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

By Yaxue Cao, published: February 24, 2016

伊力哈木_wife and children

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


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

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

伊力哈木采访2 (2)

Ilham Tohti. Photo: VOA

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

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

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

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

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

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

伊力哈木_hujia, sons

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

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

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

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

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


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



Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction

Ilham Tohti: A 32-minute Documentary

VOA Interview with Uighur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013

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

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



Ilham Tohti: A Short Introduction

Updated on December 10, 2018, the International Human Rights Day


Ilham Tohti_Lego

LEGO portrait by Ai Weiwei

Prepared by

Late Elliot Sperling, professor of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University

 Yaxue Cao, editor of

and the Ilham Tohti Initiative


Ilham Tohti is the most renowned Uyghur public intellectual in the People’s Republic of China. For over two decades he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Chinese over the present-day repressive religious, cultural and political conditions of the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic people living mostly in modern China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As a result of his efforts he was sentenced in September, 2014, to life in prison following a two-day show trial. He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of what has been done to him.

Ilham was born in 1969 in Artush, in Xinjiang, and began his studies in 1985 at the institution that is today the Central Minzu University in Beijing, and known for minority studies. He eventually became a faculty member at the same university and a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, and his work led to official surveillance and harassment that began as early as 1994. From time to time he was barred from teaching, and after 1999 he was unable to publish in normal venues.

In order to make the economic, social and developmental issues confronting the Uyghurs known to China’s wider population, Ilham established the Chinese-language website in 2006 to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Chinese on the Uyghur Issue. Over the course of its existence it was shut down periodically and people writing for it were harassed. Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation by bringing to light Uyghur grievances, information the Chinese state has sought to keep behind a veil of silence.

Following massive Chinese repression in Xinjiang in 2009, Ilham was taken into custody for weeks for posting information on Uyghurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared.” In subsequent years he was subjected to periodic house arrests and barred from leaving the country.

Western governments and the European Union condemned Ilham Tohti’s arrest and sentence. He received the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center in May 2014. In January, 2016, several hundred academics petitioned the Chinese leadership for his release. In October, 2016, he was nominated by 43 MEP for the Sakharov Prize. In the same month, he received the Martin Ennals Award.

Ilham Tohti has adamantly rejected separatism and sought reconciliation. His parting words before arrest were that the two peoples must learn to respect each other, co-exist in peace, and not hate each other.

Since his arrest in early 2014, China has put over at least one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region into concentration camps with the purpose of “transforming” them into “normal” Chinese. Hundreds more Uyghur intellectuals have been disappeared, imprisoned, or sent to camps. Testimonies coming out of the region reveal torture, death and forced mass indoctrination. It is a full blown human rights disaster that Ilham Tohti had tried in vain to prevent.

Brutality perpetrated on the Uyghurs is an issue that has greatly alarmed the rest of the world, while it confronts China’s questionable economic and political drive known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Ilham Tohti’s case is particularly important given the crucial international issues and human rights concerns on which it touches: the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of state-directed religious repression; efforts to open lines of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population; and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state.

There has been no news of Ilham Tohti since late 2016. He has supposedly been incarcerated in Xinjiang First Prison in Urumqi.




Essential documents about Ilham Tohti:

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

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

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang by Ilham Tohti.

Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti in 2013

Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary



Marie Holzman: ‘The European Parliament Should Award the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Ilham Tohti’

Translated From a Report Posted by RFA on October 16, 2015


Prof. Marie Holzman

Prof. Marie Holzman

Noted French Sinologist Prof. Marie Holzman, someone who knows Ilham Tohti, is calling on the European Parliament to award the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Ilham, a well-known Uyghur intellectual who has been sentenced to life in prison, and to speak out more forcefully on his behalf.

When Prof. Holzman, a noted French Sinologist, went to China as a student in the 1970s, she met several youths who at the time were opposing the Chinese dictatorship and struggling for democracy. Later on, the representative figure for this group of youths, Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), received a sentence of 15 years imprisonment. This spurred Prof. Holzman to become one of the Sinologists in the West who were constantly on the move, voicing appeals for Wei Jingsheng.

It’s likely that Prof. Holzman herself didn’t realize that over the course of the last half century or more, the thing that would show whether a Sinologist had a sense of social responsibility and an innate human sense of right and wrong would ultimately be whether or not he or she felt compelled to continuously speak out and continuously condemn the crimes of the dictatorship. And this is precisely what has come to symbolize Prof. Holzman’s life. Within European society, she has been an advocate for China’s persecuted for over 40 years. At the end of the 1980s she spoke out for the students and dissidents who were oppressed and victimized as a result of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. At the end of the 1990s she spoke out for the imprisoned members of the Democracy Party of China and for those who belonged to faith groups. Most recently she has been speaking out for Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Ai Weiwei (艾未未), Gao Yu (高瑜) and others.

As reporters have learned in recent weeks, Prof. Holzman has been constantly on the go among the various European Union agencies, speaking out for the well-known Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti who has been locked up and imprisoned with a life sentence. Due to her activity a RFA reporter came to interview Prof. Holzman on the afternoon of the 16th.

During the interview Prof. Holzman first expressed her belief that the amount of attention being paid to Ilham by the international community is far too little. She asserted that European society therefore needed to be much more vocal. In that regard she said “I thank you for interviewing me. And the reason why I’m grateful for your interview is that at the moment there are really too few conversations in Europe about Ilham.”

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Second, she believes that the Chinese Government’s sentencing of Ilham to life in prison was something quite rare; it was an illegal sentence rooted in a political goal. “Nowadays in China, people who have been sentenced to life in prison are exceptionally rare. There is, for instance, only Wang Bingzhang of the Democracy Party of China. Apart from that, I haven’t heard of any more cases which resulted in life sentences.”

Third, she knows Ilham and knows that he is someone who values peace; that he is an intellectual who is particularly moderate. “Ilham is someone whom we in the West can more or less understand because he has traveled to France and other countries. He has spoken with us. We’ve also seen the articles he’s written. The impression he’s given us has consistently been that of a moderate intellectual. This is absolutely the truth of the matter.”

Fourth, she holds that what Ilham accords particular importance to is mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence between the Han and Uyghur nationalities as well as both nationalities’ enjoyment of basic rights. “His goal is to calm the contradictions between China’s Uyghur and Han nationalities. He believes that we can all live together peacefully. Of course this is under certain conditions. The current conditions are insufficient to allow an Uyghur to have a happy life.

For this reason Prof. Holzman is calling upon the European Parliament to award its annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Ilham Tohti. “Thus, we feel that his views are fully in accord with the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Because Andrei Sakharov himself was actually a Soviet dissident, he advocated and stressed peaceful dialogue.”



Professor Ilham Tohti Calls for Family to Appeal His Case, October 16, 2015.

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

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

(Translation provided by Prof. Elliot Sperling)


Professor Ilham Tohti Calls for Family to Appeal His Case

China Change, published: October 16, 2015


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

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

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

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

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




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

Ilham Tohti Says, September 16, 2014

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

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

Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (4) – Ethnic Alienation and Segregation

By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 4, 2015

Continued from I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education and III. Religion


IV. Ethnic Alienation and Segregation


Among the openly talked-about problems affecting ethnic relations in Xinjiang, perhaps the most important is the increasing sense of alienation among ethnic minorities. But beyond this psychological sense of alienation, there is another, even more severe problem that few people (Uighurs in particular) are willing to discuss openly: the problem of physical ethnic segregation.

By physical or macro-level segregation, I mean that Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population tends to be clustered in areas of relatively high population density. In fact, the vast majority of Xinjiang’s Han Chinese population is concentrated in three areas, all of which are effectively off-limits to Uighurs: Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) areas; Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi; and cities, such as Shihezi and Kuitun, located in the Tianshan North Slope Economic Zone.

As for micro-level segregation, cities such as Urumqi with mixed ethnic populations (of Han Chinese, Uighur, and other minorities) tend to be heavily Balkanized, divided into distinct ethnic enclaves. This is particularly true since the ethnic unrest of July 2009: statistics on Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest ethnically-mixed city, in the most recent issue of the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook, published in 2010, reveal an increased tendency among both Han Chinese and Uighur residents to evacuate from mixed neighborhoods and relocate to neighborhoods dominated by their own ethnic group.

This conscious decision to “evacuate from the ethnic enclaves of others” is unlike other forms of ethnic discrimination or animosity (for example, taxi drivers refusing passengers of another ethnic group) that can be easily identified and halted. The historical impact of this decision will be enormous and far-reaching, because if the daily lives of Han Chinese and Uighurs become separate, it will exacerbate mutual feelings of estrangement and alienation. To some extent, this is a subtle form of “Palestinization.”

The flip side of ethnic segregation in Xinjiang is status segregation. Nearly all Han Chinese in Xinjiang live in urban areas or “within the system” [of government entities or government-controled entities], while the vast majority of Uighurs live in rural areas or “outside the system.” The two-tiered system that manifests itself in other areas of China as a divide between rural and urban manifests itself in Xinjiang as a divide between Han Chinese and Uighur. It goes without saying that this sort of ethnic segregation has a profound impact on the Uighur sense of ethnic and national identity. In fact, it calls to mind similar systems of segregation in Palestine and South Africa. Uighurs in China are “non-citizens” or “second-class citizens”, and XPCC outposts are widely regarded as the equivalent of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. This status segregation has caused more than a few Uighur intellectuals to liken Han Chinese to white Afrikaners, and Uighurs to South African blacks.

The skewed ethnic population distribution in Xinjiang has created a subconscious dichotomy in the minds of Han Chinese people between “their part of Xinjiang” (i.e. the Uighur-populated south) and “our part of Xinjiang” (the Han Chinese-populated north). In truth, there is no concept of Xinjiang as unified community or polity.


The ethnic population distribution pattern in Xinjiang today is largely the product of historical and systemic causes.

After Liberation [the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949], the central government mobilized a large-scale effort to promote migration to Xinjiang. In line with the political climate of the time, nearly all of the Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang were state employees, and most were assigned to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Furthermore, central government industrial investment and systemic planning in Xinjiang was designed to complement the aforementioned migration program.

In recent decades, Xinjiang’s urbanization and development have been concentrated in the north, with the bulk of development projects and support going to a few primarily Han Chinese northern enclaves, while Uighur enclaves in southern Xinjiang have received almost no material support for urban development. Meanwhile, the XPCC’s ever-expanding urbanization has pushed beyond the big cities of Shihezi and Kuitun to create a new crop of cities such as Fukang, Wujiaqu, Tiemenguan and Beitun, controlled by the XPCC and populated mainly by Han Chinese. Between 2011 and 2015, the period covering China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan, the XPCC will accelerate construction on a number of cities: Wuxing (XPCC Fifth Division), Kokdala (XPCC Fourth Division), Huyanghe (XPCC Seventh Division), Hongxing (XPCC Thirteenth Division) and Yulong (XPCC Fourteenth Division). These XPCC cities have long excluded Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, thus further marginalizing these groups.

These systematic factors are tantamount to furthering the physical segregation of Han Chinese and Uighurs, intensifying the sense of unfairness and “non-citizenship” felt by the Uighur community, and reducing opportunities for Xinjiang’s different ethnic groups to interact with one another in their daily lives. By pushing expansion and urbanization, the XPCC is tearing Xinjiang apart, worsening an already serious state of ethnic apartheid. In contrast with the XPCC approach, urban expansion in Shache County, Moyu County, Jiashi County and other areas of the south would be much more beneficial in reducing the disparities between north and south and allowing all ethnic groups a fair share of the fruits of development.[1]

Thoughts and Recommendations

The Hakka, Teochew and other ethnic groups of China’s southeastern seaboard had a long history of clan warfare and centuries-old feuds—that is, until the advent of modern industry and commerce created deeper linkages between profits and the social division of labor, thus helping to bring about rapid social integration and dispel ancient enmities. In the long run, prospects for Xinjiang’s ethnic relations may be similarly optimistic, but there is one important prerequisite: we must reduce or eliminate the physical separation between ethnic groups, rather than allow segregation to continue unabated.

In fact, in all multi-ethnic nations, the process of dismantling or destroying barriers of segregation is an important barometer of, and a means to achieving, peaceful ethnic relations.

  1. Stop building mono-ethnic cities. Xinjiang’s urbanization efforts are now targeted at building up number of key areas: if development in these areas proceeds according to current targets and plans, it will create an even greater number of mono-ethnic cities. When building new cities and towns, I suggest transferring a certain amount of population from the south, insofar as circumstances allow. Use the hand of government to guide population movements in the region and promote the formation of new, ethnically mixed cities. The government could also allow some flexibility in the use of financial resources to improve the ethnic balance of areas and operations within its purview.
  1. Clannishness is part of human nature, but when it comes to allocating government resources, we should dedicate those resources to creating diverse and integrated communities. Singapore is an excellent case in point. As a multi-ethnic and multicultural rising city-state, Singapore has used its system of public housing to increase mutual understanding among different ethnic groups and promote a more tolerant, open, and pluralistic society. By deliberately bringing people of different ethnicities and cultures to live together in proportions that parallel the overall ethnic population distribution, Singapore has leveraged government resources to build an ethnically integrated and mutually inclusive society.

In ethnically mixed cities such as Urumqi, the government could provide low-rent, subsidized, or public housing in such a way as to encourage the formation of ethnically mixed communities and to avoid creating mono-ethnic urban enclaves. In addition, when hiring or assigning work to cadres, civil servants, state-owned enterprises or other entities under government control, the government should do its utmost to facilitate interaction and communication between different ethnic communities. This could include assigning Uighur cadres to work in mainly Han Chinese neighborhoods, and Han Chinese cadres to work in mainly Uighur neighborhoods, and doing everything possible to maximize opportunities for integration and daily contact between the two ethnicities.

  1. Employees of government bureaus and public service industries such as banking, transportation, utilities and insurance should be required to acquire, over time, a certain degree of fluency in local languages. If employees of these institutions can display a certain mastery of languages other than Mandarin, it will help convince ethnic minorities that the government is not merely a government for the Han Chinese, but a government dedicated to serving the needs of all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. It would also, in the minds of Han Chinese employees, help to reinforce the impression of Xinjiang as a multi-ethnic and multicultural autonomous region, markedly different from other regions of China populated solely by Han Chinese.


[1] There are numerous alternate spellings for these counties. Shache County is also known as Yarkant or Yarkand; Moyu County as Karakax or Qaraqash; and Jiashi County as Payzawat or Peyziwat.

I. Unemployment, II. Bilingual Education and III. Religion





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


China’s Empty Promise of Rule by Law

By Teng Biao, published: January 6, 2015

A shorter version of the article appeared in Washington Post on December 28, 2014. Here is the full text.  – The Editor


I’m afraid that those of you who excitedly applauded the Communist Party’s rehashing of the term “governing the country according to the law” have forgotten the famous words of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu, who once warned sternly, “Don’t use the law as a shield.” I don’t understand why some people only remember the pleasant words they speak and but forget their blatant opposition to universal values; why some people are always willing to believe what they say, but disregard all the things that they do. The Communists once boasted wildly about “liberty and constitutional democracy” before they violently seized political power and established a frightening totalitarian rule, but they have since opposed judicial independence, democratic elections, freedom of press and freedom of belief. They have not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and they refused to nationalize the military.

It is not the first time they come out with the banner of “governing the country according to the law.” In 1997, “governing the country according to the law” was written into the Report Delivered at the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of China, in 1999 it was written into the Constitution. But it was in 1999 that they launched the savage oppression of the Falun Gong, with hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners illegally taken into custody and subjected to torture, with more than 3,700 people persecuted to death. Since Xi Jinping came to power, no fewer than 400 rights defenders and intellectuals have been thrown into prison for political reasons. Properties have been forcefully expropriated or demolished, free speech has been restricted, religion has been suppressed, women have been forced to have abortions, the judiciary has been fraught with scandals, and the incidence of torture has multiplied. These abuses have never stopped, but have grown in intensity. In Xinjiang and Tibet, the authorities have been perpetrating one shocking human right catastrophe after another.

It turns out that the Chinese Communist Party’s “governing the country according to the law” is not the rule of law you and I understand. The essential element required for rule of law — using the law to limit the authority of the government–was exactly what the Communist Party opposes ideologically and in practice sternly guards against. The rule of law that they talk about in reality is “Lenin + Emperor Qin Shi Huang,” modern totalitarianism combined with the pre-modern Chinese “legalism,” which is nothing more than a tool to further control of society. Or in the Party’s own language, public security organs are the “knife hilt” of the Communist Party. In the “Resolution” of the Party’s recent Fourth Plenum, the term “Party’s leadership” appears at least 17 times. The rule of law is superimposed by the rule of the Party, and there is not a shred of doubt about this.

In China, the legislative organs controlled by the Communist Party have promulgated volumes and volumes of statutes. The judicial organs, also controlled by the Party, are busy dealing with cases. The legal professions, including lawyers, have been developed. However, the question remains: Is the law at the center of the governing order? In the words of Professor Fu Hualing (傅華伶), in addition to China’s legal processes, there are a large number of extra-legal processes, such as re-education through labor, shuanggui (an extralegal system within the CCP for detaining and interrogating cadres), and media restrictions, and then there are the extra-extra laws, such as house arrest, black jails, etc., not to mention all the illegal methods of governance: secret police, chengguan (a para-police force that works with police across the country to help enforce minor city rules and regulations), illegal detentions, monitoring and spying on citizens, extra-judicial torture, forced disappearances, internet police, and gangs. Think about it. Without these tools, how long could the Communist Party continue to rule?

Together with things such as the Three Represents and Harmonious Society, “governing the country according to the law” is Communist Party’s yet another attempt to address the crisis of legitimacy. These slogans have gone quite a way in reaching the Party’s goal of tricking people within China and the international community. However, legitimacy in contemporary politics can only come via the recognition given through free elections. But the Communist Party wants to cling to one-party rule, and it completely rejects general elections, even in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It’s not difficult to understand why that real rule of law would necessarily mean the end of the one-party system. This is the limitation on the legalization process that began in the late 1970s that cannot be overcome.

I must admit that the term “governing the country according to the law” is different from other clichés in that it provides “rhetoric room” for citizens defending their rights “according to the law.” Over the past 10 years, I and other human rights defenders have consistently used existing laws to carry out our human rights work, and occasionally we’ve been able to achieve success in some legal cases. However, the limitations are obvious. The authorities have rejected any significant reform of the judicial system or democratization, and whenever they feel a threat from civil society, they suppress more and harsher. I myself have had my lawyer’s license revoked, have been expelled from my university, and have been kidnapped and disappeared several times. When the security police were torturing me, they shouted, “Don’t talk about any of this law stuff with us.”

In enumerating progresses being made in China legal system, people pointed out the fallen number of death sentences, the new criminal procedure law, the abolishment of reeducation through labor, reform of the local court system, government’s willingness to provide information, and the ongoing anti-corruption campaign. To begin with, it is questionable whether or not most of the above are actually progresses in the legal system. Even if they are, the major driving force for these changes has been the people, each a result of the probing, pressure and paying price by rights lawyers, democracy activists, and the countless Chinese on the lower rungs of society.

Xi Jinping once talked about locking up power in a cage, but this is not much different than a magician wrapping an iron chain around himself. In reality, what they would like to do, are doing and want to do, is to lock the people up in a cage. The APEC meeting that just concluded in Beijing has allowed people around the world to experience the power of “governing the country according to the law.” In Huairou, close to 9,000 homes were demolished, cars from outside the city were not allowed to enter Beijing, electric motor scooters were forbidden from being on the streets, stoves within a 5km circumference of the meeting center were prohibited, milk companies had to temporarily stop delivering milk, and express mail services were not allowed to deliver packages to Beijing. In Hebei, more than 2,000 companies were ordered to stop production, Tianjin cut off heating, street peddlers were driven away, a large number of human rights petitioners were detained, and even marriage registration offices of Beijing municipal government temporarily stopped operating, and crematoriums were ordered not to cremate the dead.

From between the lines of Party documents, sycophants inside and outside China are able to imagine a “spring for rule of law” that doesn’t exist while ignoring human rights disasters suffered by Ilham Tohti, Xu Zhiyong, Cao Shunli, Gao Zhisheng, Uighurs, Tibetans, petitioners, Falun Gong adherents, and house churches. The kind of selective blindness has hindered Western readers and politicians from understanding the reality in today’s China. It’s no surprise that this type of seemingly even-handed wishful thinking has become the excuse for Western governments to adopt short-sighted policies of appeasement in dealing with autocratic regimes and for favoring trade over human rights.



Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer, visiting fellow at Harvard University Law School. He can be reached at


Other op-eds by Teng Biao:

Ilham Tohti should get the Nobel peace prize, not life in prison, Guardian, September 24, 2014.

Gao Zhisheng, out of prison but not free, Washington Post, September 7, 2014.

China’s growing human rights movement can claim many accomplishments, Washington Post, April 18, 2014.


(The author wishes to thank Paul Mooney @pjmooney.)