Harsh Sentence for Uyghur Scholar May Fuel Radicalism

After receiving an unexpectedly harsh life sentence for separatism on Tuesday, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti issued a message through his lawyer Li Fangping [zh]. Translated by Louisa Chiang:

My outcries are for our people and, even more, for the future of China.

Before entering prison, I kept worrying I wouldn’t be able to deal with the harshness inside. I worried I would betray my conscience, career, friends and family. I made it!

The upcoming life in prison is not something I’ve experienced, but it will nonetheless become our life and my experience. I don’t know how long my life can go on. I have courage; I will not be as fragile as that. If you hear news that I mutilated or killed myself, you can be certain it is made up.

After seeing the judgment against me, contrary to what people may think, I now think I have a more important duty to bear.

Even though I have departed, I still live in anticipation of the sun and the future. I am convinced that China will become better, and that the constitutional rights of the Uighur people will, one day, be honored.

Peace is a heavenly gift to the Uighur and Han people. Only peace and good will can create a common interest.

I wear my shackles twenty-four hours a day, and was only allowed physical exercise for three hours out of eight months. My cell mates are six sentenced Han prisoners. These are fairly harsh conditions. However, I count myself fortunate when I look at what has happened to my students and other Uighurs accused of separatist crimes. I had my own Han lawyers whom I appointed to defend me, and my family was allowed to attend my trial. I was able to say what I wanted to say. I hope that, through my case, rule of law in can improve, even if it is only a baby step.

After yesterday’s sentencing, I slept better than I ever did in the eight months (of my detention.) I never realized I had this in me. The only thing is, don’t tell my old mother what happened. Tell my family to tell her that it’s only a five-year sentence. Last night, in the cell next door Parhat (student of Tohti’s) slammed himself against the door and cried out loud. I heard the sound of shackles, nonstop, as they were taken to interrogations. Maybe my students have been sentenced too.

(To his wife): My love, for the sake of our children, please be strong and don’t cry! In a future not too far away, we will be in each other’s arms once more. Take care of yourself! Love, Ilham. [Chinese Source]

The University of Indiana, which had invited Ilham to become a visiting scholar, has added its own statement condemning the sentence to those of the U.S., E.U. and others. On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to international protests, saying that “China’s judicial authorities made their ruling in accordance with the law. I would like to remind you that China is a country governed by the rule of law, and China’s judicial authorities handled the case according to the law. We firmly oppose interference in China’s judicial sovereignty and independence by any country.”

Xinhua, meanwhile, challenged “irritating” comparisons between Ilham Tohti and Nelson Mandela which originated with Chinese writer Wang Lixiong and spread widely in news and social media.

The irritating comparison was made by some entrenched critics of China’s ethnic policy immediately after a Chinese court sentenced to life imprisonment for separatism on Tuesday.

[…] By calling a separatist who incited ethnic hatred “the Chinese counterpart” of the South African anti-colonial hero, they demonstrated their deep-rooted belief that China has colonized Xinjiang, which has been an integral part of the country since ancient times.

[…] In fact, calling Ilham Tohti the “Chinese Mandela” is blasphemy against the Mandela spirit.

What made Mandela well known was his iron will against South Africa’s outdated apartheid. Ilham Tohti, on the contrary, has been convicted of behaviors that create distrust and estrangement between Uygurs and other ethnic groups. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin commented on Xinhua’s rebuttal:

Debate about the history of Chinese control in Xinjiang remains unsettled, and there are important differences between modern-day Xinjiang and apartheid South Africa. But issues of political and economic disenfranchisement, ethnic and cultural discrimination are at the heart of rising tensions between Xinjiang’s mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic Uighurs and China’s dominant Han Chinese.

Mr. Tohti is regarded by many activists and scholars as a charismatic figure seeking peaceful solutions to racial inequality. Like Mandela, Mr. Tohti was accused of collaborating with foreign powers and luring otherwise law-abiding people into revolt. Both men were sentenced to life in prison in their 40s in sentences condemned by foreign governments.

[…] One key difference between them the piece didn’t note: While Mandela eventually decided armed resistance was the only way forward for the South Africa’s black population (and subsequently requested weapons from China), Mr. Tohti has consistently argued for peaceful deliberation between Han and Uighurs, even on the day of his sentencing. [Source]

Dispute over Mandela comparisons previously arose after his death last year, with Mao Zedong and jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo both put forward as his Chinese counterpart.

Elsewhere, Xinhua described the prosecution’s evidence, including purported video of Ilham telling a class that “I admire these people who fight with violence against violence. They are heroes.” Referring to Xinhua’s lengthier Chinese-language account at Foreign Policy, though, David Wertime wrote that:

Even with years to prepare, the immense resources of the Chinese police, judicial, and intelligence apparatuses behind them, and a vast trove of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Uighur Online articles from which to draw – what long-time Xinjiang researcher Nicholas Bequelin called a “godsend” for authorities looking for “anything critical of ethnic policies” – prosecutors were only able to dredge up the tiniest of slivers. One piece of evidence, such as it is, accuses Tohti of juicing a headline by calling a government workshop on anti-separatism a “brainwashing” exercise. Another complains Tohti posted a guest author’s survey without fact-checking, which the court reasons would require Tohti’s re-conducting the survey himself. Yet another accusation, leveled without supporting evidence, finds Tohti’s site guilty of “hype.”

In other words, Tohti was actually guilty of running what readers around the world would instantly recognize as a blog. To be more precise, it was what Internet scholars like Ethan Zuckerman call a “bridge blog,” one devoted, in the words of Zuckerman, to “building connections between people from different cultures via … online work.” Much in this spirit, Tohti’s defense team, which included prominent rights lawyer , averred that his site’s purpose was “to eliminate inter-ethnic misunderstanding and spur communication.” Indiana University-Bloomington professor of Central Eurasian studies Gardner Bovingdon, a reader of the site before its shutdown, described it as “mild, moderate critique, and carefully analytical.” Foreign Policy analyzed cached versions of several of the articles cited in Tohti’s evidentiary record; none of them contains any call to separatist action. The closest any article arguably comes is a reflection on Uighur-Han riots in the southern city of Shaoguan in June 2013, penned by someone named Yarkant Irpan, which argues that “racial animus” lay behind the violence, and a survey finding that the vast majority of Uighurs didn’t like the Han Chinese in Xinjiang, and felt the Han there didn’t trust them back. Tohti has himself explicitly disavowed separatism on multiple occasions. [Source]

Others dismissing the charges include George Washington University law professor Donald Clarke, who described the punishment against Ilham and his family as “an orgy of vindictiveness.”

Even if you think separatism is a heinous crime, the charges in this case were utterly bogus: Ilham (“Tohti” is his father’s name, not a surname) is well known as someone who does not support independence for Xinjiang. I have met him and talked about these very issues. He does support more genuine autonomy for Xinjiang and for less repressive policies toward Uighurs. He has criticized the government. (These points are all true of a number of Han Chinese, too, but they have not been thrown into jail.) Apparently that was enough. [Source]

In an op-ed at The Guardian, rights lawyer Teng Biao declared that Ilham deserves a Nobel Prize, not a prison sentence:

He is a modest, reasonable and honest scholar and defender of human rights. When speaking about the humiliation and suffering of the Uighurs, he is anguished and anxious, but he does not hate, despair or suggest extreme approaches. Tohti is the conscience of the Uighur people.

[…] While the secret police see secrets everywhere, Tohti had none. Everything he has said and written is published online or in the media. It is an absurdity that he was charged, tried and sentenced for separatism. Some of the seven students who worked with him on the Uighurbiz website and were also arrested provided testimony under duress that they know is untrue. Tohti told his lawyers that he understood; no one knows better than him the cruelty of the torture used to extract confessions, and no one knows better the importance of love and forgiveness.

[…] Coincidentally, on 18 September the world witnessed a referendum for independence in Scotland. Clearly, this shows that the question of whether two peoples stay together or part ways can be solved through rational debate and a democratic vote. But in China, a Uighur scholar was put on trial for simply republishing online an article that calls for ethnic self-determination. The contrast could hardly be starker. [Source]

The Economist’s Gady Epstein quoted Nicholas Bequelin of , who similarly argued: “The test for separatism is criticism of ethnic policies, because ethnic policies are correct and if you criticise them it can only be because you want to wreck them and create chaos.” Bequelin elaborated in an op-ed at The New York Times:

The real reasons behind Mr. Tohti’s conviction stem from his outspoken efforts to convince the central government to change the course of oppressive policies in his native Xinjiang, which he said were generating more violent resistance among the 10-million-strong mostly Muslim Uighurs.

[…] But Mr. Tohti was right: The escalation of violence is the direct result of China’s repression. The overwhelming majority of Uighurs are still opposed to violence, and to any form of radical Islamism, which they see as foreign and counter to their moderate way of life. Yet it should surprise no one that as Beijing tightens its grip, more Uighurs are becoming radicalized.

[…] It is not too late. Beijing could reverse the verdict against Mr. Tohti, implement China’s existing regional autonomy laws, and abandon the flawed counterinsurgency model. It has little to lose. After all, while the authorities in Urumqi, where Mr. Tohti has been held since January, were busy manufacturing the case against him, they failed to prevent several deadly attacks, including the most devastating one outside Xinjiang last March, when some 30 people were killed in a Kunming train station.

As Mr. Tohti himself said, changing the course of policies in Xinjiang would not result in Beijing losing control but instead “would be very helpful for protecting the unity of the nation, and the long-term prosperity of the country.” [Source]

For now, the chance of such a U-turn seems remote, and with such a harsh punishment against so moderate a figure, the prospect of peaceful dialogue on ethnic issues within China appears dimmer than ever. AP’s Didi Tang reports:

“Ilham Tohti’s situation gives scholars like me who … work on the issue great concern about our safety and academic freedom,” a scholar said after Tuesday’s sentencing, requesting anonymity because of fear of punishment from authorities.

The sentence of life imprisonment “is a very disturbing message, as the door to dialogue is closed because this scholar promoted dialogue between the Uighurs and the Chinese intellectuals,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Beijing’s message is that they do not look to dialogue with the Uighurs but suppression.”

[…] “The sentencing will clearly have a chilling effect on other minority scholars, especially those within the Uighur and Tibetan communities, whose voices and opinions are clearly crucial to fixing some of the problems with China’s ethnic policies and creating an environment more conducive to interethnic harmony,”said James Leibold, a scholar of ethnic policies at La Trobe University of Melbourne.

[…] Elliot Sperling, professor of central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, said Ilham Tohti became a scapegoat for the Communist Party’s failed policies in Xinjiang because the party is ideologically incapable of asking itself what is wrong with its approach.

[…] “One might say this inability is inscribed in the party’s DNA,” Sperling said. “So the question becomes not ‘What are we doing wrong?’ but ‘Who is doing this to us?’” [Source]

Many fear that the closure of discussion and peaceful advocacy will play into the hands of Xinjiang’s radical minority. From an editorial at Bloomberg View:

China may have valid concerns about the threat of in its far western province of Xinjiang, home to the country’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority. Today’s court verdict sentencing the moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti to life in prison, however, is certain to make that problem worse.

[…] Unless Chinese authorities can open up a space for true autonomy and the free expression of cultural difference among Uighurs, they will never win over the population in Xinjiang. In his writings, Tohti repeatedly pointed out that this could be done within the framework of the Chinese constitution, which affords minority areas such as Xinjiang greater freedom than exists in practice. By suppressing even moderate figures such as Tohti, China’s leaders seem to be telling young Uighurs that their aspirations are unattainable by peaceful means. Little wonder, then, if some of them seek darker measures to pursue their goals. [Source]

Scholar told The New York Times that “Ilham had an extensive network among Uighurs and Han Chinese. Now that he’s gone, it will give radicals an example to show to their people that whoever is a moderate and still harbors illusions of improving ethnic ties should look at Ilham’s case for proof that it’s a dead end.” Wang has previously suggested that this is a deliberate policy designed to justify harsh anti-terrorist measures. At PRI’s The World, Matthew Bell reported similar concerns:

“He has always spoken out against violence quite adamantly,” says China expert Barbara Demick from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “[Tohti] was the person who was going to bring the moderate Uighurs and the moderate Han Chinese together.”

[…] “The Chinese want to silence the sensible, sane critics of their policies in western China so that they can argue — and this is very cynical — that the people opposing their ethnic policies are Islamic terrorists,” Demick says. “The Chinese are putting themselves into a very dangerous situation.” [Source]