Initiatives for China

1875 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 410, Washington, DC 20009



 Does the Chinese Government Want Moderate Uyghurs? Ilham Tohti in Perspective


Opening Remark by Yang Jianli 

 Chinese Repression and Uyghur Militancy

 Hudson Institute

 April 25, 2017



 Yang Jianli Speaker

 President, Initiatives for China


Kilic Kanat Speaker

 Assistant Professor, Pennsylvania State University at Erie


Sean Roberts Speaker

 Associate Professor, George Washington University


Eric Brown Moderator

 Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute




With the launch of the PRC's Silk Road Belt initiative, the region known to Chinese as Xinjiang and to Uyghurs as East Turkestan appears set to reprise its historic role as the strategic crossroads of Eurasia. In Xinjiang, indigenous Muslim Uyghurs have long suffered under harsh rule, and the region has been plagued by communal violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese who have migrated there in large numbers. Since 9/11, the PRC has dramatically ramped-up its security presence on the pretext of combatting terrorism. Some Uyghurs have joined Islamist terrorist groups, including in Syria, and some attacks on Chinese civilians have occurred, although information about these attacks has been suppressed by the PRC. Meanwhile, Chinese oppression of Uyghurs, their culture, and their Islamic faith has intensified.

What does the PRC's deepening involvement in Xinjiang portend for civilian security-Uyghur and Chinese-and human rights? Will economic development of the region improve the situation, as Beijing claims, or will it be a cover for more state oppression? Can the U.S. cooperate with the PRC on counter-terrorism, and where should Xinjiang and the Uyghur plight fit on Washington's diplomatic agenda with Beijing?

On April 25, Yang Jianli, president of Initiatives for China, Kilic Kanat, a professor at Pennsylvania State University at Erie, and Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington University, joined Hudson Senior Fellow Eric Brown to assess the current security and human rights situation in Xinjiang and what it might mean for the Uyghurs, the Chinese and the PRC, and the New Silk Road.




 Ilham Tohti is one of the Uyghur elite educated in interior China. He was born in 1969. He was selected to study in Beijing when he was 16. 


The Chinese government has maintained a long standing ethnic policy since the beginning of the founding of the People's Republic: it selects the brightest ethnic youth and brings them to study and attend colleges in Beijing or other cities in interior China. With better education, they eventually become the elites of their ethnic groups; many become party cadres, others become writers, and others university faculty or successful businessmen. This policy is a useful strategy to co-opt the ethnic elite to be part of the communist ruling structure.

Ilham Tohti studied economics and eventually became a professor at Minzu  (or Nationalities) University in Beijing. He is an expert in Xinjiang studies and Central Asian studies, including geopolitics, culture, economic development, and religion. In recent years, he focused his research on economic, religious and political rights of the  Uyghurs, and the increasingly difficult relationship with Han Chinese who have migrated in large numbers to Xinjiang over the last six decades. He is interested in the technicalities of governing a multi-ethnic society where groups co-exist peacefully, enjoying equal rights, while preserving their cultural identity. He studied cases of successes and failures in many countries, including in Europe. Not surprisingly, through his research, he saw that his ideals of peaceful ethnic coexistence and good governance would require values and institutions that are rejected by the Chinese government.


His research inevitably led to criticism of the Chinese government's ethnic policies. In his writings, he analyzed problems in Xinjiang and made policy recommendations that, as far as we can see, have fallen on deaf ears.


Ilham Tohti evoked the ire of the government from the very beginning of his teaching career. In 1994, while he was teaching in Beijing [or at Minzu],  he was tracked down and threatened by domestic security police (political police, in essence) for the first time, for questioning the truthfulness of some official data in a paper he had written. Over the years he has been alternately barred from publishing and teaching, from traveling back to Xinjiang, and from traveling overseas. He was videotaped when he taught, and the government sent minders to sit in his classes. He had been subjected to short detentions and house arrest. 


Ilham set up the website Uyghur Online in 2006. It was a Chinese-language website that posted news, commentaries, and discussions about what was happening in Xinjiang and to Uyghurs and other ethnic groups that the mainstream Han Chinese didn't pay attention to and hardly knew. Ilham Tohti believes in the power of communication. He said that confronting differences is not dangerous, but silent suspicion and hatred are. The site was repeatedly hacked or ordered to shut down. 


In January 15, 2014, he was arrested, and in September, 2014, sentenced to life in prison. Ilham was charged with separatism (also called splitting the country),  despite his well-known insistence on peaceful ethnic coexistence.


By any standard, Ilham Tohti was a moderate, to the extent that many pro-independence Uyghur activists considered him as betraying his people. Then the question is:  Why did the Chinese government punish him so harshly? He is the only person since China's opening up more than three decades ago who has been sentenced to life in prison for his ideas and expression. By comparison, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for drafting and circulating Charter 08, a blueprint for democratic transformation in China.

The answer is because he is a Uyghur and a Uyghur moderate.


Let me elaborate.


Relations between Uyghurs and the government, and between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, have been deteriorating steadily since the late 1990s. China has seized on the international campaign against terrorism and exploited it through disinformation and distortion for the brutal suppression of the cultural and religious identity of Uyghurs. Uighurs are living in unprecedented fear: they have been subjected to arbitrary detention; they are given long imprisonment for everyday scuffles, or any number of minor offenses; discrimination against them is written in policy announcements across China. Any violent events are quickly labeled terrorist attacks, while similar acts by Han Chinese are described in non-politicized terms.


The common scenario in Xinjiang has been peaceful Uyghur protests about political and cultural suppression (forbidding Uyghur language or history to be taught, customs and holidays to be celebrated, or properties taken forcibly to be used for industry or Han Chinese transported into the area from overcrowded cities.)  Chinese security forces forcefully put down the protests and injuries escalate into larger violent conflicts. These are reported to the Western media by Beijing, as troops necessarily suppressing "Uyghur terrorist violence." 


For this, from time to time, the Chinese government receives criticism from international rights groups, the foreign media and governments. In order to dampen the criticism and convince the international community and its own people of the necessity of its harsh anti-Uyghur terror policy and practice, the Chinese government feels it must make the premise underlying the policy self-fulfilled, i.e., it must eliminate those moderate voices so that it can claim no moderate Uyghurs exist and they are all extremists and terrorists. 


So the Chinese government makes an example out of the most moderate Uyghurs who have focused on the most modest non-confrontational approaches to Uyghur identity and culture, consistent with China's constitutional provision about the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. China's strategy apparently is that by harshly punishing even the most moderate Uyghur spokesmen, who seek reasonable accommodation with the authorities in Beijing, the Government can provoke a more militant response from the Uyghur community at large and thereby justify even more violent and comprehensive repression.

Unfortunately, the punishment of Ilham Tohti became the most shocking example of that strategy.