Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti has been serving a life sentence for separatism since 2014. Widely known during his career as a moderate voice aiming for productive dialogue between Uyghurs and Han within China, the scholar and activist’s sober and reasonable tone was seen by some to be the precise reason the Xi Jinping administration made an example of him. Shortly after Ilham’s trial, scholar Wang Lixiong noted that the authorities “don’t want moderate Uyghurs. Because if you have moderate Uyghurs, why aren’t you talking to them?” Others saw his willingness to criticize the Party’s ethnic policies as the primary reason for his fate.
Following his unexpectedly harsh sentencing, some warned that it may serve to fuel radicalism in Xinjiang, a region Xi Jinping had months earlier labeled the “frontline against terrorism” as he ordered “decisive actions” be taken for the long term. Years later, the world has become aware of the extent of Xi’s “decisive actions,” and corporate and national leaders have gradually become willing to publicly pressure Beijing against continuing policies that many agree amount to genocide.
On Matters last week, user @zhengentlemen republished a 2009 essay by Huang Zhangjin, a Han journalist and magazine editor who was a close friend of Ilham Tohti’s, and who served for a time as an editor at his Uyghur Online website. The essay was written after Ilham Tohti’s brief July 2009 detention, which followed deadly ethnic riots in Urumqi, and presents Ilham’s arguments on several topics, paraphrased according to its author’s recollection. As Ilham Tohti remains a political prisoner, his friend’s words from over a decade ago show just how large a gulf remains to his dream of true ethnic harmony in Xinjiang. Huang Zhangjin’s essay is translated below:
At 12:50 a.m. on July 8, I received a call from Ilham. He cut right to the chase: “I’ve received a formal notice, so this might be the last time you’ll hear my voice on the phone. The Chairman said that Uyghur Online is inciting violence. This is a wrongful accusation, I’ve never incited violence, nor would I ever. Violence and hatred is not good for any minzu [ethnic group/nationality]. No one wants to witness the tragedy of a blood feud between different minzus.” I could barely mutter “please stay safe” before he had hung up.
I’d happened to be talking about Ilham and Urumqi at a friend’s place when he called. An hour before that, I’d called him in hopes of getting permission to write about him. Because of my discomfort, I wanted more Han people to know about this man, and I also wanted to explain my own understanding of minzu conflicts. I knew it was probably inconvenient for him to talk, which turned out to be true. I had heard him saying that he had a few “friends” with him, and he asked for my understanding.
“You should ask him if he needs any help!” My friend’s words struck me. I immediately called back, less than a minute after, but was sent straight to voice message.
Perhaps Ilham’s “friends” paid him a visit on the night of July 5. I heard that the riots in Urumqi were very serious, and so I called Ilham to talk about it. The phone line was crackling, I could barely make out what he was saying: the incident was triggered by what happened in Shaoguan [Guangdong Province]. It was said that the students who protested that afternoon [on July 5] initially agreed to obey public orders. It later went out of control and people were arrested. For a few minutes, I couldn’t hear him at all, then I vaguely heard him say that it appeared some were calling on people to take to the street every day and let authorities kill a hundred (Uyghurs) over the next five days so that the government would bankrupt its own image. He sounded worried when he said that those people had lost their minds. Suddenly I heard his doorbell rang. He muttered about it looking like his friends were visiting, said he’d call back, and then hung up.
It was as if meeting Ilham was my inevitable destiny.
One day during the autumn of 2001, a friend gave me a ticket to a performance at the Great Hall of the People. I wanted to see what the hall was like, and so was quite excited about an otherwise pointless show. I don’t remember much about the theme or the content of the show, but I do remember that towards the end of it, a large group of performers dressed in minzu costume were singing and dancing to upbeat music. I was suddenly struck by their outfits—the bird feathers, the jingling accessories, their naked shoulders, and the leather hats: Isn’t this the modern version of a central empire showing off how peripheral states come to pay tribute? Are there any other countries today that would deliberately pick one pair of performers from every minzu and have them put on the clothing that they either no longer wear or are simply anachronisms, then put together a jubilant show in the nation’s capital? The only country I could think of was the almighty Soviet Empire, who had representatives from different ethnicities praise Stalin, “the Great Father of All Nations.” But, the Soviet Empire collapsed.
Since then, I’ve had this idea of quitting my job to go to Xinjiang and conduct research on minzu issues. Deep in my heart, Xinjiang felt more like home. I’d spent more time in Hunan than Xinjiang, but Hunan felt more like a vague concept of home, whereas Xinjiang was more concrete and clear. I don’t even speak any Hunan dialects. If the Chinese Empire were to follow the Soviet’s footsteps, the hometown that I often dream of would become enemy territory.
In addition to reading material, I hoped to get to know a Uyghur person who would be willing to talk about minzu issues and help me with my project. For over a year, I lurked around on a BBS popular among Muslims. But up until it got shut down, I never got to know a Uyghur. On other popular Uyghur forums, I was unable to find anyone who cared about politics—for obvious reasons, any Uyghur forum that used Chinese had no sections for political or social issues, people only talked about light topics. But at least I got to learn the opinions of ordinary Uyghurs, where they stood and what they hoped for.
In the summer of 2007, I was doing a survey to investigate why many Uyghur children ended up becoming thieves in inland China. I had long parted with my dreams to do research in Xinjiang, until I stumbled upon Uyghur Online while conducting my study. First I met with a few young Uyghurs studying in Beijing, who seemed careful and circumspect, before I met with the owner of the site, Ilham.
Ilham’s full name is Ilham Tohti (Ilham is his given name, and Tohti is his father’s name). He was an Associate Professor of International Transactions [Economics] at Minzu University of China, and the founder of Uyghur Online. In his spare time, he was also a successful businessman and the spiritual leader of “a handful” of Uyghur people. Ilham was born in 1969 in Artush, Xinjiang. Among Uyghurs, Artush people are thought of as similar to Jewish people, who are often great students and businessmen. Many historically well-known Uyghurs were from Artush. Ilham graduated from Northeast Normal University. He studied abroad in South Korea and Japan. He is well traveled and speaks many languages: Mandarin, English, Korean, “a little bit of” Japanese, and Urdu. He also understands many central Asian languages, which he would brush off as “no big deal.” Many Uyghur friends I know are gifted in languages, to the envy of many Han people. Ilham said he considered himself “above average” among Uyghurs in that respect.
Looking at Ilham, one could easily mistake him for Indian or Pakistani. He was short, had a big belly, and was balding—in the first 30 minutes of meeting him, one might not think of him as a charming man. He asked me many times whether he should shave his head like I did. For two years, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It looks like the government had to step in to help him with that.
When I first got to know him, he maintained a very professional attitude. His eyes lit up when I said hello in Uyghur, and that warmness lasted for about five minutes, before dimming from 100 watts down to 40. I later learned that he hadn’t yet come to trust me. When he was working to help Uyghur orphans, he connected with inland anti-theft organizations. He was grateful for the care they bestowed on Uyghur orphans—those ordinary Han people, who despite being complete strangers showed more sense of social responsibility and humanity than the government. But the brutal revenge carried out by some anti-theft organizations had led him to believe that, fundamentally, Han people couldn’t and didn’t want to understand the suffering of Uyghurs.
When I visited him in his home, I cautiously spoke about my emotional attachment to Xinjiang. As I was saying that I’d written the article “Please Say to Them: Yaxshimu siz,” Ilham lit up like he’d been struck by lightning. He grabbed my hand and told me that my article was reposted on Uyghur Online and was pinned to the top. He said he was skeptical that it was really written by a Han person who had spent time in Xinjiang, as while he believed that there were Han people who treated Uyghurs objectively and as equals, he didn’t really believe there were “good Han people” who were capable of self-reflection.
And me, I was also in disbelief that I had so easily stumbled on a “good Uyghur.” By “good,” I mean how good at conversation he was. I couldn’t think of any Han friends whose interests and knowledge clicked with mine in such a way, and with whom conversations could be so enjoyable —and of course, on this front, he was my teacher.
There was a student who followed Ilham for years. He was from an ethnic minority group in southwestern China, and his area of study had nothing to do with Ilham’s. He worked in a coastal city in southeastern China for a year after graduation, before quitting his job and coming back to Ilham, which speaks to Ilham’s magical charisma. In addition, he had attracted volunteers from various minzu to help run Uyghur Online.
Ilham was born with this magic. When he got excited during a conversation, there was this force that would push him to stand up, like a teapot lid being pushed up by steam. He had this capacity to crank out a dozen parallel sentences with no breaks between, you could easily get an excellent speech draft just by transcribing him verbatim, a script that would empower anyone who came across it. “POWER,” this is the only word I can think of. He apparently never had any training in rhetoric or public speaking. But he had this roiling, raw power, a sense of warmth and sincerity radiating from his chest. And before you knew it, you were moved, hypnotized, and won over.
There was no way I’d let go of a man like this. I was mostly attracted to those with knowledge and experience, and it seemed that he had the same feeling for me. We talked nonstop the first night. A young woman who went with me had never seen a world like that. She listened wide-eyed. Later when we turned to her, she had already fallen asleep with her head resting on the table. The next day, I called up another colleague to join us. It wasn’t until the following morning that we finally decided to lie down on a couch or a carpet to get some sleep.
In all seriousness, while these long conversations left me in awe of him, they also occasionally elicited doubt in my mind. Did he really trust me when he opened up? Did he believe that I had the same sincerity as he did? He didn’t have to explain for me to know that when it came to minzu issues, there wasn’t much trust even among Uyghurs themselves. The real world was covered by the “eyes of Big Brother.” For a minzu that had been cornered, despair could lead to massive hatred; it could also lead plenty of souls to sell out.
And I was, after all, a “Khitay” [Uyghur term for Han, which shares roots with the historical name “Cathay” for China] he had just met. Perhaps any Han person who had Uyghur or Tibetan friends would know too well: even if you have good relations, you eat and drink and do business together, you are more likely than not to refrain from discussing sensitive political issues—especially during a sensitive time. You may have a Uyghur friend, but as time goes by, you’d be less likely to have honest discussions about minzu issues. This is simply a common fact of ethnic relations in China.
Ilham told me about “Crazy Kerim.” The man had made a fortune 20 years ago exchanging foreign currencies in southeastern China. While socializing with Han people, Kerim realized just how backward his own people were. He also felt deeply the discrimination from Han people, so he tried fanatically to assimilate to Han society. He learned to speak Han dialects, ate exclusively Han cuisine. He stayed away from Halal food and ate pig feet. He went as far as going to a hospital for a blood transfusion so he could have Han blood. But his assimilation efforts failed miserably. When people saw that central Asian face of his, they instinctively put up that guard they used to deal with someone not of their own.
Take the term “Khitay” for example. When socializing with Han people who know the Uyghur language, Uyghur people would say “Han.” But in private, they’d normally say “Khitay.” Likewise, Han people would say “Uyghur” in public, but many would say “chantou” [literally “wrapped head,” a slur for Muslim minorities] in private. For people in Xinjiang, using terms like “Han” and “Uyghur” in public is a performance of minzu unity that one has to put up with.
“Khitay” was once commonly used in the official records of the Qing Dynasty. After being banned by “Big Brother,” it has now become a derogatory codeword for private use. Originally, “Khitay” meant Khitan [a nomadic people from North-East Asia]. When the Jin Dynasty overtook the Liao Dynasty, a group of Khitans fled to Xinjiang and built the West Liao regime. Khitay didn’t carry any derogatory meaning back then. China is called Кидай (Kitay) in Russian, which probably originated from the Turkic language.
“Chantou” came from “chan hui,” which originated from the past custom of Uyghurs keeping their heads wrapped in a white cloth, which may not have originally carried any negative meaning. But in the Qing Dynasty, official records referred to Uyghurs as “chan hui” and “sheng hui,” [“raw hui”] and to Hui people as “han hui” and “shu hui,” [“cooked hui”] which gives the phrase a rather clear, Chinese-centric, derogatory meaning.
And today, as people increasingly used “Khitay” and “chantou” in private, new discriminatory meanings were born: “chantou” carries the meaning that something is fog-brained and entangled. And Khitay is even more ridiculous. A Uyghur woman who studied in a Xinjiang cohort at an inland high school who went on to a prestigious university heard this explanation from her father: when Han people came to Xinjiang, most were dressed in black jackets. So people called them “black jackets.” It was true that the first large scale Han settlement in Xinjiang was spearheaded by laogai [labor reform] prisoners who wore black jackets. But Khitay only sounded like “black jackets” when you spoke in Mandarin rather than Uyghur. (You can read in between the lines for yourself here.)
I don’t believe that any sensible Han people would fail to notice the invisible Great Wall when they socialize with Uyghurs and Tibetans. According to Ilham, there’s another phrase for “Great Wall” in Uyghur, which means “keeping us out.”
That first time we met, Ilham told me about his deep sense of insecurity. He spoke about what he knew and what he had experienced himself. At the time, he had just had attracted some attention from “Big Brother,” and the computer and books from his home were all taken away for inspection. He suspected that there were electronic creatures living in his apartment. He would abruptly stop in the middle of our conversations, look up at the ceiling, and murmur, “Alas, Party leaders, Ilham has your best interests in mind!”
I had somewhat mixed feelings. He joked, “I think it would be a good thing if our central government could hear my honest opinions.” But no one could feel at ease living like this. He may have thought that such anxiety and insecurity existed because “Big Brother” was watching him; or maybe that such an omnipotent “eye” belonged to all Khitay. And I, after all, was a Khitay.
Two days after our second meeting, I couldn’t reach him on his cell phone. I tried his home number multiple times before his younger sister picked up. She was looking for him too.
That day, I had just finished watching “The Lives of Others.” And I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of doubt in humanity. I thought, this must be how Ilham felt every day. Those long conversations I had at his place, they were in large part about the reality of minzu problems in Xinjiang, possible crises and solutions, as well as his own ideals. For a Uyghur, all of that was supposed to be off limits.
When Ilham was sitting in an [interrogation] chair facing a piercing light and losing track of time, would he suspect me? Did I, a Khitay, play a friendly ally of Uyghurs to entice him to speak his mind, to criticize “Big Brother,” only to have “Big Brother” rush into his apartment after I left? Would he have faith in me? If that were really who I was, would he completely lose faith in all Han people?
Words fail me when it comes to such feelings.
He knew I grew up in Bingtuan [The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state-owned paramilitary organization in Xinjiang] and he didn’t try to downplay the hostility that a Uyghur holds towards Bingtuan people. He even deliberately played up that hostility in front of me, perhaps because of how emotionless I seemed. I simply didn’t have the same passion and warmth that he did.
In our conversations, I’d played the role of the ignorant Han-chauvinist, the CCP leadership, the Xinjiang government, the Hunan person who spilled Uyghur blood, the Shandong person who hogged construction contracts in Xinjiang, the state-owned, monopolistic firm that exploited Uyghurs and Han in Xinjiang… Perhaps I represented China better than anyone else could.
He was telling me details that I didn’t know before. He was pouring out what he had held back for many years. And I was listening and receiving knowledge about the other side of the Great Wall. A Khitay was listening to a chantou. A chantou was educating a Khitay. [He said:]
Of course, your Han people are the big brother. The big brother says, “I don’t have enough space to live. Little brother, why don’t you give me some space?” So the best lands went to Bingtuan. Water was diverted your way too. You say, “The country needs development. Those big brothers to the east need their little brother to provide the raw materials. Could you sacrifice temporarily?” Sure. Crude oil, coal, gas, cotton… Take them all. We don’t ask you to leave much tax money to our Uyghur and Han in Xinjiang, but can you please stop saying how much money the country is setting aside to feed us every year? That doesn’t sound nice, does it?
Look at those ultranationalist Han people on the internet, so stupid. They complain about how foreign capital is exploiting China, where in fact we should all be thankful. How many jobs have been created? How many peasants are being trained to be professional workers compatible with modern business. If not for factory owners from Taiwan and Hong Kong, how would mainlanders know how to manage big, modern enterprises? Without the examples of foreign firms, how can mainlanders learn to copy them? We should all be thankful! Regrettably, we Uyghurs are thankful people, but no one has given us the opportunity to show our gratitude. And those poor old Han people in Xinjiang too. You see, we have everything in Xinjiang. Everything but opportunities for the locals.
Let me make a bad analogy: the Han are the ruling group, the colonizers. We welcome you in Xinjiang. Liu Xiaobo was right when he said that China needed to be colonized for 300 years. There hasn’t been a single backward person in the world whose modernization wasn’t brought on by Western colonizers. But look at your Han people. For those high-end industries, we don’t have the technology, experience, or the capital to compete. Alright then, you do it. But for the simple manufacturing jobs, you should simply open a factory and let us be the workers. We can do the low-end jobs. We can learn while being exploited. Look at those Western colonizers. They’ve always brought with them their advanced systems, cultures, and productivity. They sat at the top—a Briton would never go to India and compete with the locals for hard-labor jobs. But what advanced system or culture did you Han people bring? We are fine with you taking the high-end jobs. But do you really have to take all the coolie labor too? Are there any other ruling groups in this world that are so petty? I’m worried for you!
Am I wrong? Big brothers are drilling, mining, building roads, doing construction everywhere. You say, ‘The crude oil, gas, and coal all belong to the state. They don’t belong to Xinjiang.’ Fine. It’s the same in inland provinces anyway. But people are living on their ancestral lands. Then PetroChina and Sinopec come along and say, ‘Sorry, there are state-owned resources beneath your land, please move along.’ And move we did. Alright, at least you still need laborers, right? We little brothers don’t have jobs. How about giving us some jobs so we can feed our family? Nope. Not even the coolie jobs. Just look at those job postings in Xinjiang and see how many of them say ‘Han only.’ When your Bingtuan people could no longer stand the exploitation, you ignored your Uyghur brothers and went to inland provinces to find migrant workers. You offer them thousands of yuan to settle in Xinjiang. You offer them housing and furniture. Sometimes you Han people are just too brazen.
You said I was good at languages. I had no choice. I started learning Mandarin when I was 17. I poured my life into it. And if I could learn a language as difficult as Mandarin, other languages like Japanese and Korean are much easier because they are Altaic languages similar to Uyghur grammatically. We Uyghurs have to be good at languages. Look at those Uyghur college graduates who couldn’t find jobs and had to do business in central Asia, or become tour guides. They have to learn foreign languages. And our best students would go on to study in the West and never come back.
Why would many Uyghurs want independence? It’s very simple. They have to learn Mandarin to get a job in their own hometown. Even jobs like digging sand at a construction site, sweeping the streets, or working as a security guard require Mandarin. And even if you do speak Mandarin, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the job. Do you Han people have to know English to work in a factory or as a porter? When Uyghurs look for jobs in other provinces, you can of course reject them for not speaking Mandarin. But Xinjiang is the Uyghur Autonomous Region. It’s protected by the constitution and the Law on Regional National Autonomy. If white Americans fire black Americans for the color of their skin, black people can sue. But when Uyghurs go to court, they get turned away. If you dare to speak up online, they lock you up for inciting separatism. Who is suffering other than Uyghurs? The local Han people! They can’t mess with Uyghurs. They are exploited too. They aren’t getting their slice in Xinjiang. But what now? Uyghurs hate them. They took away our livelihoods. You Han people are taking advantage of us. How are we supposed to tell you apart?
I know Ilham wasn’t blaming me in any way. He thought the Han people in Xinjiang were being hijacked by stupid policies. But I still had to play the role of a bad person, or a representative of a bad policy. Later I introduced a few friends to Ilham who cared about Xinjiang but knew nothing about it. Usually, the new friends would be cast as “allies,” while I continued to play the role of the perpetrator who had done all the stupid things that worsened minzu relations in Xinjiang.
“If I were not a Uyghur, I’d absolutely say I’m a liberal. But I am a Uyghur. So I’m first and foremost a nationalist.” Ilham once said, slapping his chest, seemingly confident about taking on a big responsibility, “Very few Uyghur intellectuals study social sciences. When inland universities recruit in Xinjiang, few spots are made for law, sociology, or political science. Economics gets a few. There are many Uyghurs scholars and experts of science and engineering, but they don’t know how to advocate for the rights and interests of their people. As for the older intellectuals who studied culture and arts, they are not clear-headed, they live like wimps. I, Ilham, can make money myself. I dare to speak my mind. If I don’t care about my own people, who else will?”
Ilham believed that he had the best interest of the central government and the Party in mind. He was opposed to Xinjiang independence. He constantly worried about intense minzu conflicts breaking out in Xinjiang—a real possibility in his mind.
As for why he opposed Xinjiang independence, Ilham said without blinking: “Every time there was a minzu conflict in Xinjiang, you’d always first see Uyghur attackers taking to the street, but in reality there are always more Uyghurs who die in the end. If China split along ethnic lines after the chaos or war, Uyghurs would suffer the heaviest loss, not the Han people. Not to mention that you have 1.3 billion people. Just count the Han people in Xinjiang, they completely dominate Uyghurs in terms of resources and power.”
I asked Ilham many times whether he had thought about independence. Only one time did he give it real thought and painfully murmur, “Who hasn’t fantasized about living in independence, in a perfect country, where one can breathe freely?” He sighed before continuing, “But as an intellectual responsible for his own people, one who respects history and reality, I have to have both national self-respect and a realistic rationality. Independence must never be pursued.”
Many times he even asked and answered himself, “Han people worry about China suffering the same fate as Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But have you considered that Uyghurs also worry about the same thing? Many Uyghur folks are happy if they can feed themselves, if they can live a better life. If after a bloody war, the Han people say, ‘Alright, you can have your independence.’ What do Uyghurs get? After that our future generations are just supposed to live next door to an enemy that is 1.3 billion strong? Let’s say that Han people are like the Swedes, and we part ways peacefully—in Xinjiang, a huge place with such a long border, is it a good idea to let a Han army help us defend it? Do we really want to build our own system after independence, and put such a heavy burden on the ordinary people? Some people may imagine that Americans would come to Xinjiang after independence. If that were to happen, we would become doubly hated hostages.”
Ilham insisted that Uyghur’s pursuit of equality and freedom must not be separated from Han people’s advancement of freedom and democracy. The two must be closely integrated. The situation of the Uyghurs was a result of the lack of democracy and freedom in China as a whole. Uyghurs can gain freedom and democracy only if Han people can also achieve them. Ilham beamed a smile and said:
But, those Han people who shout about freedom and democracy don’t care about us. Are we the silly ones here? Look at how ultranationalist many Han people are. They would say the West is engaging in cultural invasion and economic exploitation. They are anti-West, anti-Western values. Then they’d turn around and call for Uyghurs to be crushed, to be assimilated. You see? Are the brains of you Han people actually working? Sorry, I’m joking. I don’t mean you.
We are defending our rights, the rights of minzu equality given to us by the constitution, and the rights we should have to minzu regional autonomy. We are not calling for ethnic separatism or discontent. Some may say that we’re separatists, and that is a trap that we should not fall into. But why is it that some Han intellectuals always suspect Uyghurs of engaging in ethnic separatism whenever we speak about ethnic equality?
In my opinion, as long as we live in a country where minzu equality is guaranteed, it doesn’t matter whether Han or Uyghur were the dominant group. What matters is to respect the rights of every people, respect all different cultures and customs. Only when we, China, become a true liberal democracy can we attract talents from neighboring countries with our superior system.
I suspect that some of the thoughts he shared, he only dared to do so with me. “Look at the independent countries in central Asia. Which one of them is not ruled by a dictator? They are all screwed up. Sometimes you’d think, didn’t Han people bring something good as well? Although central Asian countries are all ruled by dictators, those that are more slavicized, like Kazakhstan, are more civilized, open and modern. And of course, I wish Han people were as civilized as English-speaking peoples.”
Ilham believed that if China were a liberal democracy and Xinjiang were a real autonomous region that implemented the relevant laws, Uyghurs would be proud to be living in China. China would thus strengthen their soft power over Central Asia. And because of their linguistic advantages, Uyghurs would naturally spearhead the expansion of China’s influence over the culture and economy of central Asia. The situation could have been different if Uyghurs were treated with a degree of equality. Whenever we spoke about this, Ilham would say that he’d write a report with systematic suggestions for development strategies. I promised him many times that I’d help him put it together. After two years had passed, the project was shelved.
Ilham said, even though Uyghurs were treated unfairly, they were still a minzu in China, a people that are good at learning from Han people. When Uyghur business people went westward to expand their markets, they benefited from the things they learned in the huge market with 1.3 billion people. Ilham used the restaurant industry as an example. Uyghurs and many central Asians are essentially the same people, and they share essentially the same cuisine. But Uyghurs’ restaurant businesses learned from the innovations of other minzu. They have better service, and have a big advantage over the folks on the other side of the border. For example, the “dapanji,” a dish invented in Xinjiang, is popular in Central Asia, and they use the Chinese name too. While life is tough for Uyghurs in Central Asia as well, they are slowly gaining control over the service industry there.
“We the Uyghurs have developed the Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk [the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages], and the Kutadgu Bilig. Are you telling me we can only promote dapanji and chopsticks now? Don’t we have talented people?” Ilham, with a radiating vigor in his eyes, would count one by one the many high-level officials he knew in Central Asia who would publicly identify as Kazakh or Uzbek, but privately think of themselves as Uyghur.
“We are not dumb at all,” Ilham said. “Compared to Han people from Zhejiang, Jiangsu, or Guangdong, who had a head start and accumulated their capital, Uyghurs aren’t as experienced or commercially aware. But compared to Han people in Xinjiang, Uyghurs are like the Wenzhou folks. And Han are like the Dongbei folks. We live or die by ourselves. No one cared about us. We start by vending on the street. But Han people in Xinjiang mostly lived within the system. They are used to having their lives managed and taken care of. Their lives are much better than ours. But how many of them are self-made?”
Among all Han scholars, Ilham respected Qin Hui the most. I mentioned Qin Hui to him twice. During a period of time we didn’t see each other, he read a lot of Qin Hui’s work. He said Qin Hui was the only Chinese person he knew of who could compare with Western scholars. He wanted to discuss many things with Qin Hui. I promised him I’d connect them. But because of a series of changes in my work last year, the promise was delayed again and again.
Wang Lixiong was, at one point, the Han scholar that Ilham wanted to meet the most. He had read all of Wang’s works, many of which he reposted [on Uyghur Online]. He wanted to meet Wang in person, to thank him for caring about the Uyghurs. And of course, he wanted to exchange his views. After I connected them, Ilham was a bit disappointed. Pressing his index fingers on his temples, he said, “Mr. Wang Lixiong has a conscience. He’s extraordinary and charming. I respect him very, very much. Ehm, is it because he was a literature scholar? I feel like he often thinks about issues from a wrong approach. He doesn’t use the same tools as us. Why is that?”
I think Ilham was mainly upset because Wang, the author of “Yellow Peril,” held a very dim view of China’s future, the complete opposite of Ilham’s beaming optimism. If Wang’s pessimistic outlook were to follow, not only would Han society break down, Uyghurs would be even more doomed—“According to Mr. Wang, China will collapse, Uyghurs will call for independence, and the Han will crush them. If that were true, wouldn’t all Uyghurs be killed? Do you believe that?”
Ilham spent days revisiting Wang’s viewpoints, trying to refute them one by one. By the third time we met, he had returned to his trademark optimism. Ilham firmly believed that economic opening-up would steer the legal and political system towards the West. And, that people’s mindset would change too. Private ownership and the accumulation of personal wealth would necessarily lead to the awareness of one’s rights, which would force the government to delegate a bit of power. The jockeying would lead to a certain degree of social turbulence, but the general trend would not be reversed. “Your people are the most industrious and hardworking people in the world. How can you be compared with South America, South Asia, or Africa? Right?”
After the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, I rushed back to Beijing. Ilham had been glued to the TV. With his stubborn optimism and his Uyghur perspective, he’d often come up with things that I had overlooked. I remembered seeing him exclaim, with tears in his eyes, “Sichuan people are extraordinary. Compared to Westerners, Chinese people—Han people—you live under such lousy governance, as lowly as wild grass, as numb as animals. But just look at the Sichuan people after the earthquake, the sheer tenacity and perseverance. That’s truly extraordinary, the exuberant vitality and staunch willpower. Are there any other people who could have done better than the Han people? Who can conquer them? You know why so many Uyghurs in Xinjiang are donating blood and supplies? They are so moved! Wow, such people ought not to, and will not, live like this forever. Alas, with a people like this, the country has hope.”
Ilham believed that Wang had misinterpreted or exaggerated the Uyghur people’s separatist tendency. He thought Wang was treating common people like political animals. When it came to system design for minzu issues, Wang had his eyes and mind fixated on a few tragic countries, and didn’t consider other possibilities. Ilham even questioned Wang’s solution for Tibet. He believed that, to a certain degree, Han intellectuals publicly supporting minzu independence may lead to tragic results, as you can’t expect all Han people to think like that. In fact, few peoples in the whole world could do such a thing. And when power is so asymmetrical, if a minority group seeking independence were to fight the Han people, not only would the minority be annihilated, but the Han would face a very hostile international environment after a brutal crackdown.
As for the principle of minzu self-determination, Ilham tried to discuss with me whether such a principle was more important than the end goal of solving problems. People of the East had completely different minzu perception and awareness than that in the West. Shouldn’t there be a more easily acceptable and applicable common ground? I didn’t have the capacity to have this discussion with him. I am a Khitay. I cared about Xinjiang, but it wasn’t something that kept me up at night. Considering that even today it’s still so difficult to think of any sort of systemic innovation, unlike him, I just couldn’t bring myself to think about complex questions of innovation in the future.
For many of Ilham’s interests and opinions, all I could do was listen, as I knew nothing about them. He once said hypothetically that, if separatism were still to gain more ground among Uyghurs when China became a liberal democracy, they might borrow from the Republic of Tatarstan, which through the constitution and a series of systemic arrangements stayed within Russia; there were no separatist parties to gain regional control. He also carefully studied the experience of Chinese people in Malaysia, as well as the handling of ethnic relations in Singapore and Europe.
I highly doubt that there existed a Han scholar or a Han official who had ever thought of these issues like Ilham did. [Chinese]
Translated by Yakexi.