The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation granted its Human Rights Award on Thursday to Uighur economist and intellectual Ilham Tohti, who was unable to accept the award in person because he is currently imprisoned in China, whereabouts unknown. Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, accepted the award in his stead.
Ilham has made a mission of bringing her father’s plight to world attention. In 2013, Tohti and his daughter were about to board a plane for the U.S., where Tohti had accepted a teaching position at the University of Indiana Bloomington. Police stopped Tohti himself from boarding the plane, but he implored Ilham to continue to the U.S., where his contact at the university picked her up from the airport. Ilham was 18 at the time and knew barely any English.
“‘One, two, three, four,’ ‘how are you,’ things like this: that was my English level when I first came here,” Ilham told National Review in an interview. She has since graduated from IU with a degree in political science and Near Eastern studies; she learned Arabic while also improving her Uighur, which she did not speak continuously while growing up.
Tohti meanwhile was tried and convicted of “separatism” in 2014, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Then–secretary of state John Kerry condemned the sentencing, noting that the penalty “appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti’s peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China’s ethnic Uighur citizens.” Ilham has not had contact with her father since 2017 and does not know if he is alive or dead.
“The only truth that I do believe is that my dad is not a separatist,” Ilham testified to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in a 2014 hearing on human-rights defenders. “He knew China is such a great and powerful country and tried to help enhance the relationships between us [Uighurs] and Han and decrease the problems between us.”
While Tohti was already known among U.S. officials and human-rights advocates, China’s intensified repression of its Uighur population may make him a household name in other nations. Born in 1969 in Atush, Xinjiang Province, Tohti went on to study at Beijing’s Central Minzu University and became a professor of economics at the school.
While living in Beijing, Tohti observed as the Chinese government began to focus more intently on cementing control over Xinjiang. Ethnic tensions had already existed between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and Uighur Muslims had chafed under the Communist Party’s attempt to enforce its atheistic ideology on them. But even leaving aside ethnic conflict, control over the province is of paramount importance to the Communist Party. “The Uighur region has geopolitical value. . . . The whole region is full of resources like gold, uranium, [and] natural gas,” Ilham said. “The size is one-sixth of the Chinese mainland — it’s a huge area.” But the province has a population of roughly 25 million, or only 1–2 percent of China’s total population. “China has been trying to migrate Han Chinese to the region, encouraging people: you move to there, we’ll give you houses, we’ll give you a free education. . . . If you get married to a Uighur woman you get 80,000 ren [renminbi].”
Tohti’s research interests included the economics and social standing of Uighurs, and he repeatedly criticized Chinese government policies toward the Uighur population, drawing the attention of police. As Ilham explains, “I went to boarding school [for] high school because the police kept bothering us,” even sleeping at their home.
Tohti positioned himself as an advocate for tolerance between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese, arguing for greater leeway for Uighurs to practice their culture. As such, he stood squarely between Communist Party officials attempting to settle Xinjiang with Han residents, and Uighurs who actively fought the regime.
The simmering ethnic conflict burst into the open in July 2009, when a Uighur protest in the province’s capital city of Urumchi devolved into riots between Uighurs and Han Chinese in which at least 197 people were killed. In response, the Chinese authorities moved to close Uighur mosques and cut off Internet access to the region.
Tohti was arrested for criticizing China’s handling of the 2009 riots but was released after an international pressure campaign. Before his second arrest in 2014, China commissioned Tohti to complete a study of the government’s policies in Xinjiang and to make recommendations for improvements. He did not hold back, criticizing the “ethnic alienation and segregation,” “Han Chinese chauvinism,” and absence of trustworthy high-level Uighur officials in the provincial government.
“At all levels of government in Xinjiang, we encounter a mentality that falls far short of what is needed to govern and manage Xinjiang’s societal complexities,” Tohti wrote. One prescient passage states:
The Uighur community [has a] growing fear of the government’s increasingly chauvinistic ethnic policies. The government’s sharp curtailing of bilingual education and Uighur cultural enterprises has led many in the Uighur community to feel that official ethnic policy is beginning to look like forced assimilation. In many public forums, particularly on the Internet, it is not difficult to find people openly discussing a point of view common among Han Chinese: that the only way to solve Xinjiang’s ethnic problems is to accelerate Uighur assimilation.
Tohti recommended the establishment of true regional autonomy, which would allow Uighurs to engage in fully bilingual education and participate in Chinese national life without abandoning their culture. He also rejected the notion that Han Chinese and Uighurs were bound to engage in ethnic conflict without end. “I don’t like violence and I won’t advocate it,” Tohti said in an interview with Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser on November 1, 2009. “And I definitely don’t think the Han are our enemy, not even if racial hatred or killings should happen again. Even if genocide were to happen, I would still say: the Han should be our friends.”
That genocide now does appear to be happening. Over the past several years, researchers have uncovered a network of Uighur internment camps and the systematic forced sterilizations of Uighur women. These grim discoveries confirm that Beijing is intent on absolute power in the region. The push is led by Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, who previously quelled unrest in Tibet.
“In some ways, it’s the logical evolution and culmination of the ethnic policy and domestic government approach,” Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told National Review. Zenz is a leading researcher and analyst of key documents that detail the operation and methods of the crackdown on the Uighur population. These include the China Cables and the Karakax List, collections of classified Chinese government documents leaked to outside sources.
When Beijing began its systematic crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang in 2009, Zenz said, “they figured out, well, instead of just having a long-term police state we’re really going to change those people. We’re going to break their necks.”
The crackdown threatens Uighurs outside of China as well.
“My laptop and my phone are monitored almost every single day,” says Jewher Ilham, noting that she has certain tools to determine that this is happening. China has also attempted to extort exiled Uighurs by threatening family members still inside the country.
“The main strategy is, they want all exiled Uighurs to come back to China — they don’t want any exiles,” Zenz said. “They want them to come back to Xinjiang so they can put them in camps and break them and assimilate them.” Once “they can be controlled, they’re not a liability anymore.”
The recognition of the genocide in progress has led Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) to introduce legislation that would slap fines on American companies that use products sourced to Xinjiang, where factories are using forced Uighur labor. Now that the Uighur region has come under an international spotlight, this comment by Tohti in his 2009 interview seems especially significant:
“I’m even prepared for the possibility of a death sentence. That just might be the price our people have to pay. When I, Ilham Tohti, pay that price — though I may have to go, perhaps that will draw attention to the plight of our people.”
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