The Guardian’s headline, “Ilham Tohti should get the Nobel peace prize, not life in prison,” exposes sharply how Western and Chinese assessments on a same issue can be irreconcilable. Under this headline, Professor Teng Biao suggests that China should approach the separatist aspiration of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in a similar way as the Scots did, with a referendum for independence. Also, he accuses the Communist Party of China (CPC) of being a tyrannical regime trampling reason, freedom, and peace, and warns the world not to turn “a blind eye to it all.”
Another of the countless Western supporters of Professor Tohti is Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. She condemns the CPC for trying to eradicate all criticism “no matter how mild, peaceful, or constructive; no matter whether it’s wholly within the confines of Chinese law.” In summary, the CPC is repeatedly accused by the West, and rightfully so, of jailing a constructive contributor to Chinese ethnic harmony and of criminalizing peaceful, constructive, and legal criticism.
Most recently, significant Western support for Tohti has come in the form of his nomination by the European Parliament for the prestigious 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which distinguishes those who dedicate their lives to promoting predominantly Western models of freedom and democracy. This nomination is being followed up on October 10, 2016 by the UNPO conference: “Ilham Tohti and the Sakharov Prize: Courage in the Face of Brutality.” The conference will accuse Beijing of being a brutal regime that ignores the will of its people, the Uyghurs in particular.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This criticism strongly resonates with Western audiences and scholars because they prioritize self-determination, Western human rights, individual freedom of expression, rule of law, and democracy. Also because, as expected by Western audiences, it accuses the CPC of all the imaginable evils, such as being tyrannical, destructive, disrespectful of ethnic minorities, lawless, and intolerant. An obvious question that follows this aggressive criticism: Is the Chinese regime really such a despicable tyrannical regime that ignores the will of its peoples and sacrifices their fundamental human rights?
The simple answer is that the Chinese regime, despite all its shortcomings, is not a despicable tyranny. And the simple proof to support this is the fact that living standards – economy, education, health care, infrastructure, and yes, freedoms – of most Chinese peoples have improved exponentially in the last 35 years. A fundamental source of disagreement between the West and China results from the West and Western-minded Chinese using Western standards and values to evaluate the CPC’s actions, resulting in numerous serious misinterpretations. Information, statements, laws, policies, etc., must be interpreted within the historical, cultural, political, social, economic contexts in which they are produced, exist and evolve. Interpreting them outside this unique context is irresponsible. This, obviously, does not only apply to China.
For twenty years, Professor Ilham Tohti had been engaged in constructive criticism about Beijing’s interethnic policies in Xinjiang, which, from my point of view, are Beijing’s biggest failure since the Cultural Revolution. Tohti was well aware that he had to share his valuable criticism privately, directly with relevant Chinese scholars and officials. He knew that, despite the fact that in China it is “legal” to express criticism publicly, doing so about important national policies results is crossing one of Beijing’s red lines. However, a serious handicap with keeping criticism private and the decision-making process shrouded in secrecy, as the CPC does, is that it is practically impossible to evaluate if one’s constructive criticism has been taken into account or not by the authorities.
After 20 years of patient, constructive criticism, Tohti might have felt that he was being ignored and grew desperate about Beijing’s increasingly draconian measures to curtail Uyghur identity in Xinjiang. Following the deadly riots of Urumqi in July 2009, Tohti might have felt that he needed to become more public, more vocal, and more explicit about Beijing’s repression of the Uyghurs. He accused the CPC publicly for having failed to address Uyghur’s legitimate grievances and implementing policies that were responsible for fanning ethnic discord: “Every time something happens, the government responds with one word: pressure. High pressure, high pressure, and even greater pressure. This leads to greater resistance and more conflict.” Also, he blamed the government publicly for the numerous violent interethnic tensions and clashes that Xinjiang was witnessing. As put by the renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia, Tohti became “a thorn in the side of the Communist Party.”
Tohti took his blunt criticism of Beijing’s policies from the private circles to the public arena. He discussed his criticism in his lectures, interviews, and social media postings. By doing so, he crossed one of the numerous invisible red lines that crisscross China’s sociopolitical life: public criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies. His increasingly public criticism combined with a diminished tolerance for criticism by the current leadership in Beijing, resulted in Tohti being sentenced to life in prison. His removal from the academic and public life is not only a serious blow to Uyghur community, but also a great loss for the Chinese regime. This is because he might be the only Uyghur capable of understanding both the Uyghur and the CPC views on Xinjiang, and acting as a bridge between the two.
The lesson to be learned from the unfortunate imprisonment of Tohti is that when in China, do as the Chinese do. The CPC is aware of its numerous shortcomings and failures, including its ethnic policies in Xinjiang, and knows that needs the critical input of outsiders to overcome some of the challenges that it is facing. However, the CPC expects this criticism to be shared in private. Attempting to coerce the Chinese regime into accepting and follow Western values and principles by shaming its leadership and exalting its critics is ineffective. China will not yield. China will continue on its own Chinese way, whether we agree with it or not.
Patrik K. Meyer is a New America Security Fellow and aVisiting Professor at Muhammadiyah University Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
But foreign scholars, diplomats and human rights advocates denounce China’s hard-line policies against the Uighurs, and say the harsh measures that China has taken against moderates like Mr. Tohti will only lead to further radicalization of Uighurs and a rise in violence, including the kind encouraged by foreign jihadist groups.
Mr. Tohti, 44, was charged with organizing and leading a separatist group, Mr. Li, the lawyer, said in a telephone interview. As evidence, officials presented in court material representing Mr. Tohti’s viewpoints on Uighur identity and China’s ethnic policies, much of it drawn from his classroom teachings and the website he ran from late 2005 to 2008, Uighur Online. Officials argued that Mr. Tohti’s separatist group included seven of his students, who have also been detained and will almost certainly be tried, Mr. Li said.
Among prosecutors’ arguments was that Mr. Tohti had “internationalized” the Uighur issue by giving interviews to foreign reporters and had translated foreign articles and essays about Xinjiang to be posted on Uighur Online.
“He showed great spirit in court,” Mr. Li said. “He gave an eloquent defense to every accusation. He maintained his innocence from the beginning to the end. He gave a brilliant 90-minute defense speech at the end of the trial.”
Mr. Li added: “I hate to think about his wife and two young sons. Tohti’s wife is barely coping. They just had their entire life’s savings of 800,000 renminbi frozen,” an amount equal to $130,000. “How will they live on? How is she going to raise two children all by herself? This family’s tragedy has only begun.”
The Chinese authorities had previously frozen Mr. Tohti’s bank account, ostensibly to investigate the sources of the money. On Tuesday, the court ordered the confiscation of all of his assets.
Mr. Tohti has two sons, ages 5 and 8, who live in Beijing with his wife.
In an emotional telephone interview on Monday night, Ms. Guzelnur said she had not expected the charges to be so harsh and that she had yet to tell her sons about their father’s plight. “I will tell them what happened when they grow up,” she said.
She added: “I’m not worried about my husband’s spirit. It’s his health I worry about. He has heart problems and bad lungs.
“No matter what happens, I will wait for him to come home,” she said. “We will wait forever.”
Mr. Tohti has a daughter from an earlier relationship, Jewher Ilham, who is attending Indiana University in Bloomington, where Mr. Tohti was to have taken up a post as a visiting scholar before the Chinese police prevented him from boarding a plane with Ms. Ilham in February 2013.
The police intensified their scrutiny and harassment of Mr. Tohti after a car crash in October 2013 that killed and injured tourists near Tiananmen Square; Chinese officials said the crash was the work of hostile Uighurs. The police actions culminated in the detention of Mr. Tohti in January.
For years, officials in Xinjiang had been intent on silencing Mr. Tohti, despite the fact that he lived outside of the region, in Beijing, and the Xinjiang government appeared to have been given permission by the central authorities to make its move in 2013, Mr. Tohti’s associates say.
Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, said in an English-language report Tuesday afternoon that the ruling declared Mr. Tohti had “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students” into working on his website and that he had “built a criminal syndicate.”
Foreign governments have condemned China for its treatment of Mr. Tohti. Several Western nations tried sending diplomats to the trial, but they were turned away at the courthouse, which was heavily guarded by police officers, some carrying riot shields. Foreign journalists were also barred from attending the trial.
“Professor Tohti has consistently supported human rights for China’s ethnic Uighur citizens,” a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing said during the trial. “His arrest silenced an important Uighur voice that peacefully promoted harmony and understanding among China’s ethnic groups, particularly Uighurs. We stress the importance of Chinese authorities differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism.”
The United States government has called on China to release Mr. Tohti and the seven students who have been detained.
The PEN American Center, which campaigns for freedom of expression and gave Mr. Tohti an award in March 2014, three months after he had been detained, released a statement Tuesday that said, “His conviction makes a mockery of China’s professed commitment to social harmony by silencing one of the country’s unifying voices and, with it, fellow Uighur writers who are now unlikely to dare speak out.”
Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said she could not recall any ethnic Han advocates or dissidents receiving a life sentence in recent years. But she said the authorities usually treat dissent by Uighurs much more harshly, especially following ethnic rioting in Urumqi in 2009 that resulted in the deaths of at least 200 people, most of them Han. A Uighur radio journalist, Memetjan Abdulla, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010.
Ms. Wang noted that the indictment of Mr. Tohti was consistent with a broad move in recent years by the Communist Party to silence advocates known for their “measured words and actions,” including Xu Zhiyong and Pu Zhiqiang, two well-known lawyers arrested for their political activities.
“These and Tohti’s harsh sentence are signs of just how far the authorities have gone in severely restricting the already limited civil liberties in China,” she said, “and that the situation might get even worse down the road.”Continue reading the main story