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A Chronicle of Elliot Sperling

Tsering Woeser, February 10, 2017

Woeser’s note: This essay was written in Lhasa in the summer of 2014, for a very special book. The volume, “Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling,” was a compilation of 31 essays from Tibetologists, paying respect to Elliot Sperling. There were 5 essays in Tibetan, 25 in English, and 1 in Chinese. On February 3, 2015, the book was launched at the Amnye Machen Institute [in Dharamsala]. Prior to that, Elliot didn’t know that this book had been in preparation for two years. It was presented as a gift to him as a token of respect and friendship, and most importantly as a testament to his preciousness and rarity: wise, kind, brave, righteous. And yet… those whom the gods love die young. The karma of life and death aches to the bottom of the heart. We miss you, our suddenly departed, dear Elliot Sperling! – February 2, 2017

 

 

 

I.

On one occasion — I don’t remember when over these last few years, because Elliot has come to Beijing a few times; he couldn’t go to Lhasa, but he could come to Beijing — Elliot was holding a big thick English book, and he told me it was the memoir of Mme Mandelstam.

At that point, the book had not been translated into Chinese. That I was already familiar with the poems and prose of Osip Mandelstam made Elliot very pleased. Together we revisited one of the poems that was later to give the author great misery: “We live without feeling the country beneath our feet, / our words are inaudible from ten steps away. / Any conversation, however brief, / gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man…”

I now realize that it was toward the end of March, 2011. On the 16th, the 20 year-old-monk Phuntsog in Amdo county bathed himself in flame in a terrible sacrifice to protest killings in Lhasa three years ago. A few days later I encountered Lobsang Tsepa, a fellow monk from the Kirti Gompa monastery. He choked back his tears as he told me of Phuntsog’s immolation. But soon, he’d vanished. It wasn’t until two years later that I found that he’d been taken away by police from a Chinese language school in Beijing.

I wrote a poem for Lobsang Tsepa, part of which included two lines from Mandelstam’s work. It went: “This verse was from a poet of conscience who died at the hands of Stalin, / and in it is portrayed the image of today’s China.” In the same poem I also recorded my exchange with Elliot over Skype:

In the depth of the night I mumble to myself:
“I don’t know if it matters or not, but I’m still gonna say it.
Actually, I know. Saying it is pointless….”

A friend from the free world, sings it out:
“They always make people think that speech is pointless.
But speak we must!”

II.

I remember the first time I met Elliot like it was yesterday.

It was the summer of 2010. After dropping off his luggage at the hotel, he took a taxi straight to Tongzhou, in Beijing’s eastern suburbs, to see me. Though he’s one of the few Tibetologists completely proficient in Chinese, he rarely, rarely spoke Chinese with me. My point isn’t to boast about the proficiency of my Tibetan — everyone knows that I still have a ways to go there — but to note that, it seemed to me, he spoke with me in Tibetan in order to help me improve.

That night I took him to the Makye Ame Tibetan restaurant at Jianguomen. The name of the place is ambiguous, and given to possible, sometimes erroneous interpretations. In any case, the food was quite good, despite not being all that authentic. They also had Tibetan wheat beer, shipped in from Lhasa. This, it must be said, was a comfort to Elliot, who hadn’t enjoyed a draught of it since his youth. As we savored it and spoke, he remarked that Tibetan dance performances were becoming popular, and the growing number of “Tibet fans” in the capital was creating a sense of Orientalism.

After that, it seemed that every time we met, it would be over food. We went to many restaurants in Beijing: Tibetan, Indian, Mexican. Of course, we frequented Chinese restaurants the most, including hotpot places and others. Apart from eating and drinking, we went to bookstores, art galleries, the Old Summer Palace, the Imperial College, Nanluogu Hutong (南锣鼓巷), the Songzhuang artist village, and so on. On two occasions we almost got sunstroke (he always come to Beijing during the height of summer).

We also took in operas together. On one occasion, Elliot (who at that point, because of his increasing resemblance to the mien of Lenin, I had taken to calling “Comrade Lenin”) invited me to the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing — known as the Giant Egg — to see the opera Carmen. He’s the kind of fellow who knows almost every classical opera inside out. He wore a white linen suit, and hummed along while keeping time. One time, my friend and I were celebrating our birthday, but the only thing playing was The Flower Girl, a North Korean propaganda classic that I’d grown up being brainwashed by in the Cultural Revolution. Wang Lixiong [王力雄, the author’s husband] took Elliot, me, and my good friend out, jokingly describing it as a session of Maoist era “remembering the sufferings of the past in order to appreciate the happiness today.” That night, Beijing was beset with an intense storm — like all the tears of North Korea were raining down on it.

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Elliot Sperling in Lhasa in 1985. Photo: Woeser

III.

I like to jokingly call Elliot “Genla” — a Tibetan honorific term for teacher. One time, we went to Chengde in Hebei to tour one of the seasonal imperial residences that a Manchurian emperor had given to his Buddha Dharma Grand Masters, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (they’re commonly known as the “Small Potala Palace” and the “Panchen’s imperial residence”). With the help of Elliot providing some casual advice, I managed to write a piece about Chengde that was not too bad.

The entire trip, in fact, was both instructive and delightful. We came across a fake “Tibetan Master,” peddling candles to the tourists waiting in line. Elliot approached him with the utmost courtesy and began asking him questions in Tibetan. The imposter quickly lost his composure and the ruse was over. Apart from individual swindlers, the government was swindling the public on a far larger scale, trying to revise history with political motives. For instance, they attempted to turn the eastward movement of the Mongolian Torghut tribe at the end of the 18th century into “returning to the embrace of the fatherland,” and had a special exhibition and new relief sculpture produced for the purpose. Elliot snapped a photo and sent it to a scholar of Mongolia, receiving the facetious response: “It looks like you have made new discoveries in Chengde!”

There was another amusing detail that was also discovered, of course, by Elliot. At the Small Potala Palace there was a Five Pagoda Gate, that is, a city gate that had above it five differently colored pagodas, which corresponded to the Five Dhyani Buddhas: central, south, east, west, and north. But the Chinese and English explanation in front of it was riddled with errors. It not only claimed that the five pagodas were the five main schools of Tibetan Buddhism — the Yellow Hat, Gelugpa, Karma Kagyu, and Yungdrung Bön (笨波派) schools — but also made an error in the Chinese characters for the latter school. It had substituted the Chinese character 苯 [pronounced “ben”] in Karma Kagyu, for the character 笨 in “stupid” (笨蛋). On top of that, the Chinglish translation on the plaque read: “The stupid wave sends.”

IV.

As a Chinese dissident loathed by the government, myself and Wang Lixiong often have our freedom restricted and suffer house arrest. I’m under more restrictions. This is shown by the fact that, for instance, Wang can get a passport (though sometimes neither a passport nor a visa does much good, because national security police can nullify your travel right when you are about to board a plane to depart), while I can’t. We suspect it’s because of our different ethnicities [the author is Tibetan; her husband Han].

There was a period when danger felt imminent, and I began to doubt we’d escape it. It’s just as Mme Mandelstam put it: “Being offbeat, talking too much, and putting up a resistance… it seems that this is enough to get you arrested and annihilated.” So Elliot called me every morning on Skype, to see if I’d made it safely through another day. He would happily hoot in Tibetan and then Chinese: “Not bad!”

Mme Mandelstam wrote: “We live among the kind of people that can disappear into another world, sent into remote exile, concentration camps, or jails…” Indeed — our close friend, the moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, was on January 15, 2014, violently dragged away by dozens of police, in front of his two children, and taken from Beijing to Urumqi in Xinjiang and jailed. He’s still in prison. A week before he vanished, myself and Wang Lixiong met him at a Uighur restaurant near Minzu University in Beijing, then went to his house to call on his frail wife and sick mother.

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Left to right: Wang Lixiong, Ilham Tohti, Elliot Sperling, and Tsering Woese. Photo: Woeser

Two years before he disappeared, Elliot and Ilham met for the first time, but hit off famously, at the same Uighur restaurant. In the group photo we all posed for, the feeling of trust and love of one another’s company we shared spilled out of the frame. Ilham’s daughter Jewher says that Elliot is “the best person in the world” — not just because he arranged for Ilham to spend time as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, but because when both of them attempted to board the plane, and Ilham was arrested, and the 18-year-old Jewher was suddenly alone on her way to the United States, Elliot took care of her. Her father had long prior entrusted her to Elliot’s care should it become necessary.

But Elliot wasn’t just solicitous and caring toward his friends. I once wrote in an essay: “Just like my friend and scholar of Tibet Elliot Sperling, though he studies the history of Tibet and its relations with China, he still pays utmost attention to Tibet’s political affairs and human rights. He once described his concern for Tibetan issues (he’d always correct you if you refer to Tibet in the Chinese term “xizang” 西藏, instead of 图伯特): It’s simply based on his support for the basic values of civil society and his wish to defend them, and has nothing to do with nation or ethnicity. It’s for this reason that he supports the Tibetan struggle for national survival and endurance.” This and the many other things he did seemed inspired by, as Albert Camus said in “The Rebel,” concern for others, rather than mere personal indignation.

I’ll provide simply two examples. Last May, in response to the Chinese government’s destruction of Lhasa’s old city in the name of “remodeling,” Elliot put out a call in the Tibet studies field and collected the signatures of 130 Tibetologists from around the globe, publishing “An open letter to Xi Jinping and UNESCO.” The letter stated: “This is not just a Tibetan problem; it is not just a Chinese problem. It is an international problem,” and that it would turn Lhasa into “an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture,” and called for immediate cessation of the destruction of Lhasa. Even though the calls didn’t stop the Chinese government, the protest itself demonstrated what an awful regime they are.

Another matter Elliot was involved in was the film “Duihua” (《对话》) produced by the independent Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Wo (王我), completed in March this year [i.e. 2014]. It’s a documentary about Tibet, Xinjiang, and related ethnic minority issues, and features a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a number of Chinese intellectuals over the internet, as well as a dialogue with Wang Lixiong about his thinking on the question of minorities in China. Elliot not only helped review the subtitles, but organized the premier at Indiana University.

 

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The ruins of the Ganden Monastery. Photo by Sperling via Woeser.

V.

Ganden monastery Another time, Elliot’s daughter, C., came to Beijing. She is really a beauty; anyone who set eyes on her would agree. And Elliot knew it, so he would, with a big grin on his face, say in Tibetan: “Like daughter, like father.” I’d assume a dubious expression and give him a little smack.

Actually, Elliot’s Bohemian style as a youth was indeed rather winsome. And even though these days, from all appearances any residual hippiness has been successful transformed into the air of a scholar, I’ve always felt that there was still a bit of hippie left inside. If it were otherwise, he wouldn’t have gone last summer to a Mexican restaurant with myself and two other Tibetans, and end up drinking so much that we wound up weeping maudlinly on one another’s shoulders. When Wang Lixiong heard that one he laughed and exclaimed: Sperling really is a hippie! He went out on a bender with you guys, half his age!

I really like his daughter — and not just because she’s beautiful. It’s also because in the spring of 1995, when Elliot brought the 7-year-old C. to Lhasa (he went a total of eight times, the last occasion in 2004), he taught her the Tibetan sentence: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin [meaning “Tibet belongs to Tibetans.”] And so, whether she was visiting the Potala Palace whose true owners have in exile for decades, or paying homage to the ruins of the Ganden monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, this little angel would, whenever she saw a monk, an elderly person or woman on pilgrimage, call out in her clear and crisp voice: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin” Tibetans hearing her were astonished, and many were moved to tears. The first time I heard this story, I also nearly cried.

VI.

I thought that we’d see each other again this summer. In anticipation, I had bought two books on Amazon: “Hope Against Hope: A Memoir,” by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam’s wife, and “Record of a Search for the Dharma in the Land of Snows: A Chinese Lama’s Oral History.” These were presents for a man who seemed to love books like his life depended on it. I also planned to take him to another Tibetan restaurant to try some truly Tibetan gourmet cuisine.

In June, when Wang Lixiong and I were traveling in southern Mongolia, Elliot sent a note that he’d received his visa without any problems. This really was a surprise, given that so many Tibet scholars, sinologists, and Xinjiang scholars, among others, have had their visas rejected for expressing views opposed to those of the Chinese government. Could it be that Elliot Sperling was a target of the communist party’s United Front work?

In the end, it wasn’t to be. In the afternoon of July 5, he arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport after a 14-hour flight, and was not only denied entry to the country, but was forced into a small room by police, where he was photographed, interrogated, prevented from using his cell phone, followed to the toilet, detained for 90 minutes, and then put on the next flight back home. The following day when I saw him on Skype, ensconced again in his New York apartment like he’d never gone anywhere, it felt surreal.

Aside from the time and effort that had been simply wasted, just the visa and the plane ticket probably cost nearly $2,000. Was the Chinese government deliberately messing him around? Elliot, though, found time for humor. He held up the visa with a big black X through it and said: “Congratulate Elliot Sperling for receiving the Chinese Communist Party Human Rights Award!”

For my part, I was indignant. When I exposed the incident on my blog and on Twitter, media took note. The New York Times interviewed Elliot and quoted him saying: “I had a pretty clear notion about why I was being denied entry. For me, it was clearly about Ilham…. [It’s an] attempt to pressure those who speak in support of Ilham to retreat into silence, or at least to isolate them.” As for whether he would be able to come to China in the future, Elliot simply said: “I have done nothing wrong… and have no intention of conforming to authoritarian norms for the sake of a visa.”

Wang Lixiong said to me: “It looks like you two will only be able to meet on Skype in future.”

 

July 13, 2014

Lhasa

 


Articles by Elliot Sperling on Rangzen Alliance website:

Self Delusion, criticism of the Middle Way policy of the Tibetan exile government, Aug 12, 2014.

The Body Count, mass killings in Tibet in 1958, Sep 14, 2012.

Freedom and Independence…and Language, Nov 1, 2011.

 


原文《唯色:记埃利亚特·史伯岭》, translated from Chinese by China Change.

 

 

 

The Dire Consequences of the Imprisonment of Ilham Tohti

Elliot Sperling, February 5, 2017

In memory of Elliot, who passed away last week. I recovered this from my email archive, dated September 17, 2016, the day after Ilham Tohti was nominated for the Sakharov Prize. It is published here for the first time. – Yaxue Cao

 

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The nomination last week of the imprisoned Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is welcome recognition of the role this courageous individual has played in working for the fundamental rights of a beleaguered people, a people subject to one of the harshest regimens that China visits on any nationalities or collective groups within its borders. But the persecution of Ilham Tohti serves as an example of how China’s repressive policies create damage and danger that go far beyond its own borders. There are good reasons for international concern and outrage over Ilham Tohti’s imprisonment.

On the heels of recent attacks in Europe, and concern about new ISIS-aligned actors outside the group’s core Middle East area, a recent report from the New America think-tank has revealed, among other things, that China’s treatment of its Muslim population is boosting radicalization: over 100 Turkic Uyghurs, Muslims from the region of Xinjiang in China’s northwest were recruited into ISIS response to the harsh state repression visited on them as Muslims and as Uyghurs in full disregard of common human rights norms. But the particularly harsh persecution of Ilham Tohti demonstrates a terrible dynamic in that process: the one-party Chinese state, by targeting moderates effectively nurtures extremism as the outlet for legitimate grievances over China’s policies.

On January 15, 2014 Ilham Tohti was spending the afternoon resting with his two young sons in his apartment on the campus of Minzu University where he taught economics. When a large contingent of police and state security agents burst through the door, suddenly and unexpectedly, waking the napping professor, his life changed forever. He was dragged from his apartment and has spent all of his subsequent days behind bars. As for legal formalities—such as they are for an outspoken liberal Uyghur intellectual in China—his trial on charges of supporting separatism, advocating violence among his students, etc.—took all of two days and produced a life sentence. And what had he really done? He had written about what had been happening in Xinjiang in a way that was markedly different from the official line; he circulated word of what he had found openly and on his own website; and perhaps most dangerously, he invited response and discussion. Though fluent and literate in Uyghur, he constituted his website as a Chinese-language venue so as to initiate dialogue between Uyghurs and Chinese. In retrospect that, as well as Ilham’s charismatic teaching, was intolerable. And so he was taken from his family and months later subjected to a kangaroo court (witnesses he asked for were not called; in contravention of Chinese law he was tried in a venue hundreds of mile from Beijing, his place of residence and the place in which his supposed crimes had allegedly been committed).

The intrinsic merit in Ilham’s activities and the egregious injustice of his imprisonment have been acknowledged internationally: he was the recipient of the PEN American Center’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and just recently named one of three Finalists for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. And now he is a nominee for the Sakharov Prize.

One might be inclined to see in Ilham Tohti’s case just one more sad instance of Chinese authoritarian repression and hostility to free thought. But in the present climate of anxieties about extremism, about Islam and about terror, his case is especially significant. Given China’s record of cynical misuse of the terrorism issue to attack dissent among Uyghurs and Tibetans, observers are rightly concerned that the state’s adoption of a new, broad anti-terrorism law just this past December has set the stage for actions that will exacerbate China’s problems.

By any measure, Ilham Tohti is a moderate person. A Muslim, he is liberal in his practice and entertains close friendships across lines of nationality and religion. But from the perspective of the authorities, moderates such as Ilham—non-violent critics who operate openly—are threats and are targeted for severe repression. The ills and abuses they bring to the surface are ignored and fester. Thus, the persecution to which Uyghurs are subjected continues. Bans on beards and head scarves in public venues, coercion to violate religious prohibitions concerning food and drink, violence and incarceration as a response to dissent: this is precisely the kind of abuse that, in the absence of a moderate core seeking dialogue, lends itself to exploitation by extremists. Indeed, China seems to go after the moderates because they can be seen: they operate in the open and call for dialogue and honesty about what the state is doing. Their imprisonment leaves the field to extremists who operate below the radar; they become the only ones articulating to an aggrieved population anything contrary to the official line. For all its propaganda about fighting extremism China is actively abetting its rise: in this instance among a population that has previously been noted for its moderation and restraint. Given current anxiety about Islamist extremism, the international community ought to be horrified by what China is doing. The Islamic world, wherein this extremism is wreaking the greatest havoc should be even more alarmed—and should make the persecution of writers and intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti a prominent issue in its relations with China.

The original sin, so to speak, in modern China’s dealings with Uyghurs as well as Tibetans was its annexation of these peoples without any regard to what they wanted. (And for most it was unwanted.) This original sin and the brutal periods of Chinese rule that followed have fostered a situation in which a free, open discussion of the history of Uyghurs and Tibetan under PRC rule cannot be entertained without severe damage to the myths that are enforced as the official line. Thus, when discontent surfaces the Party finds itself structurally incapable of asking what it is doing wrong. Instead, the question becomes “Who is doing this to us?” And it answers the question by seeking scapegoats. Not long ago Tibetan disgust at the appearance in the media of fake “Chinese Lamas” produced an incoherent and irrelevant response from official quarters denouncing Tibetan separatism, something that only exacerbated Tibetan frustration at their concerns not being taken seriously. Matters in Xinjiang have brought no serious questioning of the repressive Chinese policies. When French journalist Ursula Gauthier questioned China’s deployment of the terrorism narrative to defend its actions there she was expelled from China. And Ilham Tohti, who tirelessly pursued a principled quest for dialogue and change, languishes in a prison in Xinjiang. The injustice inherent in Ilham’s case is symbolic of the way China is making extremism the only option for the disaffected in Xinjiang. It should be a primary concern of the international community.

 

Elliot Sperling is the former chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and formerly the Director of its Tibetan Studies Program. He is the author of “The Tibet-China: History and Polemics.”

 

 

 

 

Ilham Tohti’s Nomination for Sakharov Prize Welcomed by Laureate and Scholars

China Change, September 19, 2016

 

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Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木), a Uighur scholar known for his incisive writings on China’s policies in Xinjiang, was named by the European Parliament to be one of the five nominees for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on September 15. Ilham has for years been a vocal advocate for the economic, cultural, and religious rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang. His role as a rational voice for Uighur autonomy led to his arrest in January, 2014, and a sentence to life imprisonment in September that year.

Incidentally, on the same day that Ilham won the nomination, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was received by the European Parliament where he spoke of his admiration for “the spirit of the European Union” and the need for different ethnicities and religions to exist together harmoniously in China.

In an interview from Beijing with Radio Free Asia on September 15, the renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia (胡佳) remarked: “As both an ordinary Chinese citizen and the 2008 Sakharov Prize recipient, I feel that if one person in all of China deserved the Sakharov nomination and was qualified to receive the award, Ilham Tohti would be first on the list.”

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Ilham Tohti in classroom.

“Ilham is a thorn in the side of the Communist Party,” he added. “He’s the conscience of the Uighurs, and has been given the most severe sentence. The people he represents have been repressed and spurned, so there’s a lot of pent-up hostility and bad blood. But the key to relieving this pressure is Ilham’s freedom. He was nominated for this award by members of a parliament elected by the people to represent Europe’s values, so it has a special place, and the Chinese authorities know the weight of it. They know that for whoever gets this prize, it will give both that person and the human rights issue they represent a lot of attention. This would put enormous pressure on the Chinese government. So there’s no doubt that they’re going to exert pressure on members of the European Parliament.”

Hu Jia said that Ilham Tohti’s wife and child just returned from Xinjiang to Beijing, but that they’ve been warned and intimidated by the authorities not to speak to anyone about Ilham.

Ilham Tohti’s daughter Jewher told China Change in an interview that her step-mother, Ilham’s wife Guzelnur, took the couple’s two children back to Xinjiang for their summer vacation, and that they visited him on one occasion, speaking face-to-face for about an hour. They were only allowed to speak about family affairs. She didn’t speak further about the circumstances of the meeting, but said that Ilham seemed to be healthy.

Ilham’s Sakharov nomination has Hu Jia feeling both glad and anxious. It so happened that, on another occasion recently he recounted how, in 2008 while in prison, the Communist Party authorities tried to force him to reject the prize:

In 2008, I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” because I engaged in activities to promote human rights and liberty before the Olympic Games.

The European Parliament awarded me the Sakharov Prize, and I was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I was in prison, the head of the Beijing municipal political police led a group of public security and foreign ministry officials to pay a visit to me in prison — they were putting me under intense pressure, trying to force me to make a public announcement that I rejected both the Sakharov Prize and the nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In exchange, these officials said that they would reduce my sentence by 2.5 years, and also pay me double the cash award of the Sakharov Prize, as economic “compensation.” These secret political police, and the jailers in their charge, lobbied me with this proposal on up to seven occasions. I flatly rejected all of these despicable, filthy political dealings. Thus, I am deeply aware of how moral support, and awards from the international community, place the Communist Party’s security organs and foreign affairs officials under enormous pressure.

Hu suspects that Ilham will receive the same treatment if he’s also given the award—though he suspects that the Communist Party will first attempt to interfere with the process of deciding the laureate in the coming weeks.  

Hu Jia told RFA that Ilham “opposes all forms of violence and bloodshed. If he’s awarded the Sakharov Prize, then his ideas, what he advocates, what he has attempted to realize, his wish that we’re all able to live with dignity as part of a big family, will be recognized by the entire world. The Xinjiang question will be looked at squarely by the world, as well as the question of the Uyghurs.”

Hu Jia added that not only Han Chinese like himself support the nomination, but Tibetans, including the well-known writer Woeser (唯色), are also behind it.

Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the Indiana University Bloomington, told Radio Free Asia: “China’s human rights situation is getting worse and worse, and the Party’s ethnic policies in Tibet and Xinjiang are being resisted by the people. The Communist Party doesn’t want to reflect on why its policies have been unsuccessful—instead, they look for scapegoats. Ilham Tohti is a scapegoat. The fact that he has received the nomination shows that the world is not going to be blind to this.”  

James Leibold, a professor of China’s minority policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, used Twitter to encourage the European Parliament to give Ilham Tohti the prize. “No more worthy recipient of the Sakharov Prize than Ilham Tohti. It’s time for MEPs to resist pressure from China,” he wrote.

In March 2015, Hu Jia met Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, for half an hour, during which time he brought up Ilham’s case, as well as his support for his receipt of the Sakharov Prize. Similarly, in July of this year in Beijing, he gave a letter to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to be delivered to the European Council’s president Donald Tusk, who was participating in a summit meeting in the Chinese capital.

The letter said, in part: “If I were to meet you and meet your for only one minute, I would use those 60 seconds to tell you about one Chinese citizen: Ilham Tohti.”

Perhaps as a result of the absence of sustained international attention, Ilham’s family in China continues to suffer persecution. Jewher Ilham told China Change that Ilham’s niece, a young nurse in Kashgar, was taken away by police earlier in the year after her cell phone was checked by police when she was at a mall buying clothes (Uighurs say it’s now become common for the police to simply stop them in the street and forcibly examine their phones). The police detained her after seeing photos of her uncle, Ilham Tohti, on the phone, and possibly also because of her refusal to cooperate with them, Jewher speculated. She said that she hopes that someone will raise the case of her cousin to the Chinese government.

 

 


Related:

Give the Sakharov Prize to an Uighur Intellectual, André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016

Making the Case for Nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize – My Remarks at the European Parliament, Yaxue Cao, May 31, 2016.

 

Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:

A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)

Statement to the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia before his arrest, July, 2013.

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti, 2011.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable PDF) by Ilham Tohti, 2011-2013.

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti, November, 2013.

Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary , October, 2015.

 

 

 

Give the Sakharov Prize to an Uighur Intellectual

André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016

This is a translation of Donnons le prix Sakharov à un intellectuel ouïghour published in the French newspaper Libération on July 14, 2016. – The Editors

 

Ilham Tohti in France

Ilham Tohti in Tours, France, 2009. Photo: Uighur Online archive

The Sakharov Prize is awarded every year in October, to honor individuals or organizations who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The award, which was created in 1985 by the French MP Jean-François Deniau, may well be awarded this year to an Uighur intellectual who was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison. It turns out that this professor from Minzu University (University for Nationalities) in Beijing had been discovered in 2008 by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was invited to spend a week in France under a program called “Personalities of the Future.” This project gave civil society actors under 35 years of age from around the world the opportunity to meet personalities of their choice in order to sharpen their knowledge of the workings of our country.

Since these “Personalities of the Future” were also chosen for their moral qualities, it is not surprising that many of them, including Ilham Tohti, chose to meet with organizations made up of human rights defenders, or representatives from the legal world or from trade unions. In other words, France invited people who might carry far and wide the universal values for which our country is proud to be a beacon.

This is what Ilham Tohti has tried to do. Having received an excellent education in Uighur as well as in Chinese, he had the rare privilege of being able to become a university professor in Beijing and to provide education in economics and geopolitics. His pedagogical gifts, the strength of his arguments and the breadth of his views quickly made him a charismatic teacher whose courses, taught in Chinese, were avidly followed by his Uighur students as well as by Han, Mongolian, and Tibetan students, among others. He expanded his circle by creating a site, Uighur Online, from which he conveyed constructive suggestions aimed at those active in China’s political and economic life, with the purpose of improving the situation in Xinjiang, the far west Chinese province, which is the cradle of the Uighur ethnic group and which joins together eight million people in the interior of China.

However, since September 11, 2001, and the subsequent worldwide struggle against terrorism, the Uighurs have become a favorite target of the Chinese government which accuses them of all evils: fundamentalism, Islamism, and terrorism. The new anti-terrorism law, passed on December 27, 2015, has simply added one more layer to this. While the counter-productive and repressive strategies regarding ethnic groups—such as Tibetans and Uighurs—have so far raised tensions between Han and non-Han ethnic groups, via torture, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and the heavy-handed policing of even the most peaceful demonstrations supporting religious or cultural identity, the Chinese government has found nothing better to do than to sentence to life imprisonment, under the pretext of “separatism,” one of the only Uighur intellectuals who had attempted, by any means, to find common ground for cooperation between Uighurs and Hans.

46 years old, Ilham Tohti has already received several awards, including the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN American Center in 2014. World leaders have protested his conviction as unfair. It is time for French public opinion to take up his case: by dint of discussing the harm done by ISIS or Boko Haram, we’ve come to forget that certain Muslim citizens could make a difference and bring peace to a world torn by hatred and xenophobia. Ilham Tohti is certainly one among them. His place is not in the No. 1 Detention Center in Urumqi in Xinjiang. The Sakharov Prize would be both a tribute and a message of hope sent to an innocent victim of the ruthless dictatorship of Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is up to the European Deputies to rouse themselves on his behalf!

 

André Gattonlin is a French senator. Marie Holzman is the President of Solidarité Chine. Noël Mamère is a deputy of the National Assembly. This op-ed was translated from the French by Elliot Sperling, Professor Emeritus of Eurasian Studies, Indiana University.

 

 


Related:

Making the Case for Nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize – My Remarks at the European Parliament, Yaxue Cao, May 31, 2016.

Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:

Statement to the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia before his arrest, July, 2013.

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti, 2011.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable PDF) by Ilham Tohti, 2011-2013.

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti, November, 2013.

Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary , October, 2015.

A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)

 

 

Making the Case for Nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize – My Remarks at the European Parliament

Yaxue Cao, May 31, 2016

On May 25, a conference titled “Does China Want Real Ethnic Harmony? Professor Ilham Tohti in Perspective” was held in the European Parliament in Brussels. It was sponsored by MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; MEP Barbara Lochbihler, with the Greens/European Free Alliance and the vice-chair of Subcommittee on Human Rights of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, gave the closing remarks. Both members displayed a sound grasp of the plight of Uighurs and Ilham Tohti’s case, and explained how the Sakharov Prize should be seen as a vehicle of change. I spoke along with five other panelists from academia and human rights groups in Europe and the US, and together we made the case for nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. My remarks focus on Ilham Tohti’s ideals and work. — Yaxue Cao

 

Ilham conference in Brussels

 

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.

Ilham Tohti_Lego

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Lego portrait of Ilham Tohti.

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.

伊力哈木_jiaren

Ilham Tohti with wife and children.

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.

 

Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.

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Related:

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, May 2015.

Ilham Tohti, a Documentary, 32 minutes.

VOA Interview with Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti in November 2013.

 

 

 

Brother Denied Right to Visit Ilham Tohti, Moderate Uighur Scholar Sentenced to Life in Prison

By Yaxue Cao, published: February 24, 2016

伊力哈木_wife and children

Enter Ilham Tohti’s wefe Guzelnur Ali, walks with her children outside their home in Beijing, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. Photo: AP

 

Ilham Tohti, the renowned Uighur scholar who was sentenced to life in prison on charges of “splitting the country” has been denied visitation by his family over the Chinese New Year. Reports had earlier indicated that Ilham’s brother would be visiting him in prison on February 18, but according to his friend, Beijing-based dissident Hu Jia, speaking to Voice of America, Ilham’s brother was effectively denied permission. Hu Jia learnt of the news through Ilham’s wife. Given the lack of further information about the reasons for the denial, supporters are worried about Ilham’s physical and mental health.

Hu Jia visited Ilham’s wife and children twice recently, taking the the two boys to a science and technology museum soon after the Chinese New Year. Another of Ilham’s good friends, the Tibetan writer Woeser, also paid a visit to Ilham’s wife.

伊力哈木采访2 (2)

Ilham Tohti. Photo: VOA

Ilham Tohti has been detained for two years since his arrest on January 15, 2014. On September 23, 2014, the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges of splitting the country, also depriving him of his political rights for the rest of his life, and confiscated all his personal assets. Shortly after the sentence, the authorities moved to transfer away the 800,000 yuan (about $131,000) of the family’s life savings in the their bank account. Ilham lodged an appeal and pledged innocence to the charges. On November 21, 2014, the appeal was rejected by a higher court. On December 12 Ilham was sent to the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison to serve his sentence.

Ilham was permitted to see his family for the first time 18 months after he was arrested. His mother, two older brothers, and a younger brother spent about an hour with him on June 17, 2015. On July 8, he was able to see his wife, two children, and one older brother, again for slightly over an hour.

On October 15, 2015, one of his older brothers and his mother visited him again, and he told them he wanted to appeal his case.

Ilham’s wife, Guzelnur Ali, told Radio Free Asia that Ilham was being held in solitary confinement, was given a physical examination once a fortnight, not made to do forced labor, and was granted access to mainland periodicals as well as books that had been screened by prison authorities. But prison officials exercised severe control over visitation.

According to Chinese law, family members are allowed to visit imprisoned relatives once every month. But Xinjiang imposed additional, unlawful restrictions in Ilham’s case in order, we believe, to limit news about the Uighur scholar.

Hu Jia, in the VOA interview, described Ilham’s two children: one kindergarten-age, the other a third grader, both showing remarkable understanding of their father’s circumstances. They sought to comfort Ilham when they saw him in jail last summer, and in school they work hard to achieve. Guzelnur Ali does contract work for the library of the Central Minzu University in Beijing, from which she earns about 3,500 yuan a month (about $565), raising the children and also taking care of Ilham’s needs in prison.

伊力哈木_hujia, sons

Hu Jia with Ilham’s boys during the CNY holidays.

Though she’s only in her 30s, she has aged considerably in the last two years, Hu Jia said.

Hu Jia told VOA that the family is strong and self-reliant, but that the wife and children have had a very hard time of it since their father and husband was imprisoned.

Contrary to the charges against him, Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism. His writings show a scholar seeking reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese Communist Party policies and the reasoning behind Uyghur grievances—all of which the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of silence. “The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path. I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs,” he told RFA in a sober statement in July, 2013.  

The trial and sentence of Ilham Tohti have elicited waves of support and protest against his treatment at the hands of the Chinese authorities and a rigged legal system. He received the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in May 2014. In January, 2016, several hundred academics petitioned the Chinese leadership for his release.

 

Yaxue Cao is the editor of China Change. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao

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Related:

Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction

Ilham Tohti: A 32-minute Documentary

VOA Interview with Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations, by Ilham Tohti

My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen, by Ilham Tohti.