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August 10, 2018
It is now clear, from numerous reliable sources, that shocking human rights atrocities are being perpetrated in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR).
The Communist Party authorities have established a large number of political re-education centers in Xinjiang, detaining people without any judicial process, stripping them of their personal liberty, imprisoning them, and detaining them for indeterminate ‘sentences.’ Estimates of the numbers detained range from hundreds of thousands to over a million, primarily targeting Uighurs, but also Kazakhs, Hui people, and other minorities who follow Islam. Among those detainees are peasants, workers, university, college, high-school and middle-school students, teachers, poets, writers, artists, scholars, the head of a provincial department, bureau chiefs, village chiefs, and even Uighur police officers. Uighurs overseas, as well as their family members and Uighur students who return to China after studying abroad — and even Uighurs who have simply visited abroad for tourism — have been particular targets of attack.
Those locked up in detention centers have been forced to sing Red Songs, learn Mandarin Chinese, and study Xi Jinping Thought. Many have been forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, and been force-fed unidentified drugs. Abuse and torture is common in re-education centers, and reports of deaths in custody due to torture have become common. The well-known deaths confirmed to date include Muhammad Salih Hajim (穆罕穆德.萨利阿吉), the renowned Uighur scholar of Islam known for translating the Quran with official approval; Halmurat Ghopur (哈木拉提·吾甫尔), a leading food safety administrator and Communist Party official in Xinjiang; and Ayhan Memet, mother of Dolkun Isa (多里坤·艾沙), the chairman of the World Uyghur Congress. Many children, because their parents were disappeared, have been crammed into orphanages and are now suffering terrible conditions.
According to official Chinese statistics, over 227,000 Uighurs in Xinjiang were criminally arrested in 2017, 8 times the 27,000 recorded in 2016. In 2017, the number of people detained on criminal charges in Xinjiang was 21% of the total in all of China, while Xinjiang’s population is only 1.5% of the country’s.
Further, Communist Party authorities have set up a comprehensive electronic surveillance system trained on the daily lives of Uighurs in Xinjiang. They’ve deployed cameras with facial recognition capabilities, cell phone scanners, a DNA collection system, and a ubiquitous police presence, turning the entire Xinjiang region into the world’s most high-tech Police Garrison. All of the Party’s efforts are directed toward the cultural destruction of the Uighur people, who now face a crisis of survival.
In light of this grave human rights catastrophe, all who value human rights and universal values cannot be silent. We hereby state the following:
- We strenuously protest the CCP’s unilateral barbaric violence, and we demand that the authorities immediately cease the political persecution of Uighurs and other minority peoples, shut down the political re-education camps, and release all prisoners of conscience including Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木.土赫提) and Gheyret Niyaz (海莱特尼亚孜);
- We support the righteous struggle by Uighurs and other minority peoples in XUAR aimed at securing their basic human rights;
- We call upon the U.S. government to continue speaking out about the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and to put more effective pressure on Party authorities;
- We call upon the United Nations to launch an investigation into what is taking place in XUAR and to publicly censure the CCP’s despicable acts.
Hu Ping (胡平), honorary chief editor of Beijing Spring, New York.
Wang Dan (王丹), founder and director of China Dialogue, Washington, DC.
Teng Biao (滕彪), human rights lawyer, visiting scholar at New York University, Princeton.
Xia Yeliang (夏业良), independent scholar, Washington, DC.
Mo Li (茉莉), teacher, Sweden.
Fu Zhengming (傅正明), scholar, Sweden.
Cai Chu (蔡楚), editor of minzhuzhongguo.org and canyu.org, Mobile, Alabama.
Zhang Yu (张裕), coordinator of the Committee on Imprisoned Writers, Independent Chinese PEN Center. Stockholm, Sweden.
Lü Jinghua (吕京花), deputy chair of Chinese Alliance for Democracy, New York.
Liao Tianqi (廖天琪), president of Independent Chinese PEN Center, Köln, Germany.
Zhang Qing (张菁), chairwoman of Women’s Rights in China, New York.
Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), writer in exile, Berlin, Germany.
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学), editor of chinachange.org, Washington, DC.
Sulaiman Gu (古懿), student, Georgia, USA.
Wang Juntao (王军涛), chairman of the National Committee of China Democracy Party, New Jersey.
Qi Jiazhen (齐家贞), independent writer, Melbourne, Australia.
Chen Weijian (陈维健), chief editor of Beijing Spring, Auckland, New Zealand.
Xia Ming (夏明), professor of political science, CUNY, New York.
Sheng Xue (盛雪), writer, journalist, Toronto, Canada.
Zhou Fengsuo (周锋锁), president of Humanitarian China, New Jersey.
Zhong Jinjiang (钟锦江), chairman of Chinese Alliance for Democracy, Sydney, Australia.
Guo Dongcheng (郭冬成), worker, Sweden.
Cai Yongmei (蔡咏梅), writer, Hong Kong.
Chen Chuangchuang (陈闯创), member of China Democracy Party, New York.
Yang Jianli (杨建利), founder of Initiative for China, Washington, DC.
Pan Yongzhong (潘永忠), secretary general of Federation for a democratic China, Germany.
Chen Pokong (陈破空), political commentator, New York.
Li Weidong (李伟东), director of China Strategic Analysis quarterly, USA.
Zhang Lin (张林), internet writer, New York.
Wang Ce (王策), chairman of Chinese Republican Party, Madrid, Spain.
Li Ruijuan (李瑞娟), journalist and editor, Taipei, Taiwan.
Wuerkaixi (吾尔开希), initiator of Friends of Liu Xiaobo, Taiwan.
Zhao Xin (赵昕), civil rights defender, Bay Area, California.
Su Xiaokang (苏晓康), writer, Washington, DC.
Guo Chen (郭琛), businessman, former chief supervisor of the Association of Taiwanese in Europe, Germany.
Bob Fu (傅希秋), founder and president of ChinaAid, Texas.
Fei Liangyong (费良勇), engineer, member of Federation for a democratic China, Nuremberg, Germany.
Wang Jinzhong (王进忠), deputy chair of Chinese Alliance for Democracy, Tokyo, Japan.
Chen Liqun (陈立群), deputy chair of the National Committee of China Democracy Party, New York.
Ma Yuzhong (马育忠), editor, Xi’an, China.
Fu Sheng (付升), scientist, Xi’an, China.
Cai Shufang (蔡淑芳), Friends of Conscience, Hong Kong.
Ren Wanding (任畹町), founder of Human Rights Defenders, France.
Chen Hanzhong (陳漢中), board director of China Spring Research Foundation, chief supervisor of Chinese Alliance for Democracy, California.
Zhang Jie (张杰), Boxun News journalist, USA.
Hong Zhesheng (洪哲胜), chief editor of Democracy Forum, New York.
Xue Wei (薛伟), manager of Beijing Spring, New York.
The City of Weimar in Germany Saw Its Website Attacked for Giving Human Rights Prize to Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti
China Change, November 8, 2017
The city of Weimar announced on June 30 that, in compliance with the Weimar City Council’s recommendation, they were awarding this year’s Weimar Human Rights Prize to Ilham Tohti in recognition of his work upholding the rights of the Uighur people and promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese. In accordance with tradition, the Prize is awarded every year on December 10—International Human Rights Day.
The Weimar City Council, in announcing the award, said: “As a professor of economics and sociology at the Central University for Nationalities (Minzu), for decades Ilham Tohti spared no effort in publicizing the economic and social difficulties faced by Uighurs in Xinjiang. At the same time he advocated the peaceful coexistence of Uighurs, Hans and all other ethnic minority groups. He urged the Chinese government to respect its Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law.”
In September 2014, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for “separatist activities,” and his real “crimes” though were his efforts to build bridges between different ethnic minorities and his speaking out bluntly about China’s draconian, unproductive policies in Xinjiang. The Weimar City Council hopes that by awarding the Human Rights Prize to Ilham Tohti, “his advocacy for peace and dialogue will not be forgotten, and support for his release will be strengthened.”
Mr. Oehme is in charge of the Weimar Human Rights Prize. He told Radio Free Asia that, starting in early July and shortly after the prize was announced, the city’s official website was attacked and continues to be until now. All news about the award and the December 10 prize ceremony has been removed. Mr. Oehme said that the Weimar government deeply regrets that hackers have deleted the content from the webpage that has been three years in the making.
Mr. Oehme also revealed that the City Council’s Human Rights Prize Committee received a telephone call in July from a self-identified “Ms. Li” from the Chinese Embassy in Berlin, alleging that Ilham Tohti’s work had nothing to do with human rights and freedom of speech. She protested Weimar giving the human rights prize to a “Chinese criminal.”
The Weimar municipal government also learned that, after the announcement of the prize, Beijing had protested to Berlin through diplomatic channels.
The Weimar government asked the police to conduct a criminal investigation into the hacking. It’s not yet clear where the cyberattacks originated. But Isa Dolkun, current General Secretary of the World Uyghur Congress based in Munich, believes that this attack is undoubtedly being carried out by China.
Mr. Oehme said that no matter what happens, there will be no change in awarding this year’s human rights prize to Ilham Tohti.
In advocating with partners for Ilham Tohti’s case in Europe over the past two years, China Change has learned that ethnic minority issues are something the European countries face, and they take very well Ilham Tohti’s advocacy for ethnic minority autonomy, dignity and peaceful coexistence. This is undoubtedly the consensus among all civilized countries.
The Chinese government’s irrational attack on and interference with the Weimar Human Rights Prize shows how essential this award is, what a dire situation Ilham Tohti faces in China, and what an awful government there is in Beijing.
To be honest, it is fortuitous that the Chinese Communist Party is committing such foolish acts all over the world. This has a much more powerful effect than our earnest remonstrations.
Not to mention that the city of Weimar will be forever spared of a statue of Marx like the one that now stands at a corner of the city of Trier, Germany, a gift from China.
Before he was arrested, 48-year-old Ilham Tohti was a professor at the Central University of Nationalities (中央民族大学), teaching and researching Xinjiang issues and Central Asian sociology, economics, and geopolitics. In 2006, Ilham Tohti founded the UighurBiz website, a Mandarin website that brought news about the Uighurs to the Chinese population. In January 2014, Ilham Tohti was arrested, his house searched and bank account frozen. In September of the same year, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison by a court in Urumqi for the crime of secession. He is presently serving his sentence in Xinjiang’s Number One Prison. He is in solitary confinement, and his application for retrial has been rejected. Family visits have been limited. His family has been warned not to give interviews to foreign media. All of these practices are illegal under Chinese law, and aimed at eliminating all news of Ilham Tohti.
In 2016 Ilham Tohti was nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and he won the city of Geneva’s Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, known as the “Nobel Prize for Human Rights.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave the award to Ilham Tohti’s daughter. The Chinese government subsequently attacked the High Commissioner for “interfering with China’s internal affairs and judiciary sovereignty.”
Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction, June 15, 2016.
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen, Ilham Tohti, April 6, 2014.
Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable), Ilham Tohti, May 19, 2015.
China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.
China Change, September 22, 2017
We believe that the combination of reduced visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, have been carefully engineered to punish the Uighur scholar with degrading treatment and psychological torture, while at the same time keeping the attention on his plight from the outside world to a minimum.
September 23, 2017, marks the 3rd anniversary of the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti’s sentencing to life in prison for peacefully speaking out for the economic, cultural, political and religious rights of the 10 million Uighur people inhabiting the northwestern region known as Xinjiang.
A Summary of the Case
Ilham Tohti is the most renowned Uighur intellectual in the People’s Republic of China. For over two decades he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese over the present-day repressive religious, cultural and political conditions exercised against the Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic people living mostly in modern China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 following a two-day show trial. Despite political persecution in the years leading up to his trial, he remained a voice of moderation and reconciliation.
Ilham was born in 1969 in Atush, Xinjiang, and began his studies in 1985 at the institution that is today the Central Minzu University in Beijing, long known for studies of minorities. He eventually became a faculty member at the same university and a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, and his work led to official surveillance and harassment that began as early as 1994. From time to time he was barred from teaching, and after 1999 he was unable to publish in mainstream venues in China.
In order to make the economic, social, and developmental issues confronting the Uighurs known to China’s wider population, Ilham established the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net in 2006 to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Chinese on the Uighur Issue. Over the course of its existence it was shut down periodically and people writing for it were harassed. Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation by bringing to light Uighur grievances, information the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of enforced silence.
Following massive Chinese repression in Xinjiang in 2009, Professor Tohti was taken into custody for weeks for posting information on Uighurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared.” In subsequent years he was subjected to periodic house arrests and barred from leaving the country.
The show trial three years ago convicted Ilham Tohti of the crime of “separatism.” The court decision, which has never been made public in full, cited interviews with overseas Uighur, Chinese and English-language media outlets, his commentaries on events in, or concerning, the Uighurs and Xinjiang, his criticism of Chinese government’s ethnic policies, and his work with his students in founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which had been repeatedly suspended and, after its server was moved to overseas, endured denial of service attacks until its complete shutdown in early 2014.
In words and actions, Ilham Tohti has for years promoted peace and dialogue between the Han Chinese and Uighur communities. He opposed separatism, the use of terror to voice grievances, and any acts that fan ethnic animus, as well as government policies that undermine the Uighur language and economically marginalize the Uighur people. As a Uighur intellectual specializing in Xinjiang issues and Central Asian sociology, economics, and geopolitics, he took it upon himself to critique current affairs concerning Xinjiang and its people, faithfully fulfilling the duty of a public intellectual.
Ilham Tohti is the recipient of the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in 2014, and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016. He was one of the four nominees for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2016. This summer Ilham Tohti received the 2017 Human Rights Award from the city of Weimar in Germany.
Conditions of Imprisonment
Ilham Tohti has been serving life in prison in the First Prison of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Reginon in Urumqi since December 2014 after his appeal was dismissed and sentence upheld without a court hearing on November 21, 2014.
- Visits: Since then, he has been allowed to receive only one family visit every three months, whereas Chinese law allows one visit per month. Each visit lasts less than one hour. In meetings, Ilham and relatives are not allowed to speak about anything except “family matters.” We estimate that, from the time he first received family visit in prison in June 2015 to the present, Ilham Tohti has received a total of less than 10 hours visitation over the span of more than two years. This is a calculated and cruel deprivation.
- Solitary confinement: Until at least early 2016, Ilham Tohti’s wife said he had been held in solitary confinement. Since then there has been no update on whether this is still the case.
- Right to communication: He has been deprived of the right to communicate with family and friends. Letters sent by his wife have not been received, nor has she ever received letters from him.
- Gag order: From the first few visits in 2015 and early 2016, we were able to get brief updates on Ilham’s condition by the brothers and wife who visited him. But such updates have since dried up completely. It seems that relatives have received a gag order from the authorities, not even telling intermediaries who could then relay information to media outlets. His wife last spoke to Radio Free Asia in late summer of 2016 and was promptly visited by state agents afterwards. Ilham’s daughter, who currently studies at Indiana University, found herself cut off from family circles on Chinese social media and has been unable to gather information about her father’s condition.
- Request for retrial (申诉, shen-su) suppressed: In late 2015 and early 2016, Ilham Tohti urged his relatives to apply for a retrial (shen-su). Under Chinese law, such an application can be filed at any stage of the jail term by any prisoner who believes he or she is wrongfully convicted and a victim of a miscarriage of justice. In the summer of 2016, friends learned privately that Ilham Tohti made another attempt to shen-su but was stopped by the authorities who threatened the family that their visitation rights would be revoked if they pressed the matter.
- Health concerns: The prison provides little Muslim food. After visiting him in prison in July 2016, his wife reported that he had lost a lot of weight. Given the recent death of Liu Xiaobo in prison, the health issue of China’s political prisoners has become an issue of concern. We are deeply worried about the health of Ilham Tohti, both physical and mental.
- Niece was given a 10-year sentence for possessing photos of Ilham Tohti on her cell phone: Ilham’s niece, a 25-year-old nurse in the city of Atush, was taken away by police in early 2016 for possessing on her cellphone photographs of Ilham Tohti and two articles about him by Radio Free Asia, as she was stopped by police on her way to a shopping mall. Sources told us that she was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and her grieved mother has fallen ill. A search of the website of the city’s court does not yield any information about her case. (In fact the website stopped posting any court decision since January 2015.) We demand to know everything about her case.
- The seven students of Ilham Tohti: The student volunteers who worked with Ilham Tohti on net have been sentenced to up to eight years in prison, but information about where they are being held and their condition is unavailable despite continuous efforts by multiple parties to find out more about their cases.
We believe that the combination of reduced visits, denial of communication, gag orders, and family reprisals, have been carefully engineered to punish the Uighur scholar with degrading treatment and psychological torture, while at the same time keeping the attention on his plight from the outside world to a minimum.
We ask the UN human rights institutions and governments to:
- Make inquiries about the health of Ilham Tohti;
- Ensure that Ilham Tohti receives monthly family visit as Chinese law stipulates;
- Ensure his right to communication with friends and family is respected;
- Ensure that Ilham Tohti be allowed to file a shen-su according to Chinese law, without he or his relatives suffering retaliation;
- Make inquiries about Ilham Tohti’s 25-year-old niece in Atush, Xinjiang;
- Continue to press for the total freedom of the Uighur scholar and his students.
China must not be given a pass for its human rights atrocities. Not any more.
Essential Readings on Ilham Tohti:
Ilham Tohti, a 4-minute video http://bit.do/TohtiVideo
Statement to the Uyghur Service, Radio Free Asia before his arrest, July, 2013. http://bit.do/statement-uyghur
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti. http://bit.do/ideals-career
Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang by Ilham Tohti. http://bit.do/xinjiang-analysis
Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013 http://bit.do/voa-interview
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
Obama Goes to Hangzhou – The US Has No Human Rights Policy Toward China, China Change, September 1, 2016.
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
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
China Change, September 19, 2016
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.”
“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.
Give the Sakharov Prize to an Uighur Intellectual, André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016
Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:
A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)
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.