xinjiang have their commonalities and differences. Both have ethnic and religious components, but Tibet has its own spiritual leader in the Dalai Lama, whereas Xinjiang has none. Can you be considered the spiritual leader of Xinjiang’s Uighurs?

Ilham Tohti: I’m really worried that people will make me into some sort of spiritual leader. I’ve been asked similar questions in the past by international organizations, scholars, and diplomats. But in these past several years I’ve continually guarded against creating this sort of appearance. I am first and foremost a scholar. These days, I’d much rather be promoting Uighur-Han communication and serving as an activist for Uighur rights. In China, Uighurs shouldn’t be afraid to speak out on behalf of their own people. Under normal circumstances, we would be able to have our own representatives and groups. But these are not allowed in the current reality, and in fact it’s dangerous.

I’m not trying to call on the international community to do anything. What we need is for the Chinese government to take a more responsible attitude and reflect on its Xinjiang policies. We shouldn’t politicize individual cases and turn them into ethnic cases; we should pay attention to evidence. I’m currently willing to serve as a kind of public ambassador for Uighurs and communicate with Han Chinese, the Han public and media, and the different peoples and nations of the world. This includes the current government. I want to share the results and findings of my research. I don’t want to play the part [of a spiritual leader].

Research areas

VOA: Are you still teaching classes at China Minzu University? What courses do you teach?

Ilham Tohti: This term I was originally scheduled to teach one course for two hours a week. Last term I taught three courses, 10 hours per week. I’m not really an economist, but I’m part of the School of Economics and teach courses related to economics. I’m a Xinjiang expert, and my research area is Xinjiang issues. I also do research on Central Asian issues, where my secondary focus is looking at the influence of Central Asian nationalism on Xinjiang, as well as at relations between China and Central Asia. My focus in these past several years has been the issue of Uighur rights, looking at the issues and difficulties we face in this period of transition and what the future prospects might be.

The course I teach is “Strategic Scientific Development of the Population, Resources, and Environment of Xinjiang.” This course was developed in the mid-1990s and was a very popular topic at that time. In China, it’s very hard to change the title of a course once it’s set. This is an open course for undergraduates, but the university limits the number of students to between 20 and 30. But quite often 200–300 students will come to listen to my lectures, even though sometimes the university will only provide a small classroom that cannot seat everyone.

I used to teach courses in development economics and “Politics, Society, Economy, and Culture of Central Asia.” I ordinarily don’t use a textbook and each time my lectures are different, based on my own preparation and my own research.

In my last class, I played a video discussing the breakup of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the ensuing ethnic conflicts and tragedies. I told students that we must avoid these kinds of problems. Some students asked me for a copy of this video. Things are freer in the classroom. Of course, the government doesn’t like this. They videotape me every time I teach, and the government sends people to attend my classes. But it doesn’t bother me. They might be listening or taping while I’m teaching, but I don’t feel like I’m doing anything secretive and believe I ought to face them openly in the light of day.

VOA: Everything that you’ve done has actually helped to promote mutual understanding between Han Chinese and Uighurs. You’ve also offered some real insights into how the government ought to govern Xinjiang, even if some of your ideas are not entirely in line with the way the government thinks and acts.

Ilham Tohti: I want what’s best for everyone—Uighurs, Han, and the government. But the problem now is that the government is not doing well. If we’re doing well, that means the government is doing well. If we’re not doing well, it means the government isn’t doing well. Right now, things aren’t going well for Uighurs. No matter what the government says, we’re still not doing well. When things start to improve for us Uighurs, that will mean that we have a good government.


Photo: Twitter @AbdugheniSabit

Autonomy and peaceful co-existence

VOA: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, some of the former Soviet republics where people have religious beliefs similar to yours became new independent Central Asian nations. The Chinese government has made it clear numerous times that it cannot allow Xinjiang to become independent. How do you view this issue?

Ilham Tohti: Over history, Uighurs have demanded independence. This is normal for an ethnic people. I’ve studied the global situation and Chinese and Xinjiang history. I’ve also studied the history of the Basque people and the ethnic problems of the former Soviet Union and Central Asia. I believe that the best option for Uighurs is to be part of a federal China where democracy and human rights are guaranteed and Uighurs enjoy self-rule. This would be the best outcome for Han, China, and Uighurs alike.

A dictatorship without democracy, human rights, or rule of law is no good for any ethnic group and should be considered a tragedy for all. But Uighurs will not accept a democratic nation where citizens have rights but ethnic groups are granted no power or autonomy.

Spain is a democracy, but democracy has been unable to solve the Basque issue. In Belgium and the UK, we also see different cultural zones. So, many [Chinese] liberal scholars say that everyone will be treated alike as long as China has democracy and civil rights. But this isn’t actually true. We have our own unique identity and our own history. What I hope for even more, then, is ethnic autonomy inside China—this is the best possible outcome. If that happened, the Central Asian countries ought to envy us Uighurs, rather than the other way around.

The Uighur people possess many strategic resources. If China cherishes this people and puts a good system in place, the Uighurs could play an important role in China’s global strategy with respect to Central Asia and Southwest Asia, rather like the Tatars in Russia. Historically, Uighurs have gone through periods where they had a high degree of autonomy. This territory once gave birth to the Silk Road. These days, everyone takes their own rights and culture very seriously. The more globalized we become, the more seriously we take our individual cultures, including what makes us unique. The things that differentiate us from others are the things most worth cherishing. Uighurs take their own rights more and more seriously and focus more and more on their present and future. So we need to talk with each other and resolve the problems between Uighurs and Han. The solution is not killing, but rather peaceful dialogue. Peaceful coexistence is much better!



The banner reads: Hold up high the flag of rule of law, resolutely crack down on crimes.

An autonomous region with no autonomy

VOA: Records show that when the Chinese Communist Party first took power they had planned to call Xinjiang the “Xinjiang Autonomous Region.” At that time, the Uighur leader Saifuddin told Mao Zedong that autonomy should belong to a people, not to a piece of land. Since the autonomy was for the Uighurs, the central government listened to his advice and named Xinjiang the “Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.” Has Xinjiang today achieved the kind of autonomy that Uighurs hope for?

Ilham Tohti: Let’s look back at the history. In 1884, the Uighurs were made an autonomous region of the Qing Empire. Twenty years later, there was no more Qing Empire. At that time, Uighurs, like Han Chinese, stopped recognizing the Qing. Uighurs also wanted their national independence and continously fought for it until 1947.

In 1947 [Note: should be 1946], Chiang Kai-shek was smart and sent General Zhang Zhizhong (张治中) to negotiate a settlement agreement in which he got some Uighur nationalists from outside China and some Uighurs then living outside of Xinjiang to form a coalition government. In those days, apart from foreign relations and national defense, everything else was decided in Xinjiang. Xinjiang held its first democratic elections, for local councils, regional councils, and the provincial council. Besides some representatives sent by the government, there were also representatives from the Kazakh people and other ethnic groups. To tell the truth, that was a truly autonomous Uighur government, which even retained its own army.

Then, the first constitution under the Communists in 1954 established China as a multi-ethnic nation and promised ethnic autonomy. Uighurs were supportive of this notion of a multi-ethnic nation. Under the Communists, the laws establishing a system of autonomy for ethnic regions became one of the fundamental institutions of China. Then, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was established. At that time, there were many different ideas about how to name this autonomous region: Turkestan Autonomous Region, Chinese Turkestan Autonomous Region, Uighur Autonomous Region, or even just Turkestan.

Uighurs especially dislike the name “Xinjiang.” I don’t like it either. Before 1884, this region wasn’t known as Xinjiang. Why should the place where Uighurs live be known by a Han name as the “New Border Region”? Now, after so many years of immigration, the population structure of Xinjiang has changed. Some of the peoples who have lived in Xinjiang “for generations” really only immigrated there during the Qing or the Nationalist period. Other than Uighurs and Tajiks, all the other ethnic groups are immigrants. A lot of the region’s history has been created to serve official needs. Of course we recognize our own history. No matter what the percentage of Han in the population, Uighur subjectivity and history must be respected.

In 2010, the government published a set of contradictory data showing that the Han population had increased by nearly 500,000. But the true internal data showed that Han accounted for 31 percent of the population, whereas the published figures put it at more than 40 percent. Even though the population structure has changed somewhat after so many years, Uighurs are still the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang. After the Han, Uighurs are the second largest cultural group in all of China. Even though the Zhuang people (壮族) are larger in terms of population, when it comes to similarities and differences of language and culture, Uighurs’ fervor for their own culture is growing stronger.

This has encouraged Uighurs to struggle for their rights, but their demands put them in conflict with government policies. So what should we do? Some think that only independence can solve the problem. Why? It’s because many Uighurs don’t understand what autonomy really means. When they discover what the “autonomy” they’ve been given really means, they say: “We don’t want autonomy, we want independence.” I think that the problem today is that Xinjiang’s “autonomy” is in name only. Real autonomy is something different.

If we had true autonomy and Xinjiang were governed by Uighurs themselves, then the human rights of each ethnic group would be protected and Uighurs would have cultural, civic, and economic power. If Uighurs enjoyed cultural autonomy, we could co-exist peacefully with the Han and we would be able to contribute to China and enjoy the economic development made possible in a large country. This would be a contribution to the country and to the entire world, like the contributions we made during the era of the Silk Road. That’s the future I imagine for Xinjiang and the Uighurs.


Policy recommendations to the Politburo in 2011

VOA: There have recently been a series of violent incidents in Xinjiang. Following on the April incident in Maralbeshi (Bachu) County and the June incident in Pichan (Shanshan) County, there was another disturbance in July in Hotan. Since the October 28 incident at Tiananmen, security in Xinjiang has suddenly been increased. Some Western media have suggested that the Chinese government ought to reflect on its ethnic policies in Xinjiang and that relying on “strike hard” campaigns and stability maintenance won’t bring harmony and unity between Uighurs and Han in Xinjiang. What recommendations do you have for how to solve Xinjiang’s ethnic problems?

IT: Over the past decade, Uighurs in Xinjiang have been living in a state of relative fear. They don’t speak up, out of fear of being arrested. The government has increased the repression and adopted high-pressure stability policies. I’ve heard about some of these policies even being in force here in Beijing. Some of the pressure is direct: for example, searches of hotels where Uighurs stay or preventing landlords from renting to Uighurs. On WeChat and Weibo I’ve seen rumors circulating about Uighurs, like that they’re using Hami melons to spread disease in the rest of China.

In 2011, I wrote a letter to the Politburo and had it delivered through the security officer who was then in charge of my case. At that time, I pointed out that autonomy didn’t mean separatism. I said that if the Chinese Communist Party still believed that it represents the nation, including ethnic minorities, then it ought to take responsibility. I said if it didn’t start taking responsibility immediately, then the future would hold it accountable for its crimes.

I discussed the dangerous nature of the situation. Even though we don’t take part in legislating now, in the future it will be necessary to find a balance between state law and autonomy before formulating legislation. The right to autonomy needs to be implemented in order to send a sign of goodwill to ethnic minorities. I still continue to stick to this opinion. If the government isn’t responsible to the nation and to the future, it will start to lose control over many problems and lose control over the way things are headed.

There are more and more conflicts under this political system—what’s the solution? If you don’t deal with them, things will become more and more dangerous. Once ethnic conflict erupts and a separatist movement begins, it will definitely lead to tragedy. We’ve already seen this kind of tragedy in Chechnya. The Chechen independence movement was hard to repress, and people from all different ethnic groups were the ones who got hurt. So, the best way forward is a peaceful and civilized way.

新疆_AtwoodSecond, I recommended disbanding the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). The XPCC has turned into an interest group, one that even possesses its own weapons. If the XPCC were ordinary people or a company, this would be illegal. For the XPCC to possess and use weapons is disastrous for Uighur-Han relations. It creates hatred.

The XPCC should be disbanded and its institutions turned into ordinary institutions. Its farmers should just be farmers, its workers just workers. Its police should be police and its cadres just cadres. Many people misunderstand me—I’ve never said that anyone should be kicked out of Xinjiang. For many years now, I’ve been writing pieces recommending that the XPCC be disbanded and setting out the interests at stake. This is for the sake of China’s future, of Uighur-Han relations, and of Xinjiang’s future.

Third, I criticized the religious policies being implemented in Xinjiang. Of course, I tried to give them some face. I wrote my letter in as moderate a tone as possible using language that the central authorities would find acceptable, but I still put the problem to them as clearly as possible. I looked at the history and talked about how to give Uighurs religious freedom. Later, I was told that the central authorities accepted some of my recommendations. At first, it appeared to me as if they had accepted them. But when you looked again later on, the religious policies became more and more barbaric and things turned bad.

I also wrote to them about the language policy and bilingual education, as we discussed earlier. I told them that bilingual education hadn’t come too soon, but rather 60-plus years too late. The problem now is that what they’re doing isn’t bilingual education. I’m firmly opposed to the language education policy being carried out now, as are other Uighurs. The government is using mistaken methods to implement a correct policy, and ordinary Uighurs and Han people are being left to pay the consequences. I warned that the government risked being condemned throughout the ages for carrying out a policy like this, and I made recommendations about how a language policy should be carried out.

In my letter to the Politburo, I also mentioned the methods of preserving stability. Early on, I was told that the central authorities had read my letter and even that they had sent it to the regional government in Xinjiang. For the first few months, they kept asking me about the issues and details I’d raised in my letter. They even seemed to be making recordings of our discussions. Afterwards, they intensified their control measure over me and cut my classes.

When I went to Xinjiang, I discovered that the surveillance over me had gotten much heavier. All the people monitoring me had been replaced one by one. Some of my students had even been forced to disappear. The pressure on me has gotten much greater, and all I can do is try to bear it.

If the government were to permit it, I’d definitely like to leave Beijing. I’d like to spend at least half the year in Xinjiang, because that’s what I research. I feel as if I’ve wronged my mother. She was only 23 years old when my father died and raised four children on her own. She’s 64 now, and her illnesses are all caused by me.

The other day I even wrote my will and gave it to my wife, also to another person who is very close to me. I said that if something should happen to me—even if I should die at the hands of the domestic security or state security police—don’t think that I’ve been killed by Han people and let hatred come between our two peoples.




Ilham Tohti’s Statement to RFA Uighur Service on July 24, 2013.

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen, April 2014.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable), May 2015.

Xinjiang Seethes Under Chinese Crackdown, Andrew Jocobs, the New York Times, January 2, 2016.


Chinese original 《VOA專訪伊力哈木:維族生活在恐懼狀態》, translated by China Change.



6 responses to “VOA Interview with Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013”

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