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Signs of China (2)

China Change, September 22, 2018


Unsettling news from China emerges every week in a constant flow — on social media, in reports, and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much in China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change catalogues and contextualizes these items so as to keep a growing awareness of changes in China.  — The Editors


Local Government Debt: Going Bankrupt, or Raising More?

On September 13, the General Offices of both the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council jointly published a document giving ‘guiding opinions’ on limiting the debt that state-owned enterprises can take on. One line that attracted particular note said: “Local Government Financing Vehicles [LGFVs] whose assets are severely insufficient to collateralize their debts and have lost the ability to repay should engage in bankruptcy and restructuring, or liquidation proceedings, according to the law; resolutely guard against ‘Too Big to Fail,’ resolutely guard against the accumulation of risk becoming systemic risk.”

LGFVs are entities established by local governments around China, including fixed asset investment companies, real estate and urban development companies, and urban asset management companies. They invest in municipal construction and infrastructure projects, and are a de facto form of municipal debt (from 1995 to 2009 municipalities in China were forbidden from issuing bonds).

In early 2009 the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) and the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) issued the policy that gives the regulatory framework for this behavior, which “supports qualified local governments to organize infrastructure financing vehicles, issue debt, medium-term notes, and other financing instruments, in order to expand complementary financing channels for central government investment projects.”

Beijing economist Hu Xingdou (胡星斗) told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that the scale of LGFV debt in China has probably reached 40 trillion yuan, and the bankruptcy of LGFVs will likely cause serious losses among a very large investor base. “In particular, much municipal debt has been funded by Wealth Management Products [WMPs] sold through banks, and many people hold these products in their portfolios. A lot of people may lose their life savings.” 

Chinese internet users remarked that bankruptcies in LGFVs equate to a default on the debt, and that a lot of people are going to lose their money. Some estimated that the number impacted in the coming LGFV bankruptcy wave will far outstrip, by an order of magnitude, the recent losses in the peer to peer investment sector, which saw thousands of angry investors protest in cities across China.

Yet even as municipal debt vehicles face bankruptcy, on August 14 the Ministry of Finance put out a circular demanding the rapid expansion of local government infrastructure bonds, which led to a massive rush of issuance. These bonds are the major way local governments finance their infrastructure expenditures. According to Xinhua, as of mid-September, around 200 billion yuan of new debt had been issued, which added to the August new issuance of 428 billion, making total new debt issuance in just 1.5 months over 600 billion yuan.

Why is so much new debt being issued even as the central government is warning against systemic risk and demanding the municipalities unable to support their debt initiative LGFV bankruptcy proceedings? We profess to have no clue.

The Government Wants Chinese to Spend, Spend, and Spend More 

On September 20, the CCP and the State Council published a circular providing “a number of opinions” on encouraging more consumer spending: make the public increase their expenditures on food, clothing, accommodations, travel, and more; increase the quality and expand the number of things they spend money on (cultural products, travel, sports, health, retirement spending, housekeeping, education, training, children); create new consumer products, make them spend more online, consume more customized products, and also spend money on ‘smart’ technologies, fashion, and other popular trends. Rural residents are encouraged to up their consumption too.

Any economy is driven by investments, exports, and domestic consumption — but with the extraordinary growth of China’s fixed asset investment being largely exhausted, and exports facing tariffs from the Trump White House, the government seems desperate to boost consumption, even though it has been promoting it for some time now.

Someone in Zhongnanhai is evidently working overtime on these new opinions and demands, which are falling down like snowflakes. 

Affirming for the 1001st Time That China’s Judiciary Is the Party’s Judiciary

Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan noted the following piece of news: that on September 12 the Party Group of the Henan Higher People’s Court issued four circulars expelling from office 48 judges in the court. The circular attributed the decision to the provincial Party’s Organization Department. Liu Xiaoyuan notes that whether required by the provincial Party apparatus or decided upon by the court, going about it this way is against Chinese law. According to the Chinese constitution and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Organization of the People’s Courts, court presidents are elected by People’s Congresses at the same level; deputy court presidents, presiding judges, deputy presiding judges, and judges must be appointed and dismissed by the Standing Committee of People’s Congresses at their same level.

Strangely, state media outlets have now purged the reports, including in Caixin and Phoenix.

Meanwhile on September 17, the Ministry of Justice held a meeting in Yunnan for the promotion of “Party Building Work” among lawyers. Minister of Justice Fu Zhenghua (傅政华) spoke at the convocation, demanding that “the Party must assume comprehensive leadership in lawyer work; implement total coverage of Party Organization and Party Work across the legal field before the end of this year; guarantee the three year goal of Party building having achieved total coverage, total conformity, and total leadership by 2020.”

Is China Moving Muslim Internees to Other Parts of China in the Face of International Outcry? 

The Chinese edition of The Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-associated newspaper, recently reported the following: “An official source in China recently obtained information from an associate in the police that over the last few days Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang have been distributed to different areas around the country. This work is being conducted with a high level of secrecy, and the travel routes used are all under police and military control. The source told The Epoch Times that 1,500 people were sent to the area he is in, and the police involved were all made to sign confidentiality agreements. The source speculated that, because the government plans to spread the 1-2 millions of Uighurs detainees, they would be sent to different prisons and detention centers, and he expressed the fear that the Uighurs might be killed.”

This reminds us that, in mid-August, there were rumors that internees from Xinjiang were being sent to Jiuquan (酒泉), Wuwei (武威) in Gansu province and Delhi (德令哈) and Golmud (格尔木) in Qinghai. A screenshot of a WeChat conversation describes an unusually heavy presence of security forces at train stations, and the understanding was that Uighurs were being transported.

Uighurs: More Professors Sent to Internment Camps; One Literary Editor Jumped to His Death; Highest Ranking Uighur Cadre So Far Sacked for ‘Corruption’ 

At least four senior Uighur officials from Kashgar University in Xinjiang have been removed from their posts for “two-faced” activities [i.e. disloyal to the CCP, critical of Party policies, or showing sympathy to targeted ethnic groups]. They include President Erkin Omer, vice president Muhter Abdughopur, and professors Qurban Osman and Gulnar Obul; information about them has been scrubbed from the university’s website. Read more.

According to a report by RFA’s Uighur service: Professor Azat Sultan, former President of Xinjiang Normal University and former chairman of Xinjiang chapter of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, has been arrested for being a ‘double faced person.’ His whereabouts are unknown.

RFA Uighur service also reported that Keyser Keyum, the editor-in-chief of Literary Translation magazine, jumped from the 8th floor of his office building. It is said that he had received a call from police that day about sending him to ‘re-education’ camp.

On September 21 Xinhua reported that the deputy director of the National Develop and Reform Commission and director of the National Energy Administration, Nur Bekri, was suspected of severe violations of Party discipline and is being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Hu Ping, a U.S.-based dissident, expressed horror at the news: “Nur Bekri was the chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 2009 during the July 5 incident. In Xinjiang, the only other Uighur to be secretary of the region’s Party Committee was Saifuddin Azizi, and subsequently all Party Secretaries were Han, and the highest ranking Uighurs were only chairmen of the region [not chairmen of the Party Committee of the region]. And now, Bekri himself has been toppled. From this it can be seen how serious the situation is in Xinjiang, and how horrific the plight of Uighurs in China.”

Hu Ping noted that “according to Bekri’s official curriculum vitae, he received a Han education since he was a child and joined the Party in his early 20s. Following the July 5 incident he was promoted to the Central Committee during the 18th Party Congress, but didn’t remain in the Central Committee during the 19th Party Congress, nor become a deputy in the 13th National People’s Congress. It’s clear therefore that he had not been trusted by the Party center for some years already.”

On the second day of the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009, Bekri went on television to criticize, a Chinese-language website run by Professor Ilham Tohti and his students, accusing it of “inciting violence and spreading rumors.” In March 2014 during the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, Bekri told a press conference that the evidence showing that Ilham—arrested in January of 2014—had engaged in splittist activities was conclusive and unquestionable.

Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 and is currently being held in the Xinjiang No. 1 Prison. There has been almost no word about Ilham circumstances for the last two years, and many now worry about his health.

Moving Ordinary Residents out of Heart of Beijing

A social media post recently noted that following the expulsion of residents and demolition of buildings along Fuyou Street (府右街, the street along the west side of Zhongnanhai) and Xihuangcheng street (西皇城根, adjacent to Fuyou Street), a similar operation on the east side of Zhongnanhai has taken place, expelling residents along Nanchang and Beichang streets (南长街和北长街). The eviction and demolition notices stipulate that state leaders who live on these streets are not the targets of eviction. The post also said: “In the future, Nanchang street, Beichang street, and Fuyou street have all been closed off for regular traffic. According to the plan, in the next one to two years there will be a gradual eviction and demolition of residences on both sides on Jingshan (景山公园), the east of the Forbidden City, along Nanchizi and Beichizi streets (南池子和北池子), around Beihai park (北海公园), and around Shichahai (什刹海), in order to expand the living space for central Party leaders.” The elementary school on Beichang street, as well as Beijing 161 Middle School not far from Tiananmen, will both be relocated and incorporated into other schools.

We drew a rough outline of the area affected by the project based on the social media post:


Sign 2, beijing center


Twitter User Detained for 10 Days for “Attacking Leaders of the Party and Country”

On September 11, a 42-year old Twitter user in Beijing, Quan Shixin (全世欣), went to the Haidian Public Security Bureau to request permission to demonstrate, and was administratively detained. He was released on September 21. The notice of administrative detention given to her said: “Quan Shixin used internet circumvention methods to attack the Party and state leaders on Twitter, the circumstances being severe. Thus she was administratively detained for 10 days.”

No Foreign Programs in Prime Time, and Foreigners Not Allowed in Key Positions on Chinese TV 

On September 20, the National Radio and Television Administration published a draft version (for public comment) of a set of regulations regarding non-Chinese citizen involvement in television, broadcasting, and shows. The regulations apply to those from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the rest of the world. The basic content is as follows: without the approval of the NRTA, TV outlets may not broadcast overseas programs from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; television stations may not spend more than 30% of their daily broadcast time on foreign films, shows, cartoons, documentaries, or other programs; the screenwriter and director of a program cannot both be foreign persons; male and female lead roles cannot both be played by foreigners; television and film producers who employ foreigners as creative staff must register the contract with the NRTA within five days of its signing.

Foreign television programs are popular in China, and it appears rules of this nature are meant to curb the availability of imported programs and the enthusiasm for them. 

Force Majeure 

When a band in China named Fangu (反骨) [Rebels] applied for a permit to perform in Suzhou and Shanghai, the authorities told them to change their name before they could be approved. The band announced on social media that “due to force majeure, the band has temporarily changed its name to zhenggu (正骨) [Bone Correction], and we ask for your understanding.”

The Berlin Schaubuehne theatrical troupe’s performance of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People has received a warm welcome in Chinese drama circles, but after three performances in Beijing the original plan to put on another two performances in Nanjing were cancelled. The authorities said that this was due to “technical reasons,” but is it possible that the drama’s storyline and theme felt a little too close to home for the Chinese authorities?

On September 15, the city of Jinan, Shandong Province, held a Rocket Music Festival (火箭音乐节); at one point during the event, when the audience felt particularly moved by the music, they began swaying their bodies together (as often happens at music festivals). At that moment, a police officer dashed onto the stage, stood at the microphone, stopped the music, and delivered a stern warning about public safety. “If you don’t cooperate, we’ll have to stop this performance [this elicited loud laughter]. Everything is subordinate to safety! If everyone is like you just were, then it absolutely cannot proceed. Everyone knows that our country is currently engaged in a special struggle in Sweeping the Black and Eliminating Evil… I’m watching everyone’s behavior from the stage. If there is danger, the performance could be stopped at any moment.”

‘Totalitarian’ Is the Word 

Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy at King’s College in London, wrote a letter to fellow China analysts, asking that “we set our work straight in language.” “The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state,” he wrote. “Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not ‘an authoritarian system,’ it is ‘a totalitarian state.’”

At China Change, we began to use the term “totalitarian,” “neo-totalitarian” and “market-totalitarian” in as early as 2013.




Signs of China (1), China Change, September 16, 2018.


Support Our Work


At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.


Signs of China (1)

China Change, September 16, 2018


Unsettling news from China has been emerging in a constant stream for some time now, in news, on social media and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much to do with China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change today inaugurates a new, regular series titled ‘Signs of China,’ where we catalogue and contextualize what might otherwise have been forgotten as ephemera. What are these signs pointing to? Our discerning readers will know. — The Editors


Sign series 1, 卸磨杀驴

Kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill (卸磨杀驴).


Urgent Call to Watch ‘Operation Thunder 2018’

According to a variety of sources brought to social media by netizens, Chinese authorities sent out an urgent notice on September 14 to work units, companies, government departments, universities and more, across the country, demanding people to watch the September 15 nightly Network News Broadcast (《新闻联播》) on CCTV, as well as CCTV’s September 15 and 16 “Focus Talk” (《焦点访谈》) programs, and also the detailed reports due to be published on September 16 on Global Times online, as well as its the September 17 print edition. This hurried propaganda scramble is called ‘Operation Thunder 2018’ (2018-雷霆行动), and is an anti-espionage operation focused on ‘exposing Taiwanese spies.’ As state media reports, it’s about “increasing the anti-traitor and spy-prevention consciousness of the entire population, preventing online phishing and other harms to national interests and security,” as well as “firming up… the national security People’s Line of Defense.” At the same time, a similar Weibo announcement by Yibin Cable Television in Sichuan Province was censored. (More links on the operation are available here.)

Those familiar with the workings of Chinese Communist Party propaganda will recognize that yet another mass terror campaign is likely in the offing. 

Is the Private Sector Still Safe? 

Recently, a certain Wu Xiaoping (吴小平), self-identified as a “senior finance figure,” published a mere five paragraph article that has attracted significant attention. In it, Wu writes that “private companies would be ill-advised to continue blindly expanding; a completely new state of public-private mixed economic control — more centralized, more united, at a larger scale — will become an increasingly important part of the economy in the future,” and also that “the private sector in China has already completed its task of assisting state sector economic development, and it should now gradually diminish in importance.” His article argues that “in a battle between superpowers, China must concentrate its financial, material, and human resources, and must follow a planned development strategy.”

As might be expected, the article caused an uproar. Some observers suspected that it represented a trial balloon by Party Central; others thought the author was a nobody attempting to guess at what the higher-ups in the regime would like to hear, and curry favor by making the suggestion; while still others thought he was communicating the coded message that private enterprise should try to save themselves while they still had the chance. The independent historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡), based in Beijing, posed the question on Twitter as to whether the authorities were going to “kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill.” The original essay was subsequently refuted by the People’s Daily, and appears to have been purged from domestic Chinese websites.

Whatever the case, the CCP’s plans of asserting control over private companies are already well underway. According to economist He Qinglian’s (何清涟) analysis of a key set of ‘Guiding Opinions’ about state-owned enterprise reform promulgated in 2015, private enterprises in China are going to be the main target for SOE reform. She wrote that the Chinese authorities hope to roll out a ‘mixed ownership system,’ in which “private companies can make cash purchases of shares in SOEs and become shareholders. But since the equity allocation ratio is based on the state-owned capital being the controlling party, private companies can only remain in a subordinate role, without any decision-making power or right to a say in matters.”

On September 16, the Chairman of the National Laboratory for Finance & Development (中国国家金融与发展实验室) Li Yang (李扬), speaking at an academic forum commemorating the beginning of reform and opening up in China, pointed out that as the economy declines, private companies will come under enormous pressure. Their “way to save themselves is to find a state-owned company as an ‘umbrella,’ and if they don’t do that they can’t get financing, and they can’t lower their costs. If they do that, the enterprise will survive, profits will be there, and employment will be maintained. It’s an outcome that should leave everyone satisfied.” Li Yang thinks that such a scenario would be an opportunity for state companies to buy out their private enterprise counterparts.

Over the past few years the CCP has already been hard at work establishing Party cells in private companies in order to exert control. If anything, the outsize reaction this short article received is a telling indication of how anxious and insecure the Chinese public feels about this trend intensifying.

Xinjiang University Professors Sent to Concentration Camps

sign series 1, uighur professors

Left, Professor Arslan Abdulla; right, Professor Abdukerim Rahman.

News continues to emerge of Uighur academics in Xinjiang being sent to the re-education camps. Twitter user @Uyghurspeaker tweeted in both English and Chinese from a Radio Free Asia report that “Personnel from Xinjiang University’s Overall Management Command have verified that the dean of the humanities department, Professor Arslan Abdulla (the former director of the consultative office of the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) as well as Professor Abdukerim Rahman have been sent to re-education camps ‘for the same reason’ that Rahile Dawut (a folklore scholar) was. Rumors say that at least 56 professors and teachers at the university have been taken away.”

Professor Duwat, the scholar of Uighur folklore at Xinjiang University, disappeared last December and has not been heard from since. No one knows why.

Apple Hurts the Feelings of the 1.4 Billion Chinese People

Apple held its new product launch in California on Wednesday (September 12), with Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, unveiling the new model of iPhones as well as when and where they’d first be sold. The background screen prepared for the event showed the individual flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and used the flag of the Republic of China for the latter.

Predictably, the China Youth League and Global Times immediately began expressing their displeasure, accusing Apple of having a double standard: “Apple, what are you trying to say here in your press event?” and “Given that you can put ‘United States’ before ‘Virgin Islands’ in order to differentiate it from the British Virgin Islands, why don’t you put ‘China’ before ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Taiwan’?” Some Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of Apple phones and other products.

Following the public displays of contrition from Marriott and Mercedes Benz for similar grave insults, will Apple also apologize for hurting the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people?

Uneasy Disappearance of a Popular Website, going by the Chinese name 墙外楼, which translates literally as ‘Over the Wall,’ is a popular Chinese news aggregation website, primarily focused on maintaining an archive of the news, posts, and commentaries that are censored inside China. The website uses RSS and mail subscriptions to propagate its content. Its Twitter handle, @letscorp, has been around for nearly eight years, and it boasts over 70,000 followers. Most of the time the Twitter handle has simply pushed out new content from the letscorp website automatically, but over the last year or so, the actual person behind the account has also become opinionated. He or she appears to be an astute observer of Chinese politics and society. Because of the website’s name (‘Over the Wall’), most everyone (including China Change editors) took it for granted that whoever runs the site lives outside of China.

Beginning on September 5, however, Chinese Twitter users noticed that the @letscorp account had stopped tweeting, that the website was down, and newsletters were no longer going out, and concerned users now feared that the website operator, likely based in China, had been identified by the authorities. “In the future, it will be more and more difficult to get valuable Chinese-language content even outside of China,” one Twitter user lamented.

We at China Change can’t help imagining the scene of that person being taken away, probably from his or her home, though we may never know, in the end, what has happened. Many Chinese Twitter accounts have similarly disappeared over the past few years. We recently subtitled and re-published a video of six police in Shenzhen forcing their way into the home of a young woman in the middle of the night simply for what she’d posted on social media.

Activist Barred From Traveling by Train

Ms. He Peirong, from Nanjing, is a Chinese activist who became very well-known during the Free Chen Guangcheng movement in 2012. Over the last few years she has been working on various public interest projects. On September 13 she tweeted out: “My liberty has been severely restricted; I can’t go out to buy train tickets, I can’t travel where I want in China. No department has officially notified me as to why I’ve been restricted and who is punishing me. I was preparing to travel to Shanghai yesterday, but only at the train station did I find out that I couldn’t purchase a ticket. I want to know which level of government made this decision. What is the legal basis for it?”

The ‘legal basis,’ it turned out, is likely China Railway’s May 1, 2018 policy of restricting the travel rights of individuals who have ‘seriously breached trust’ (《限制铁路旅客运输领域严重失信人购买车票管理办法》). It seems that Ms. He is now also marked as such an individual.

This and other incidents of the like are yet another indication of how the Chinese authorities appear to be planning to impose sweeping limitations on personal liberty as they deploy the national ‘social credit system.’

Cellphone Inspections in Hangzhou 

We made a mention of this elsewhere before but would like to draw your attention to it again: a Twitter user witnessed police in a Hangzhou subway station checking citizens’ cellphones. Similar incidents were reported in Beijing too. It looks like the Chinese government is conducting a trial of this practice in cities. The amended Police Law expected to pass during the Two Sessions in March 2019 will make such searches legal and therefore a common practice.

Date and time: August 23, 2018, 3:55 p.m.;

Location: Safety check at the entrance of the No. 1 Line subway at the Fengqi Road station, Hangzhou (杭州地铁1号线凤起路站); [the police were] checking the phone of every passenger waiting in line to enter the station;

Apparatus: They were using handheld scanning equipment;

The number of police: 6 to 7.

Crackdown on Christians

In Henan, the government has been conducting an intense crackdown on Christians, burning/removing crosses and dispersing congregations, forcing believers to sign pledges to quit the church, or closing down churches altogether (here, here, here, here). On September 9, the largest house church in Beijing, Beijing Zion Church, was shut down by the authorities who said it was not registered and “disrupted the order of civil organization management.”

Zion Church’s pastor, Jin Mingri (金明日), told Voice of America that religious repression has intensified since the 19th Party Congress. After the Congress (held in October 2017), the government has gone about strengthening both ideological and managerial control in all sectors of society. Then again after the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing in March of this year, there were further changes, in particular in religious policy.

Overall, the new policies indicate a shift from tolerating some non-official denominations of Christianity to heavily restricting them, as a greater number of religious populations are seen as ideological competitors to the Party, or even hostile forces.

Xu Zhiyong, in response to a video of burning cross, wrote on Twitter addressing the Party: “What wrong has Christianity done to you? You’ll suffer retribution for this! In this life, in this world, it will come to pass. On many occasions making a curse is the only weapon of the weak. If the curses are sufficient in number and people lose heart, the retribution will then arrive.”

10th National Assembly of Representatives of Overseas Chinese and Relatives is Held

A major convocation of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese returnees and their families, was held in Beijing from August 29 to September 1. It must have been a significant event for all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee to attend the opening ceremony. State media highlighted the fact that nearly 1,300 returnees from over 110 countries, as well as 700 (still) overseas Chinese, attended. Zhao Leji (赵乐际, China’s anti-corruption chief) made remarks that included this memorable exhortation for overseas Chinese: “Always remember [how] the Party and the People have entrusted you; spread good news about China; assist the development of the fatherland; safeguard the virtue of the Chinese people; promulgate Chinese culture; make new contributions to the realization of the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese people and promote the construction of a Community of Shared Human Destiny.”

Observers should not think of statements like this as mere empty rhetoric — the Chinese government’s ability and readiness to organize, mobilize, and use overseas Chinese has reached an impressive level of scale and sophistication. For instance, following the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, the Chinese Embassy-controlled Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Harvard University, as well as a number of Hometown Associations on both coasts, organized discussion forums. In 2016, when the ethnically-Chinese police officer Peter Liang was being sentenced in New York City, the mass protest of Chinese and Chinese-Americans was suspected of having been at least in part mobilized by Communist Party agents, according to WeChat communications. And the Party’s Federation of Overseas Chinese, which operates on all levels of the government, regularly award membership in its “Overseas Chinese Committee” (海外委员会) to overseas Chinese who are in important positions in Western society, including many American university professors and scientists. China Change previously reported on the case of the Wellesley professor Charles Bu serving on one such commission.

Professor Xu Zhangrun, Author of Famous Lament, Forced to Return to China Early 

The author of the widely celebrated, lengthy reflection on the parlous state of affairs in contemporary Chinese political life published in July, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), was recently called back to China early from his visiting professorship in Japan. Rong Jian (荣剑), another Chinese scholar, saw Xu in Japan on September 7 and reported that Xu told him that “he was forced to go back on the 14th of the month.”

Xu’s essay, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,’ a portion of which was translated by China Change, and translated in its entirety by Geremie Barmé, was the subject of widespread public discussion in China and abroad, and was featured in a New York Times article for capturing the essence of concerns about China’s current political direction.



Support Our Work


At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.


An Open Letter on Ilham Tohti’s Life

September 4, 2018




The Governments of Australia, Germany, Japan, Taiwan and the United States, and the European Council:


We are a group of students, scholars and professionals from China and Chinese-occupied territories. We call upon you to urge China to release the well-regarded Uyghur human rights leader Prof. Ilham Tohti, amid reports of students, scholars and professionals disappearing and dying in concentration camps and prisons in the occupied region of East Turkestan (known as Xinjiang in Chinese).

The Chinese occupying authorities are cracking down on Uyghurs with the use of widespread surveillance, language restrictions, elimination of cultural and religious expression, forcible political indoctrination, family separation, and mass incarceration. Prof. Ilham criticized oppressive policies such as these, and called for dialogue, reconciliation and the regional autonomy China promised. Serving a life sentence now, he has suffered physical abuse and been banned from corresponding with his family.

The Chinese occupiers have kidnapped Uyghur intellectuals, including Prof. Halmurat Ghophur, a prominent medical scientist, and Prof. Rahile Dawut, a respected specialist on Uyghur culture. In China’s camps and jails, notable detainees have been tortured to death, including Imam Muhammad Salih Hajim, the first scholar to translate the Quran into Uyghur, and at least two students who had been forced to return from Egypt. Such disappearances and deaths make us extremely worried for Prof. Ilham’s life.

To save Prof. Ilham from the most systematic and large-scale ethnic cleansing taking place in the world today, we appeal for you to exert intense pressure on the Chinese regime. We look forward to the international community’s moral courage facing China — the same that it showed in the face of the Nazi menace.













Initiated by (发起人):

Lebao Wu (吴乐宝, student, Australia, Twitter: @MerlotN)
Sulaiman Gu (苏莱曼·古懿, student, United States, Twitter: @slmngy001)

Co-signed by (联署人):

Biao Teng (腾彪, lawyer, United States)
Ismail Cui (伊斯梅尔·崔浩新, poet, China)
Memet Emin (买买提·伊明, researcher, United States)
Lihua Mo (莫莉花, writer, Sweden)
Zhengming Fu (傅正明, writer, Sweden)
Salih Hudayar (萨利赫·胡达亚尔, student, United States)
Chuangchuang Chen (陈闯创, United States)
Tsundu Oser (宗都奥色, editor, Australia)
Ismail Ma (伊斯梅尔·马聚, United States)
David Yeliang Xia (夏业良, researcher, United States)
Ümit Hamit (玉米提·哈米提, therapist, Germany)
Suk-fong Choi(蔡淑芳, journalist, Hong Kong)
Tahir Imin (塔希尔·伊明, researcher, United States)
Nicholas Liou Kiyokawa (刘耀元, student, Japan)
Abduweli Ayup (阿布都外力·阿尤布, poet, Turkey)
Yonglin Chen (陈用林, activist, Australia)
Aynur Mehmet (艾努尔·买买提, student, United States)
Usmanjan Zhang (奥斯曼江·张龙,engineer, United States)
Jurat Sadik (居来提·萨迪克, student, Japan)
Yijiang Liu (刘奕江, United States)
Mihray Abdilim Abral (米拉依·阿布迪里木·阿布拉力, journalist, United States)
Gheyret Toxti (海拉提·土赫提, engineer, Turkey)
Francis Liu (刘贻, pastor, United States)
Anwar Nuruz (安瓦尔·诺鲁孜, journalist, Germany)
Qianyi Li (李谦宜, Australia)
Zumret Tursun (祖木热提·吐尔逊, analyst, Norway)
Angela Margya (杨思婷, student, Canada)
Tsolmon Tsoggerel (朝勒蒙·朝格勒, student, Mongolia)
Akbar Kasim (阿克巴·卡辛, student, Germany)
Tao Zhou (周涛, student, Canada)
Mahmut Barat (马哈提·巴拉提, teacher, Norway)
Nijat Kader (尼加提·卡德尔, researcher, United States)




China Fails in its Gambit to Use the UN NGO Committee to Silence the Society for Threatened Peoples and Uyghur Activist Dolkun Isa

Andrea Worden, July 10, 2018


UN NGO Isa 2 US Kelly

Kelley Currie, US representative to the @UN Economic & Social Council, speaks.



During the most recent session of the UN’s Committee on NGOs, China attempted unsuccessfully to have the Committee withdraw the NGO consultative status of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) in connection with its support of Dolkun Isa, a human rights activist, German citizen, and president of the World Uyghur Congress. Mr. Isa, a member of STP, received accreditation through the NGO to attend this year’s session of the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York from April 16-27.  Despite having received prior approval to attend, Mr. Isa was blocked from entering UN headquarters on April 17 by diplomatic security because of unspecified “security concerns.”  Following a subsequent unsuccessful attempt to gain entry into the UN, it took intervention at the highest levels, from at least the U.S. and German Permanent Missions, to finally get Mr. Isa into the building so that he could participate in the UNPFII, but by that time–– April 25–– there were only a few days left in the session.

The Chinese government has for many years accused Mr. Isa of being a “terrorist” but has failed to produce any substantiated evidence to support its accusations. Last year, China requested that UN diplomatic security remove Mr. Isa from UN premises while he was participating in the 2017 meeting of UNPFII, citing, as it did in 2018, “security reasons.” The UN Secretary-General’s 2017 report on reprisals against civil society actors included the incident of Dolkun Isa’s removal from UN headquarters at the behest of China in April 2017 (A/HRC/36/31, para. 29).  In February 2018, Interpol removed a longstanding China-initiated red notice (i.e., an international alert) against Mr. Isa.

Having achieved only limited success in preventing Mr. Isa’s participation in the 2018 Permanent Forum –– although China caused a substantial delay, Mr. Isa eventually did gain access to the UN–– China adopted a new tactic, which, had it been successful, would have had long-term consequences for both STP and Mr. Isa. Late in the day on Friday, May 17–– the last working day before the opening meeting of the 2018 second (“resumed”) session of the NGO Committee, the Chinese Permanent Mission circulated a note verbale (i.e., an unsigned diplomatic correspondence) to the Members of the Committee, setting forth its reasons for seeking the withdrawal of STP’s consultative status. Besides a groundless procedural point regarding the accreditation of Mr. Isa, China’s objections to STP’s consultative status can be summed up by this sweeping unsubstantiated accusation in its letter: “Dolkun Isa has been participating, inciting and funding separatism and terrorism for years.”

The May 21 Meeting 

At the opening meeting on May 21, China referred (@ 36:30) to its note verbale and requested that the consultative status of the Society for Threatened Peoples be withdrawn. Repeating many of the accusations contained in China’s letter, the Chinese delegate said that China had designated Mr. Isa as a “terrorist” in 2003, and that he was “a terrorist in every manifestation,” and therefore should not have been accredited by the STP to participate in activities at the UN.  The Chinese diplomat acknowledged that under the Committee’s procedures, the STP should be given an opportunity to respond (although Mr. Isa himself was not given such an opportunity).  A heated discussion followed, consuming a substantial portion of the morning meeting (and thus further delaying the work of the overloaded and backlogged Committee), with the U.S. leading a counter-attack against China for its attempt to make the NGO Committee “an accomplice” to its reprisals against STP and Mr. Isa. Committee Members that are aligned with China, including Russia, Pakistan, Cuba and Iran, predictably expressed concern about the nature of China’s allegations against STP, which they said warranted serious consideration by the Committee. The delegations praised China for following the procedures of the Committee in asking for a response from STP before the Committee decided the matter.

Representatives from the U.S. and Germany (as an observer of the Committee) said that despite repeated requests by their governments to China to provide substantiated evidence for its accusations of “terrorism” against Dolkun Isa, China had failed to produce any credible evidence or actionable intelligence to support its claims. The German representative said that German security authorities “possess no information that [Mr. Isa] might pose a security risk.” Both delegations stressed that the UN would not have issued Mr. Isa a badge enabling him to gain access to the UN if they believed he was a security risk, nor would the U.S. have granted him a visa (Mr. Isa has a 10-year multiple entry visa to the U.S.).  The U.S. and Germany said that the allegations against Mr. Isa were unfounded and unsubstantiated and requested that China withdraw its proposal to have STP’s consultative status revoked, and also urged the Committee to not let itself be used as a vehicle for reprisals against NGOs.  The EU also opposed removing STP’s accreditation; and the observer from the U.K. cautioned the Committee against “moving at the speed of lightning when attempting to revoke an accreditation,” particularly when it moves “so very slowly” in considering new accreditations, particularly for human rights NGOs.

The German representative also took China to task for the very short notice of its proposal, which was distributed just several working hours before the opening of the session. With respect to STP, he said it was an independent human rights organization registered in Germany that focuses on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, and that it was granted ECOSOC status in 1993. He further stated that Mr. Isa was “correctly registered as a representative for STP.”  The German representative also added that “after serious deliberations,” in February 2018 Interpol deleted the red notice against Mr. Isa.

Regarding Interpol’s decision to remove the red notice against Mr. Isa, the Chinese representative said that to China’s knowledge, “this act of cancellation was totally initiated by the Secretary General, who is German, and the director of the legal department of Interpol, who is an American.” He said they “didn’t really consult with the member States, let alone China,” and claimed that it was done out of “political motivations,” and that it was “underhanded,” a “total dark box operation.”


UN NGO Isa 1

Chinese delegates speaking at the May 21 meeting.


China and the United States exchanged several volleys. In addition to stressing that Mr. Isa posed no security threat, Ambassador Currie of the U.S. said that it was clear what was really going on: China was attempting to silence a human rights defender from a silenced community in China for speaking up for the rights of that group at the U.N.  She referenced several accounts about the plight of the Uyghurs in China, including recent reports documenting that hundreds of thousands and possibly up to one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were being detained in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. China responded that the Western media was biased against China, and that “the Chinese government has always paid attention to and protected the rights of all the ethnic minorities, including the Uyghur people” and that Uyghurs in Xinjiang have seen “the best protection of their human rights in history.”

The Chinese delegate also suggested that Ambassador Currie was personally biased, and accused her of getting “emotional” about the issue because of prior work she had done relating to Xinjiang. He added, “I suspect she has close contact with those people.” The U.S. delegation raised a point of order, stating said the Committee had hit a “new low” and that the Chinese representative’s comments were “completely inappropriate.” The Chair of the Committee, Mr. Jorge Dotta of Uruguay, took the point of order and advised the Chinese delegate to “confine himself to concrete aspects of his information about the NGO” and to not go into other unrelated matters, and cautioned, “we mustn’t get into a political discussion.”

STP was given until May 25 to submit its written response to the question from China. China thus not only consumed a significant portion of the NGO Committee’s time and attention at its opening meeting with its vexatious ploy, it also imposed an unwarranted burden on STP, distracting the NGO from its advocacy work at the UN.

Lastly, when the Chair attempted to give the floor to a representative of civil society, China and Russia raised a point of order. They said there wasn’t enough time to hear from civil society, and that the Committee should adhere to its work agenda. China of course was responsible for the delay in the first place with its unfounded proposal against STP, and then invoked “time constraints” to silence the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) from making a statement on behalf of 100 NGOs. Many delegations came to the defense of civil society and ISHR’s right to speak and be heard, particularly given the mandate of the NGO Committee to enable greater civil society involvement with the UN. Fifteen minutes after China raised its point of order, the Chair stated that due to a lack of consensus on the issue, ISHR would not take the floor. China thus consumed more of the Committee’s meeting time with its objection to a civil society statement, which likely would have taken only several minutes to deliver.

The May 30 Meeting

China’s proposal regarding STP’s status was not discussed during the May 25th meeting, but was addressed at the 29th meeting of the Committee held on May 30. The Chinese government (@ 2:05) noted the written response from STP to the NGO Committee’s question, and said that although China’s position–– reflected in the May 17 note verbale and its statements during the Committee meeting on May 21–– “remains unchanged,” it would no longer seek the withdrawal of STP’s consultative status during the current session. The representative of China strongly urged STP to “earnestly fulfill” the commitments it made in its written response, which included respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and not appointing terrorists as its representative, and to “avoid past mistakes.” He said that China would be “closely following” the organization’s activities in the UN, including the Human Rights Council, and would “take necessary measures in the NGO Committee as appropriate.”

The June 11 Meeting

On Monday, June 11, the Committee gathered for its final meeting of the 2018 second session in order to adopt its report for the session. The meeting opened with an unexpected announcement from the Chair, Mr. Jorge Dotta (@ 00:45). He said he had received a note from the Secretary General of Interpol (Mr. Jürgen Stock) on the preceding Friday. Mr. Stock requested that Mr. Dotta mention to the Committee Members that he had addressed a communication to the PRC delegation “in reference to a statement made by [the PRC] delegation on the 21st of May 2018.” Mr. Dotta told the Committee “he was complying with that request with the understanding that that matter is a bilateral issue to be considered between the delegation of China and the Secretary General of lnterpol.” He said he was “expecting it to be resolved in the best possible manner” and that since the issue was not part of the Committee’s agenda and beyond his mandate, the Committee should proceed with its work.

This incident involving Interpol is an example of the important role played by webcasting the Committee’s open meetings, a new practice mandated by an April 2017 ECOSOC resolution. The webcast enabled Interpol officials to watch for themselves the accusations made by the Chinese delegate, who claimed that the cancellation of the red notice against Mr. Isa was politically motivated. This point of contention between the Secretary General and the PRC delegation would not have been known to the public but for the webcasts of the May 21 and June 11 meetings. The public documents issued relating to the session, including the unofficial written coverage of the meetings

(May 21, June 11) and the Committee’s adopted report, did not mention China’s remarks about the cancellation of the red notice, nor the communication from the Interpol Secretary General to the Committee Chair. Mr. Stock apparently wanted the Committee Members to know that he took issue with China’s statement on the matter. The fact that the current Interpol President, Mr. Meng Hongwei, is Chinese had not deterred the Secretary General from démarching the Chinese delegation. China, however, has yet to retract the baseless accusations it made against Mr. Isa on May 21. This is the shadow side of webcasting: it provides a public platform at the UN for governments to broadcast unfounded accusations against organizations and individuals, without a commensurate opportunity for those attacked to defend themselves.

Although its gambit to have STP disaccredited during the May session was unsuccessful, China has signaled that it is capable of using its position on the NGO Committee to aggressively target currently accredited NGOs. The United States led a forceful defense of Mr. Isa and STP, and civil society more broadly. This was both an inspiring example of what the U.S. and its allies can do for the cause of human rights at the UN, and a sobering reminder of a possible “pushback gap” that may emerge at the Human Rights Council with the absence of the U.S., which had been at the forefront of efforts at the Council to counter China’s increasingly aggressive anti-human rights tactics.

The Geneva-based UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will review China’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on August 10 and 13. CERD is the main UN treaty body that focuses on the rights of ethnic minorities per the provisions of the treaty. The current arbitrary detention (and disappearances) of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, and the Chinese government’s relentless drive to wipe out their religious and cultural identity, must be addressed at the Committee’s upcoming review, and civil society voices must be heard. The CERD review and China’s Universal Periodic Review in November might also explain China’s attempt to seek a quick revocation of the Society for Threatened Peoples’ consultative status. Fortunately, China failed, this time.



Andrea Worden croppedAndrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.

Follow her on Twitter @tingdc



Background on China and the NGO Committee


The UN’s Committee on NGOs is a standing committee of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and is supported in its work by the NGO Branch of the Office of Intergovernmental Support and Coordination for Sustainable Development, a division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). China has occupied the top spot at DESA for more than 10 years; the current Under-Secretary-General is Liu Zhenmin, a veteran diplomat and official in the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. DESA is reportedly widely known as China’s turf.

The NGO Committee is comprised of 19 Member States, which are elected for a four-year term based on the principle of equitable geographic representation. The mandate of the NGO Committee is to consider applications from NGOs seeking consultative status with the UN­­­­ ––a status that enables NGOs to participate more substantially in the work of the UN than NGOs without such status. The Committee meets twice a year in New York, usually in January (regular session) and May (the resumed session). It makes recommendations on the NGO applications to the ECOSOC, which then votes in July. With a growing emphasis on civil society involvement with the UN, most recently, in connection with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the number of NGO applications has risen significantly over the past several years, leading to an expanding backlog of applications awaiting consideration and other delays in the Committee’s work. Since 2014, the NGO Branch has seen a 75% increase in the number of applications for consultative status received. (Draft Report of the Committee on NGOs on its 2018 resumed session, E/C.2/2018/CRP.59/Rev.1, para.33).

The NGO Committee has long been under attack by some governments, UN officials, and civil society, for behaving more like an “anti-NGO” committee.  As noted above, China, along with several other countries on the Committee, actively obstructs the review of applications of certain NGOs, particularly NGOs whose work focuses on human rights. These governments often ask repetitive and inappropriate questions of the NGOs.  All that’s needed is just one question from a Member State seeking clarification or additional information to delay consideration of the NGO’s application until the Committee’s next session. Sometimes the questioning, and the deferrals, can go on for years.

In its September 2017 report on China’s interference with the UN human rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch noted that China’s obstructionism on the NGO Committee is most apparent with respect to “NGOs whose mission focuses on holding governments accountable, acting as watchdogs, or promoting human rights.” HRW included as one example relentless questioning of certain NGOs, including the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), on China-related information in their quadrennial reports–– a report required of all NGOs with consultative status.  STP faced five rounds of questioning, starting in September 2012.  In June 2016, STP was asked by the NGO Committee “to elaborate on its position on Tibet.” China further enforces its positions on Tibet and Taiwan in the Committee by holding NGOs’ applications for consultative status hostage until they have scrubbed their websites and reports of any references to Taiwan as a country or Tibet as (historical) Tibet, rather than the PRC-created Tibet Autonomous Region.



Also by Andrea Worden:

China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.

As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.

With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework, Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018.




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

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 Tohti in classroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.