'Punishing Ilham Tohti is the Latest in a Litany of Errors'

A commentary by Gao Yu
2014-02-06
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Ilham Tohti and his wife in a photo sent to RFA's Uyghur Service via WeChat on Jan 13, 2014, two days before his detention.
Ilham Tohti and his wife in a photo sent to RFA's Uyghur Service via WeChat on Jan 13, 2014, two days before his detention.
RFA

In 2009, the events of July 5 [in Urumqi] shocked the world, pushing two figures into the public eye: Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and Wang [Lequan], who lost his post as Xinjiang party secretary because of those events ... after presiding over a violent rule in Xinjiang for 20 years.

Five years later, on Jan. 29, Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the central government's political and legal affairs commission, revealed ... that President Xi Jinping gave a lengthy speech [at a recent] political work conference in which he clearly states that "maintaining stability is the basis of rights; the maintenance of stability is the essence of rights," triggering a strong public reaction overseas.

Since Jan. 15, the home of Ilham Tohti has been searched by dozens of police, and he is being held under criminal detention.

So what impact with this supreme edict from Xi Jinping have on Xinjiang and other ethnic minority regions of China? To solve this big question, we will first have to clarify what Wang Lequan brought to Xinjiang:

After the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party took power, [general] Wang Zhen took his army into Xinjiang, where he perpetrated a massacre. Mao Zedong then sent the young Xi Zhongxun [father of President Xi Jinping] to right the mistakes of Wang Zhen and [party theorist] Deng Liqun.

While genuine autonomy for ethnic minorities was never implemented, and minority polices weren't perfect, this was nonetheless a period of relatively friendly relations.

Changed character

But the evil policies of Wang Lequan changed the character of Xinjiang in just 20 years:

1. [In the early years], Han Chinese cadres posted to Xinjiang were required to learn Uyghur, from the regional party secretary right down to county party secretary level. When they went to the countryside, they were expected to speak it. Over time, Wang Lequan did away with these rule, and only issued documents in Chinese, so that the 70 percent of rural officials who were Uyghurs couldn't understand them. Tough luck for them.

2. Xinjiang had always had bilingual education, but under Wang Lequan, Uyghur was designated an optional foreign language, and those who took Uyghur couldn't also take English, while Uyghur students were barred from taking the entrance examinations for universities in Beijing. If they want to go to college, Uyghur students must take both English and Chinese. This is widely viewed as culturally destructive.

3. Uyghur children used to run in and out of the mosques at will, and proudly recite the Quran alongside the Imam. But Wang Lequan forced the mosques to limit their opening times, and children and youths under 18 years of age were no longer allowed to enter the mosques. This has been seen as a destructive attack on the culture and religion of an entire people.

4. According to the teachings of Islam, Uyghurs are obliged to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca, but the government has placed tight restrictions on this, after some pilgrims defected, and others brought back leaflets and banners in support of [the formerly independent state of] East Turkestan.

Pilgrims are required to travel in groups, and they are forced to hand over their passports on entering Saudi Arabia. If anyone is found to have defected, broken the rules, or brought back forbidden items to China, the leader of the group is punished, and the entire family is punished by having their passports confiscated, so that they can't go on the Hajj.

5. Uyghur interests have been harmed in the course of economic development. In Kashgar, Islamic architecture dating back 1,000 years was forcibly demolished, resulting in the incalculable loss of the old city, half of which has disappeared. In Wang Zhen's time, the regional government brought in the bingtuan [the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, manned with demobilized People's Liberation Army soldiers] to agricultural frontier areas, splitting up the region.

They had been disbanded under Hu Yaobang [in the early 1980s], but were brought back in by Deng Xiaoping, to create a province within a province. Central government documents show that the bingtuan was developed in parallel to the Uyghur autonomous region. They built cities all along the upper reaches of major rivers, and brought Han Chinese to live in them.

The Uyghur farmers were left in the driest areas of the entire country. How were they to live, with all those cities [using the water] upstream?

Top scholar

For many years, Ilham Tohti has been a top scholar of the politics, economics and cultures of Xinjiang and the Middle East. He has kept up, whether it be through teaching or through his website, a rational criticism of the wrong-headed policies of Wang Lequan.

More than 20 years of these mistaken policies have led to a gulf opening up between [Han Chinese and Uyghurs], and they are the main root cause between the hatred and divisions which have arisen between the two peoples in recent years.

It has been the same in Tibet, and the same process has begun in Inner Mongolia. If the mistakes aren't corrected, this country will have no peace.

Punishing Ilham Tohti is the latest in a litany of errors.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Gao Yu, a veteran Beijing-based journalist, is a former deputy editor of the cutting-edge Economic Weekly newspaper who campaigns for press freedoms and once served a seven-year prison sentence for "publishing state secrets."


CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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