For a few weeks we have been following an increasing amount of information regarding the arrest of the Uyghur Professor at Beijing Central Minorities University, Ilham Tohti. Despite several calls from Western governments and human rights organizations, Beijing has not released any information regarding his whereabouts and the nature of the investigation.
Most of the official statements from Xinjiang were allegations defaming Ilham Tohti and his activities. The Public Security Bureau of Urumqi city issued a statement online alleging that Ilham Tohti used a website to incite ethnic hatred and spread separatist ideas, which has now become a generic label for prosecuting any dissent activity in Xinjiang. In addition, Chinese foreign ministry stated that Ilham Tohti was “criminally detained” because he was “under suspicion of committing crimes and violating the law,” another statement that reveals little. Meanwhile,Global Times, the mouthpiece of Chinese government, published pieces arguing that Ilham Tohti was inciting hatred and separatist ideas in his classes. Before clarifying that the case is still under investigation, the paper stated that Tohti colluded with the”East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” a rogue organization that was labeled a terrorist movement after 9/11, to push for “independence” of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region through the Internet, an example of one of the most frequently used phrases to blame those who express their thoughts through Web. Furthermore, sina.com reported that Tohti formed a criminal gang under his leadership.
Mr. Tohti has been one of the most outspoken critics of China’s policies in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as East Turkistan). When the Chinese government increasingly used the label of terrorism in order to describe Uyghur dissentafter 9/11 and characterized the problem in the Xinjiang as a joint action of “three evils” – separatism, fundamentalism and terrorism – Tohti and many other Uyghur intellectuals responded by stating the economic and social motivations of Uyghurs dissent. In most of his statements, IlhamTohti called on Beijing to focus on local Uyghur grievances in the region instead of blaming them of attempting to destabilize China. He never supported violence as a way to resolve this problem in, but asked for the local Uyghur peoples’ demands to be considered in order to fix the problems emerging between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang. He was extremely skeptical with the Western Development Plan, which China adopted and cautioned that the increasing Han migration to the region could destabilize the economic balance and ethnic relations. However, in all instances his warnings have been dismayed by Chinese authorities who prefer to solve the problem through more assimilationist and hard line policies, and deny the existence of social and economic grievances among Uyghurs. In fact, instead of being appreciated as a moderate voice that supports a calm and nonviolent resolution to the conflict, Chinese authorities arrested him and tried to contain his messages by denying him the ability to visit countries like the United States.
Under these circumstances, his arrest was not a total shock for the observers of Chinese politics but a huge disappointment for those who expected meaningful political reform under the new leadership of Xi Jingpin. At this point, it is important to understand the potential outcomes of this arrest and what should be expected next from the Chinese government.
The arrest of IlhamTohti demonstrates that China has entered a new phase in its authoritarianism. This authoritarian regime is more daring, crueler and less sensitive to international reactions in regards to Xinjiang, the Uyghur question and human rights in general. The political reform that was propogated during the leadership transition does not entail any form of opening that will make China a country that respects basic individual rights and liberties. On the contrary, we are moving toward a more invasive regime and a system that will increase its control over the press and the internet. While becoming more authoritarian China is silencing the Western governments with lucrative trade deals and economic policies. This was most evident during British PM David Cameron’s visit to China, during which in an interview he responded to a question on human rights in China by stating that China had made great achievements on human rights and in fact they have different values. In fact, a more daring China is not shying away from authoritarian measures and attempting to integrate to the liberal world order but instead increasing its authoritarian grip over its people in an age of globalization. One may need to consider this recent event as an attempt by China to test the impact of its authoritarianism in the world.
The arrest of IlhamTohti also signifies a change of strategy regarding the solution of the problems in Xinjiang. A week before the arrest of Ilham Tohti, a few English language Chinese sources reported the preparation of a major strategy shift in Xinjiang that would focus on building social stability and increasing security, which was obviously ordered by the very high echelons of power in Beijing. For many years, the words “social stability and harmony” have become a nightmare for the minorities of China, which understand what they mean and how they are going to be implemented. Under the pretext of achieving social stability, the Chinese government disregards the limited rights and liberties that are provided for minorities by the Chinese constitution. Most of the political prisoners in Chinese dungeons were blamed for threatening social stability and every strike hard campaign was aimed to achieve stability in Xinjiang. Moreover, most of the assimilationist policies of the Beijing government attempted to create “harmony” among nationalities. Harmony was considered something that can be achieved through the elimination of linguistic and political (but not economic) differences, cultural traditions and religious particularities. The Propaganda Department’s posters depicting harmony between ethnic groups, with pictures of ethnic minorities dancing and singing, have been nothing more than pure propaganda. As the current attempts to create social stability and harmony are ineffective, the new strategy to multiply this effort made its first show in the case of IlhamTohti. Although IlhamTohti never engaged in violent acts or supported any violent uprising, the fact that he was thinking about the drivers of the events in Xinjiang was enough for the Chinese government to consider him a threat to social stability. There is no longer any room for differences since stability is prioritized above all else in the region. Furthermore, all methods that make stability possible are legitimate under this new principle. Difficult days are ahead for the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
The elimination of one of the most moderate voices among theUyghur minority is also intended to be a message by the Chinese government to other moderate voices among minorities, as well as among Han Chinese. The Chinese government, by not allowing any moderate dissent to express the social and economic problems in the region,is increasingly marginalizing society and leaving no space for Uyghurs to express their grievances or opinions. Under difficult economic hardship, constant repression and no tolerance policy towards dissenting views, China is turning the region into a cell that will not bring stability, peace or prosperity, but rather fuel radicalism, instability, fear and economic risks. Other minorities, like Tibetans and members of Falun Gong, are watching what is happening to the moderate voices of Uyghur groups with increasing attention. These measures will definitely not silence them, but instead lead them to become disillusioned from finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
In fact, by trying to getting rid of more moderate voices who aim to reconcile differences among communities and find a peaceful resolution to the problem, China is destroying an important opportunity to solve issues in the region. With the eradication and elimination of these moderate actors within the society, the Chinese government is insisting on denying that it caused any problems which fueled this ethnic conflict. In this sense, the arrest of Ilham Tohti should be considered as a turning point in the history and development of the conflict. By arresting Ilham Tohti, the Chinese government is declaring to Uyghurs, as well as the international public, that itdoes not want any solution to the ethnic problem and is willing to suppress every voice regardless of its goal or nature. It is a revised strategy for China, challenging not only to Uyghurs, democratic Chinese and the world but also common sense.
This article was originally published in the World Bulletin on February 17, 2014.