Ilham Tohti, an economist and professor in Urumqi, is an advocate of Uyghur rights in Xinjiang. He certainly did not deserve the life sentence he just received from the PRC for “advocating separatism”, not only because he was a distinctly non-violent working in the system type of guy, but also because he doesn’t advocate Xinjiang separatism. Just the opposite, in fact. Which, in the topsy-turvy world of PRC justice, is probably the reason why he got his life sentence.
The drift of Ilham Tohti’s views—and the reason for the draconian sentence—are quite evident in interviews that Ian Johnson collected and compiled into an article for the New York Review of Books on the occasion of the court’s decision.
Johnson characterizes his interlocutors as public intellectuals which, as far as the PRC’s view of them is concerned, is rather misleading.
They are pro-democracy activists and dissidents: Woeser (Tibetan rights activist, Charter 08 signer), Wang Lixiong (Woser’s husband; activist on Xinjiang as well as Tibetan issues; Charter 08 signer; previously imprisoned by PRC government), Teng Biao (Open Constitution Initiative; advocate for Cheng Guangcheng, the blind legal rights activist currently in the U.S.; previously imprisoned by PRC government), and Hu Jia (rights activist; previously imprisoned by PRC government).
The key observations are not necessarily the musings on the benign nature of Ilham’s advocacy or the goonishness of the PRC regime either in Beijing or Xinjiang. They occur almost as asides:
Wang Lixiong: I met him in 2008. Friends introduced us because they knew we had strong interests in ethnic issues in China.
Woeser: I went and visited his wife and she said the students were so good.
Teng Biao: [H]e is my close friend.
Hu Jia: Before I went to jail I’d heard of him and he’d heard of me but it was only after I got out that we knew each other. It’s now almost been three years since I got out of this prison [Hu spoke italicized words in English in the original conversation]. My wife took me there to his home to get to know him. I feel lucky to have known him.
In describing Ilham, Teng Biao refers in passing to what was probably the real reason for the draconian sentence:
Ilham was so influential among Uighur people and he is an important bridge between Uighur and Han people. He’s like Woeser in Tibetan circles.
As does Hu Jia:
[H]e was the only Uighur with such a strong voice inside China. Just like Woeser is for Tibetans, Ilham was for Uighurs. There was no one close to him.
The title of Johnson’s piece—“They Don’t Want Moderate Uyghurs”—is so obviously rebutted by the body of the text that I wonder if he is not completely ingenuous and is, instead, intentionally trolling. The intent of PRC policy in Xinjiang today is to drive a wedge as brutally and completely as possible between moderate Uyghurs—those with serious qualms about abandoning a tradition of relatively casual Islamic observance—and those Uyghurs inclined toward militancy with an Islamic tinge.
The real message of Ilham’s sentence is that “China Does Not Want Pan-Ethnic Democracy Activists in Xinjiang Forming Links with High Profile Tibetan and Han Dissidents to Advance a Shared Democracy, Ethnic Protection, and Legal Rights Agenda Nationwide”.
I believe that the PRC is coming to the conclusion that Uyghur disaffection is an intractable but manageable problem as long as it’s bottled up in Xinjiang. The “cuddly Islamist” ship has sailed, unfortunately, for the Uyghurs, and there will be little meaningful Han or international opposition to whatever nastiness the PRC deploys inside Xinjiang to deal with Uyghurs who choose to express their disaffection through assertive Muslim religious practice, let alone violent protests or terrorist attacks on Han interlopers and collaborating Uyghurs.
What the PRC does worry about is Xinjiang secular activism finding common cause with democracy and rights activism in Tibetan and Han areas, with a slogan like “Democracy and Human Rights for All Chinese, Han, Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and (those other minorities; I guess coming up with an acceptable catchall description for the welter of nationalities in south China will be a bit of a challenge for the democracy movement).”
Then there’s the specter of coordinated student protests in Beijing, Urumqi, and Lhasa; hamfisted PRC oppression in minority areas inflaming the anger of activists and sympathizers nationwide and not just in the westlands; the West piling on with expressions of support for the democratic movement sweeping the country; und so veiter.
The PRC makes it its business to keep dissent and dissatisfaction local. When an incident flares up, its local roots are addressed, some local officials get reprimanded or sacked in the requisite Judge Bao exercise, and the central government preens itself on its role as indispensable dispenser of justice.
[Further some exchanges on Twitter, it could also be said that “They don’t want any ‘moderate’ Uyghur activists” i.e. the PRC is poised to proceed with a draconian crackdown on Uyghur social, religious, and political expression and it is not going to permit independently-inclined secular Uyghur ‘public intellectuals’ such as Ilham Tohti to acquire prestige and leverage by seeking to interpose themselves between the CCP and its Uyghur subjects. As I see the PRC strategy, it believes it can suppress moderate activism while cultivating passively moderate Uyghurs. It didn’t need to give Ilham Tohti a life sentence to further these objectives. Indeed, the expectation was that he would get six to twelve years. So I think the severe sentence was in response to Ilham Tohti’s national prestige and burgeoning international reputation, rather than his standing within the liberal-minded Uyghur community. CH, 9/23/14]
On the other hand, any effort to build a movement whose legitimacy might challenge that of the PRC regime on a national level gets the hammer dropped on it with dispatch. Initiatives to build broad-based human rights, legal rights, labor, peasant, or democracy movements that bridge communities and assume a shared, national interest opposed to the CCP are generally dealt with quite harshly.
All politics is local, the CCP might say, and they better stay that way.
It looks like Ilham Tohti might have drawn the conclusion that the best way to protect the rights, culture, and dignity of the Uyghurs was not to indulge in local activism centered on dangerous and impractical dreams of independence that risked Islamic radicalization of the movement and a growing recourse to violence; instead, he sought salvation for his people by democratizing China, and making the government more responsive to the human and legal rights of the Uyghur people.
But in the PRC context, his very determination to repudiate Xinjiang separatism probably appeared to be a promise to take his cause nationwide out of Xinjiang, into Tibet and the Han heartland.
Considering the China-wide collection of democratic activists with which he associated—and the explosive promise/threat of trans-ethnic and trans-regional nationwide synergies in the democratic movement he represented– it is perhaps not surprising that he received a life sentence. In something of a backhanded act of flattery, it puts him on par with Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who received his life sentence for attempting to ignite a national democratic movement. [Correction: Liu received an 11-year sentence in 2009.]
It’s also a clear threat to any dissidents or activists with a national vision who might presume to question the CCP’s determination to act with a completely free hand in Xinjiang or Tibet.