WASHINGTON—Chinese writer Wang Lixiong and his wife, the Tibetan writer Woeser, have launched an online campaign calling for the release of Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti.
Tohti, a professor at Beijing’s Central Nationalities University, went missing after he reported police had summoned him from his Beijing home following July 5 riots in Urumqi, capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Beijing-based Wang Lixiong is best known for his novel Tian Zang (Sky Burial), in which he explores the issue of Tibet from a perspective different from that officially espoused by the Chinese government.
Wang published his petition for Ilham Tohti on the Internet July 12, and within 24 hours had collected 158 cyber signatures endorsing his appeal, most of them from Han Chinese. By Tuesday, the number of supporters had reached more than 250.
Tohti, an outspoken economist from China's largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority, was targeted by police after his blog, Uyghur Online, was cited for allegedly instigating deadly ethnic clashes in Xinjiang.
Tohti told RFA’s Uyghur service that police had been surveying his home in a telephone interview on July 7, two days after deadly clashes in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed at least 184 people.
"They are calling me now, and I have to go. I may be out of touch for some time," he said.
"I wasn’t involved in anything, but I am not safe. The police are calling me," Tohti said before hanging up. Subsequent phone calls rang unanswered.
On July 6, he told RFA’s Cantonese service that he had gathered information on the clashes but wouldn’t release it because the timing was sensitive.
Tohti’s blog, Uyghur Online, publishes in Chinese and Uyghur and is widely seen as a moderate, intellectual Web site addressing social issues. Authorities have closed it on several previous occasions.
Uyghur Online was specifically targeted in a July 5 speech by the governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Nur Bekri, as an instigator of the clashes, along with exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer.
Tohti has said he was interrogated repeatedly and accused of separatism after he spoke out in March against Chinese policies in Xinjiang, particularly the disproportionately high unemployment there among Uyghurs, compared with Han Chinese.
A universal plea
Woeser said the call for Tohti’s release has generated a response from Chinese of several different backgrounds.
“Wang Lixiong is a Han Chinese, and I am a Tibetan. The people who signed the letter include other minorities such as Hui, Mongolian, Korean, and others,” Woeser said in an interview.
“The appeal is not limited to one or two peoples. It is hoped that there will be a better future for all peoples,” she said.
Woeser said Tohti does not publish harmful content through Uyghur Online, but uses the blog to showcase Uyghur cultural contributions.
“His Web site introduces the culture, arts, history, and customs of the Uyghur people. All his discussions on relations between different nationalities are constructive,” she said.
Woeser said that resolving conflicts between China’s different ethnicities is difficult under China’s current political system.
“By democratizing the whole country, not only the Han Chinese, but also the Tibetan, Hui, and other minorities can have a better future. What we are doing now is just rectifying mistakes, but the fundamental solution should be China’s democratization,” she said.
Bei Feng, a cyber-commentator based in China’s southern Guangdong province who was the fifth person to sign the petition, said he hopes the Chinese government will heed Wang Lixiong’s appeal.
“Wang Lixiong is a well-known writer in China. If the Chinese government ignores the calls from objective intellectuals such as Wang, then its path will become even narrower.”
Spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress Dilshat Rashit also welcomed Wang Lixiong’s open letter.
“This kind of voice comes from an honest Chinese intellectual, and I think it might influence more Chinese to seriously face the problems Uyghurs are currently experiencing. Meanwhile, it will have a positive international impact,” Rashit said.
Bridging the ethnic gap
In a separate development, four Beijing citizens published an open letter on Monday urging fellow Han Chinese to help bridge the ethnic gap between Hans and Uyghurs by dining at Uyghur restaurants in the city.
The open letter was initiated by lawyers Zhang Kai, Liu Wei, Li Fangping, and Wang Lihong, a women's rights activist.
“To increase amity between different ethnic groups, we suggest Beijing citizens dine at their nearest Uyghur restaurants and try to befriend the Uyghurs there,” the letter said.
Lawyer Zhang Kai said animosity between Han Chinese and Uyghurs should be avoided.
“The tragedy in Xinjiang happened due to a lack of sound understanding of the Uyghur people, their beliefs, and their customs.”
“Can’t we do something to prevent the situation from becoming even worse?” he asked.
Wang Lihong said she was saddened by the number of deaths on both sides during the riots.
“I hope that we can enjoy a peaceful coexistence with our Uyghur brethren, and we should not be influenced by an extremely nationalistic mood,” Wang said.
“In fact, I think the government’s policies in dealing with minorities are problematic. If large percentages of Uyghur youths become unemployed, that will be a terrifying thing,” she said.
According to the four, many residents of Beijing and other Chinese cities pledged to join them in dining out at Uyghur restaurants.
Original reporting for RFA’s Mandarin service by Tang Qiwei and Xi Wang. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Chen Ping. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.