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News About Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti on the Third Anniversary of His Sentencing: No News

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.


On October 10, 2016, Ilham Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham received Martin Ennals Human Rights Award from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on behalf of her father. The HC was later harassed by China for attending the ceremony and presenting the award. Professor Elliot Sperling accompanied Jewher.  Photo: Martin Ennals Foundation.


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 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, 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:

  1. Make inquiries about the health of Ilham Tohti;
  2. Ensure that Ilham Tohti receives monthly family visit as Chinese law stipulates;
  3. Ensure his right to communication with friends and family is respected;
  4. Ensure that Ilham Tohti be allowed to file a shen-su according to Chinese law, without he or his relatives suffering retaliation;
  5. Make inquiries about Ilham Tohti’s 25-year-old niece in Atush, Xinjiang;
  6. 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

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.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang by Ilham Tohti.

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013




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.





Is The Dalai Lama A Separatist?

Han Lianchao, September 28, 2016



Some young Chinese friends of mine often criticize me for getting mixed up with the Dalai Lama. They say he’s a separatist element who’s trying to split Tibet from China. I don’t blame them for this, as I once understood things pretty much the same way they do. It’s only after having more opportunities to observe and interact with the Dalai Lama at close range and having more frequent interactions with Tibetans that my brainwashed thinking has gradually begun to change.

My answer to these young people is this: Contrary to what the Chinese Communist Party says in their propaganda, the Dalai Lama is no separatist.

I recently heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama deliver a lengthy discussion on his philosophy at a talk in Brussels. I was impressed by his great compassion for humanity, as well as by his firm stance against violence and separatism, his genuine desire to resolve Han-Tibetan enmity, and his sincere attitude toward compromise and negotiation with the central government. Unconcerned by opposition from young Tibetans and the radicalism of some anti-Communist Han Chinese, he still remains committed to his Middle Way Approach, has abandoned demands for Tibetan independence, and is willing to seek real autonomy for Tibet under the Chinese Communists’ current legal framework and political system.

The reason the Dalai Lama has decided not to seek Tibetan independence and has abandoned armed revolt is wholly based on the understanding on his part that the bloody and brutal way that humans kill each other does not comport with the doctrine and spirit of Tibetan Buddhism and goes against the trend of modern civilization’s development. At the same time, he has also adopted this policy in consideration of political realities and as a kind of compromise of last resort, taken to protect the Tibetan people and their culture and religion. It is an act that demonstrates his compassionate heart and his political wisdom and leadership.

The main tenet of the Middle Way Approach is that the Tibetans abandon their demands for independence and refrain from seeking Tibetan secession from China. But it also does not accept the manner in which the Chinese Communist Party currently controls Tibet. So both sides must compromise: Tibet will continue to remain part of the greater Chinese family in exchange for “genuine ethnic regional autonomy.”

Back in the 1970s, China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping expressed approval of the Middle Way Approach, saying that any issue was open for discussion as long as Tibet didn’t declare independence.

No matter which way you look at it, the Middle Way Approach is a policy that is opposed to separatism.

However, the Tibet interest group led by Zhu Weiqun (朱维群) has continually devised ways to demonize the Dalai Lama in order to protect their own Tibetan “iron rice bowl.” They’ve vilified him as a separatist and a traitor and even insulted him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” They’ve put up all sorts of obstacles for him, deceived the central authorities, undermined negotiations, and prohibited the Dalai Lama from returning home—all of which has radicalized more and more moderate Tibetans and forced them on the path of Tibetan independence. The result is the lurking danger of Tibetan separatism. Zhu Weiqun and his vested interest group are in fact the true separatist culprits.

Zhu Weiqun deliberately distorted the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach as “covert separatist demands.” He’s criticized the Middle Way Approach for not acknowledging that Tibet has been Chinese territory since ancient times and thus furnishing the Tibetan independence movement with legal grounds. Zhu falsely accuses the ethnic autonomy of the Middle Way Approach as overthrowing the current system and the creation of a Greater Tibet that will force the People’s Liberation Army and all Han out of the region. His evidence is a speech the Dalai Lama gave 30 years ago before the US Congress, in which His Holiness put forward a “Five Point Peace Plan” for resolving the Tibetan issue, as well as the “New Seven Point Agenda” he presented later in Strasbourg.

We all know that negotiation is a process of bargaining in which each side seeks to improve its own rights and interests while at the same time engaging in compromise and exchange in order to find a plan that provides mutual benefit and realizes both sides’ greatest common interest. Negotiation is not about being peremptory and unreasonable and forcing one side’s will upon the other.

Whether it’s the “Five Point Peace Plan” or the “New Seven Point Agenda,” neither proposal seeks Tibetan independence and both have been put forward under the premise that Tibet shouldn’t split from China. Under the instructions given by Deng Xiaoping, it should be possible to discuss either of these proposals.

In fact, the Dalai Lama has never spoken of a “Greater Tibet.” He has simply proposed that all Tibetan regions be able to have genuine ethnic regional autonomy under the framework of the Ethnic Regional Autonomy Law of People’s Republic of China. Under this autonomy, of course the central authorities would continue to handle foreign affairs and national defense, and the central government still has the power to garrison troops. The Dalai Lama’s idea of a peaceful region is only a recommendation and not a demand that the PLA leave Tibet.

He has also never said anything about forcing the Han out of Tibet, but he does oppose the large-scale immigration of Han into Tibet that makes the Han population far greater than the Tibetans and threatens Tibetan culture and way of life. The phrase “high degree of autonomy” is something that was already applied to the question of Hong Kong and doesn’t have the slightest connection to overthrowing the Communist Party’s current political regime. What’s more, though the content of the Middle Way Approach has softened a great deal over the years, no matter how it changes it still doesn’t seek independence and has remained consistent on the principle of not splitting from China.

As for the question of whether Tibet has been part of Chinese territory from ancient times, a very good response was provided at the Brussels conference by Liu Hancheng (劉漢城), a retired professor at City University of Hong Kong. Prof. Liu has personally spent many years researching these issues and looking at the vast ocean of official historical documents from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, plus documents from the Republican period. He’s dug through gazetteers, records of administrative divisions, tax and tribute records, household registration records, examination result lists, judicial and bureaucratic records, postal records and garrison information, and he’s sorted out a variety of credible evidence that demonstrates that Tibet has been independent of China from ancient times.

I learned a lot from the several conversations I had with Prof. Liu after the conference. Prof. Liu said that he didn’t conduct his research with any political agenda in mind and didn’t want to discuss the question of whom Tibet ought to belong to. He only wanted to get to the bottom of Tibet’s historical status and welcomed the chance to discuss his research rationally with government or non-government scholars in China.

In fact, the Dalai Lama has said many times before that it is impossible to deny history. But no matter what Tibet’s historical status might be, he argues that we ought to let the past be the past. We shouldn’t get bogged down in history and only look forward and focus on future development and the people’s wellbeing. This once again demonstrates the political vision of the Dalai Lama and his position in opposition to separatism.

Zhu Weiqun and the Tibet interest group is hoping that the Tibet question will disappear on its own after the Dalai Lama passes from this world. In fact, if the Tibet question isn’t effectively resolved while the Dalai Lama is still alive, his passing is likely to lead to more intense and long-lasting Tibetan-Han conflicts and unnecessary bloodshed and hatred.

At this recent Brussels conference, I clearly felt the increasing radicalization of young Tibetans and the growing force of Tibetan independence. In some of my private conversations with American friends, we worried about the trend of these young people turning away from the Middle Way Approach. Even though I support the principle of self-determination that has been recognized by the United Nations, I believe that the costs of fighting for independence are high and don’t serve the long-term interests of either Han or Tibetan. I think it’s much better to stick to His Holiness’s Middle Way Approach.

Also, the Dalai Lama’s opposition to separatism and desire for a peaceful resolution to the Tibetan question are both sincere and heartfelt. At one meeting I personally witnessed how the Dalai Lama publicly tried to convince Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer to give up calls for an independent East Turkestan, abandon violence, and follow the Middle Way Approach. On that particular occasion, Rebiya Kadeer admitted that she had been persuaded by the Dalai Lama’s words.

I recommend that young people in mainland China read Phuntsok Wangyal’s book, The Slow Road to Equality and Unity: Reflections on Ethnic Relations in Our Country. Phuntsok Wangyal was a founding member of the Tibetan Communist Party and was the highest ranking Tibetan in China in the 1950s. His descriptions and views on the origins of the Tibetan issue, the flight of the Dalai Lama, and the way to resolve the Tibetan question are all extremely accurate and refined.

Finally, I recommend that President Xi Jinping eliminate the interference of Zhu Weiqun and vested interest groups, seize the historic opportunity and meet directly with the Dalai Lama to resolve the Tibet question once and for all and truly realize the vision of peaceful coexistence between ethnic groups and long-term national stability.


Dr. Han Lianchao (韩连潮) is a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute, working on the Institute’s Future of Innovation Initiative. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, serving as legislative counsel and policy director for three active U.S. Senators. He has also been a veteran overseas Chinese democracy advocate. 



The Chinese original《韩连潮:达赖喇嘛是反分裂分子》 was published on VOA Chinese website on September 20, 2016. Translation by China Change.




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



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.



VOA Interview with Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013

Translation published: January 15, 2016

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

伊力哈木采访2 (2)

Ilham Tohti. Photo: VOA


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

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

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

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

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

“Preferential” policies towards Uighurs

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


A market in Kashgar. Photo: UHRP

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

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

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


Karakul Lake and Muztaghata. Photo: FarWestChina

Unfair distribution of political power and social resources

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

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

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

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

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


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

Restrictions on religious activities

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

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

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

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

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

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



Uighur Online (UighurBiz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Ilham Tohti with wife, daughter, and son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A scholar and a public ambassador for the Uighurs

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

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

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

Research areas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo: Twitter @AbdugheniSabit

Autonomy and peaceful co-existence

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

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

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

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

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



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

An autonomous region with no autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Policy recommendations to the Politburo in 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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


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



Professor Ilham Tohti Calls for Family to Appeal His Case

China Change, published: October 16, 2015


伊力哈木上课Ilham Tohti, the Uighur scholar and public intellectual currently serving a life sentence in prison, has called on his family to engage lawyers and lodge an appeal for him through the Chinese judicial system. Ilham made the request on the second occasion that family has visited him since his sentence on September 23, 2014.

Ilham’s mother and brother traveled to the No. 1 Prison in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, on October 15. Ilham’s health is stable despite his being kept in solitary confinement, his lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told Radio Free Asia, relating what Ilham’s brother had told him. Ilham also asked family to send him books. He firmly believes he’s not guilty of the charge of “separatism” leveled against him. His wife and one of his children visited him in July; the jail allows a visitation once every three months.

The Beijing-based dissident Hu Jia told Voice of America last year:

I have known Ilham for years. The first time we met, Ilham swore that his fondest hope was for Uighurs to co-exist peacefully within the Chinese nation. He’s opposed to separatism or violence in any form. All he wants is equality, dignity, and peaceful co-existence for his people. In all the years I’ve known him both as a person and as a scholar, I never witnessed the kind of behavior that the government is accusing him of. To take a moderate, scholarly campaigner for peace like Ilham Tohti, and to tar him with a label that’s the exact opposite of what he is — it’s just preposterous.

In mainland China, Ilham Tohti is the most— really the only—prominent and influential Uighur voice. By sentencing him to life in prison, the Chinese authorities show that they don’t want the Uighurs to have any voice. The fate of Ilham Tohti is the fate of all Uighurs living in China.




Ilham Tohti’s Statement after Receiving a Life Sentence for Allegedly “Separatist” Crimes, September 25, 2014.

Ilham Tohti Says, September 16, 2014

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.

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (8 and 9) – Han Chinese Chauvinism; Ethnic Regional Autonomy and Anti-separatism

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 19, 2015

Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education, III. Religion, IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation, V.  Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals, VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and VII. Governmental Competence and Credibility


VIII. Han Chinese Chauvinism


The preamble to the Chinese Constitution once read: “In the struggle to safeguard national unity, we must oppose Han chauvinism, as well as combat ethnic nationalism.” In the Mao era, the two phrases “ethnic nationalism” and “Han chauvinism” would often appear together in discussions of ethnic relations, but today, the phrase “Han chauvinism” has completely disappeared from everyday conversation.

Our government has always proclaimed its opposition to “Han chauvinism” as well as “ethnic nationalism,” yet virtually no one has ever been arrested or removed from office due to “Han chauvinism.” Ethnic minorities account for less than ten percent of China’s total population, yet in the seventeen years before the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands were arrested on charges of “ethnic nationalism” in the People’s Republic of China.

In reality, Han chauvinism is now more intense and more overt than it has been at any time in the past. Since “opposing the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism] became the main focus of all levels of government in Xinjiang, Han chauvinism has reappeared in the guise of “safeguarding national unity” and “preserving social stability.” No one dares to object, of course, or to criticize this emotional outpouring of Han chauvinism, lest they be accused of harboring separatist tendencies. This chauvinism manifests differently among the citizenry and among officials.

In recent years, discrimination against Uighurs has intensified to such an extent that it has become institutionalized nationwide. Uighurs routinely face discrimination in employment, passport issuance, rental housing, hotels, travel and many other areas of life; many domestic airports even have a designated security channel for residents of Xinjiang.

In Xinjiang itself, Uighurs are frequently the target of derogatory ethnic slurs by Han Chinese, such as “chan-tou” (“缠头”) or “wei-zi (“维子”). In other areas of mainland China, Uighurs encounter discriminatory treatment or even outright rejection when trying to register for hotel accommodation; when boarding planes, trains or other modes of public transport; and even at Internet bars and cafes. Often, a service employee will loudly proclaim: “We can’t let you register. It’s Public Security Bureau policy.” Those who have experienced this discrimination range from students and manual laborers to high-ranking provincial officials and eminent scholars. As for online discussion, it is even more extreme: self-proclaimed “imperial Han” lobbing insults at Xinjiang’s “barbarian” ethnic minorities are ubiquitous online.

Han chauvinism in official circles, on the other hand, tends to manifest itself in certain turns of phrase, stock expressions that the speaker uses unquestioningly. Phrases such as “Yan-Huang zisun” (“descendants of Yan Di and Huang Di”), “long de chuanren” (“descendants of the dragon”), “Huaxia er-nu” (“sons and daughters of Cathay”) are commonly used to invoke the Han Chinese people in their totality, but if a Uighur refers to their forbearer Oghuz Khan or a “wolf totem”, it is thought to be fraught with secessionist implications. Moreover, after the July 2009 ethnic unrest in Urumqi, every branch of every governmental organization in Xinjiang organized study sessions designed to refute the “parochial” view that “Xinjiang belongs to the Uighurs of Xinjiang.” The speakers and scholars at these meetings often claimed that, in fact, it was the Han Chinese forbearers who arrived in Xinjiang before the Uighur forbearers did, thus employing logic identical to the logic of the claim they were attempting to refute. Appearing as they did in an official capacity, these speakers and scholars were utterly counter-productive.

Incidents such as the aforementioned make Uighurs feel that society is becoming increasingly unjust and disrespectful of their culture and their feelings.

These slights pale in comparison to the pain and inconvenience ordinary Uighur suffer when using public services. To register for an identity card, for example, one is required to fill in a form with one’s personal information. With no consideration for the majority of Uighurs who do not understand Chinese, the form only provides one column heading for “Chinese name.” Even if one were to fill in Pinyin, the Chinese transliteration of one’s Uighur name, the form is nearly impossible to fill out because it does not take into account differences in Uighur naming conventions. Since census registration was digitized, some local governments have introduced policies that force Uighurs to choose from a list of commonly used names; if their names are not on the list, they are not allowed to register.

A more serious problem is the Uighur community’s growing fear of the government’s increasingly chauvinistic ethnic policies. The government’s sharp curtailing of bilingual education and Uighur cultural enterprises has led many in the Uighur community to feel that official ethnic policy is beginning to look like forced assimilation. In many public forums, particularly on the Internet, it is not difficult to find people openly discussing a point of view common among Han Chinese: that the only way to solve Xinjiang’s ethnic problems is to accelerate Uighur assimilation.

The recent surge in theoretical inquiries that masquerade as critiques of national ethnic policy while negating the principle of regional ethnic autonomy and opposing updated concepts of ethnicity give the impression that virulent Han chauvinism has entered mainstream public discourse. Within the Uighur community, this has provoked intense fear and a sense of impending crisis, and has severely shaken the Uighur sense of national identity.

The natural merging of ethnicities and the creation of societies in which diverse ethnic cultures can coexist and learn from one another is an unstoppable historical trend that no one will really oppose, but a fear of forced assimilationist policies rooted in Han chauvinism has prompted more and more Uighurs to become suspicious of Chinese language education and Nei-Gao-Ban [the Chinese acronym for “Inland Xinjiang Senior High School Classes”, which are elite courses designed to prepare minority students for entry into prestigious Chinese universities.] These doubts and fears have led many Uighurs to adopt a form of silent resistance by privately turning back to traditional culture, religious worship, and a strengthened sense of ethnic identity.

Thoughts and Recommendations

  1. Enact policies that implement and respect regional ethnic autonomy; respect and protect the existing ethnic and cultural diversity and peaceful co-existence.
  1. To combat openly discriminatory speech and behavior, we should take our cues from internationally accepted methods and standards: draft detailed prohibitions; gradually establish a legal and regulatory framework that protects the legitimate rights of minorities and forbids all forms of status discrimination (including ethnic discrimination); use legal means to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities in employment, public services and the cultural sphere; and eliminate forms of casual ethnic discrimination. On this basis, we can transform the culture and habits of an entire society, creating a more “politically-correct” value system against discrimination.
  1. The government should organize systematic research and discussion among experts and scholars to determine which commonly used official phrases are most likely to be misconstrued or wound the feelings of ethnic minorities. Such discussion could be a form of social critique, a way of combatting unconscious racial bias in our speech. For example, describing the Han Chinese people as being uniformly “black haired”, “black eyed” and “yellow skinned” would, in the West, be considered a form of overt racial propagandizing inappropriate to public discourse.
  1. The government should re-examine and reflect on the role of Han Chinese chauvinism and ethnic nationalism in Chinese society. When dealing with ethnic issues, it is not fair to stress only minority chauvinism and ethnic separatism, while completely ignoring the issue of Han chauvinism. At the very least, the government should allow citizens to freely discuss and criticize both Han chauvinism and ethnic extremism. For China’s future as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation, and as a rising international power, the strong strains of Han chauvinism and ethnic nationalism in today’s mainstream Chinese society are not a sign of healthy attitudes.
  2. In theory, the People’s Republic of China is supposed to be comprised of 56 different ethnicities. Thus, the terms “overseas Chinese” or “Chinese diaspora” should refer not only to people of Han Chinese lineage, but also to people of other lineages as well. In fact, if the government treated all overseas people with ancestral ties to China even-handedly, the results might well amaze. For example, more than a year ago, the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan began to reach out to the local Uighur diaspora community: as a result, Pakistani exchange students of Uighur lineage could soon be heard on Beijing university campuses proclaiming themselves as “overseas Chinese” and taking great pride in their contributions to their ancestral land—whereas in the past, the term “overseas Chinese” was never used to describe diaspora Uighurs, because it seemed to refer specifically to people of Han Chinese descent.


IX. Ethnic Regional Autonomy and Anti-separatism


Upon the founding of the People’s Republic of China, China created a set of clear-cut national policies based on the principles of regional ethnic autonomy and ethnic equality, and backed by the Chinese Constitution, the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and a variety of other legal mechanisms. Not only was this a fundamental leap forward for China, a vast improvement over the old system, it was also well ahead of many Western countries at the time. China’s system of regional ethnic autonomy was based on a fair distribution of dignity and power; it was meant to be an integrated institutional mechanism capable of balancing the needs of the state with the needs of ethnic peoples, but it has never been carried out and implemented properly.

Although the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law was promulgated as a basic law nearly thirty years ago, there still are no regional-level regulations governing its implementation. The system of regional ethnic autonomy is a story of years of accumulated promises—promises that have, noticeably, not yet been honored.

There are a variety of reasons why regional ethnic autonomy has never been truly implemented: cultural and economic factors, the unique political climate of the times, and other factors. The Uighur community was never particularly vocal about this non-implementation, partly because of a lack of awareness or knowledge about their basic rights, and partly because they never felt that their legitimate rights and interests had been seriously undermined.

But over the last decade or two, at least in Xinjiang, the purely nominal nature of regional ethnic autonomy has become an increasingly serious problem. Legislative attempts to implement true regional ethnic autonomy have stalled or made no headway, which means that provisions contained in the Chinese Constitution and the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law – both of which include clear stipulations regarding minority employment, cultural protection, cadre functions, religious belief and other issues – are impossible to enforce. Ignoring the stipulations of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law has led to the ethnic problems we discussed earlier; it is also the reason that Uighur rights and interests have not received due legal protection.

Implementing and enforcing rules and regulations related to regional ethnic autonomy has been a difficult task from the beginning, but now there is new problem that makes the future of ethnic autonomy even more complicated and uncertain.

Today, the discussion is not about how to implement regional ethnic autonomy, but about whether or not to abolish it. This is particularly true since the ethnic strife that occurred in Lhasa in 2008 and in Urumqi in 2009. A group of scholars led by Ma Rong and Yang Shengming, in re-examining ethnic policies and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, have begun to openly negate and oppose the concept of regional ethnic autonomy. Furthermore, in the name of eradicating ethnic separatist ideology, they have put forward a viewpoint that seems akin to “abolishing the idea of ethnicity altogether.”

At a time when even ethnologists are publicly questioning the regional autonomy provisions of the Chinese Constitution, rare are those who dare to publicly stand up for the principle of regional ethnic autonomy, much less demand the full implementation of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. This will lead to the following effect: the public will come to believe that it is the intent of the government to abolish regional ethnic autonomy, and they will take it as a public expression of support for forced assimilation. And in today’s climate, anyone who dares to openly discuss implementing ethnic autonomy is automatically perceived as advocating ethnic separatism.

When academia speaks with a single voice, that voice does not necessarily reflect social reality. For example, before the 2009 ethnic unrest in Urumqi, Yang Shengming’s published survey on ethnic problems in Xinjiang claimed that Uighurs had a stronger sense of national identity than even Han Chinese, and that Uighurs and Han Chinese showed similarly high levels of support for inter-ethnic marriage. The report concluded that the idea that Xinjiang had serious ethnic problems was “an alarmist viewpoint.” But our survey showed the exact opposite: the outlook for national identity in the Uighur community brooked no optimism, and every ethnic group, in fact, seemed to oppose and resist inter-ethnic marriage.

The lack of public voices supporting the protection and implementation of regional ethnic autonomy is actually quite frightening, because China’s ethnic minorities are crying out for genuine ethnic autonomy. If regional ethnic autonomy is not an option, only two possible scenarios remain: abolishing ethnic autonomy and enforcing assimilation, or ethnic independence movements.

Doing away with regional ethnic autonomy under the mantle of opposing separatism is an extremely dangerous idea because it will nudge more and more ethnic minorities from hopelessness into irrational support for independence movements. The true threat to China’s national unity and integrity is not ethnic autonomy: it is the prospect of abolishing ethnic autonomy.

To some extent, countering secessionism in Xinjiang is a race between the full implementation of regional ethnic autonomy and the forces of ethnic separatism.


Thus far, the path to addressing and resolving ethnic relations in multi-ethnic nations has involved some form of regional autonomy. Almost without exception, this has been the case in multi-ethnic nations formed by historical circumstance (typified by Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Britain, France and other European countries), and in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nations formed through immigration (such as French-speaking areas of Canada).

Among the rare exceptions are the United States, Malaysia (with its Chinese immigrants) and a few other nations. In these nations, because multiple ethnicities and cultures later began to merge, they never formed into ethnic enclaves or regions.

The prescription that Ma Rong and other scholars are recommending for China today is patently mistaken and dangerous when they repeatedly emphasize the American experiences as a model without respecting the fact that China’s experiences and national conditions are vastly different from those of the United States.

Separatism exists in most every corner of the globe. Among advanced Western nations, France has the Corsican problem, the British have the dispute over Northern Ireland, Spain has the Basque and Catalan problems, Canada has the Quebec separatist movement, Japan has the Ryukyu Islands independence movement…even the United States has a few dozen separatist organizations.

No country has found a way to completely eliminate separatism. But through economic development, the implementation of civil rights, systemic design and the use of legal means, some have consistently managed to marginalize and neutralize separatist movements, while at the same time enhancing solidarity, safeguarding national unity, and mitigating the pressures of globalization. There are many successful examples to choose from.

Perhaps the most worthwhile example is Spain. In the late 1970s, after Spain bid farewell to authoritarianism, the Basque and Catalan separatist movements broke out. Fueled by stark ethnic and linguistic differences, the Basque separatist movement enjoyed nearly unanimous support among the Basque people, and extremist separatist groups carried out constant attacks. In October 1979, referenda on the Statute of Autonomy that balanced the interests of the various parties were held in the two restive regions (Catalan and Basque) and each gained over 90 percent approval. Among today’s Basques (the group with the most serious separatist tendencies) 64 percent oppose independence; in Catalonia, the figure is as high as 80 percent.

Chinese scholars frequently regard Yugoslavia as a case study in secessionism, but few people draw the correct lesson: although the separatist tendencies of ethnic peoples in Yugoslavia were far less serious than in Spain, the dominant ethnic group, the Serbs, cared less about the nation’s territorial integrity than they did about competing with other ethnic groups for a bigger slice of the national pie. Fanatical Serbian nationalism played a destructive role in Yugoslavia’s dissolution.

The most fundamental solution to Xinjiang’s ethnic problem is to enforce Chinese constitutional provisions regarding regional ethnic autonomy, and to try to strike a balance between ethnic autonomy and national unity.


  1. As soon as possible, promulgate and implement the statute of autonomy in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the detailed rules for the implementation of the existing Law of the Peoples Republic of China on Regional Ethnic Autonomy in order to implement the law by establishing an institutional framework that provides sound legal protections for regional ethnic autonomy in China.

The statute of autonomy would be the most fundamental embodiment of the right of self-determination in China’s ethnic autonomous regions. Yet as of now, not a single statute of autonomy has been put forward to protect autonomous government in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region or the five autonomous prefectures and six autonomous counties under its jurisdiction. In contrast, in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, legislative work on provisions for ethnic autonomy was complete by the mid-1980s. Yanbian can be regarded as China’s most successful example of implementing regional ethnic autonomy.

  1. Allow discussion and public dialogue on the subject of implementing regional ethnic autonomy while also safeguarding national unity. In practical terms, this is a necessary precondition to seeking equilibrium between national unity and regional ethnic autonomy in Xinjiang.
  1. The current system of government should establish at least one benchmark for the progressive implementation of regional ethnic autonomy in Xinjiang. Such a benchmark would help to improve the status quo on such issues as Uighur employment, cultural protection, appointment of cadres and religious beliefs, and would help to greatly reduce current levels of ethnic resentment and strife.

Finally, when crafting policies designed to aid Xinjiang, the central government should cease favoring the economic sphere at the expense of the political and cultural spheres. It should also avoid unilateral “financial infusions” that ignore the local economy, particularly those that overlook the local Uighur socio-economic support system. Currently, government aid to Xinjiang revolves around bringing in big business and big capital from other parts of mainland China, but offers few opportunities for local capital or minority-owned capital. Some places in Xinjiang have already exhibited a crowding-out effect, as outside capital pushes out local capital; we should remain vigilant to such signals. Because they have no positive effect on local employment, and can even directly harm the interests of local industry and commerce, today’s government aid policies in Xinjiang will have even more negative consequences than similar wasteful and ineffective policies in Tibet (see Jin Wei’s Aid Policies and Tibetan Economic Development 《援助政策与西藏经济发展》).


Then End


Previous installments:

I. Unemployment,

II. Bilingual Education

III. Religion

IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation

V. Distrust of Ethnic Minority Officials and Intellectuals

VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps

VII. Governmental Competence and Credibility





Chinese original: 《伊力哈木:当前新疆民族问题的现状及建议》