HONG KONG—An ethnic Uyghur scholar based in Beijing has lashed out in an open letter and an interview at Chinese authorities for preventing him from traveling to Turkey to deliver a lecture.
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken economist who has often clashed openly with Chinese authorities, accused Beijing of operating “in flagrant violation of the law to maintain ‘social order.’”
But by eroding what is fair and just, Chinese authorities are causing greater harm to the country’s social fabric, he said in the letter, published on his Web site, www.uyghurbiz.net, which is blocked inside China.
Tohti had received a visa and permission from Central Nationalities University in Beijing, where he teaches, to attend an April 19-25 academic conference in Turkey, along with four other Uyghur academics from the Xinjiang regional capital, Urumqi.
But Chinese authorities accompanied him on a “vacation” to the resort island of Hainan, in southern China, and prevented him from leaving the country days ahead of the event, he said.
They feared what he might tell the foreign media about how the government has treated him, Tohti said.
The conference was an international panel on Turkic culture at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey. The identities of the other four Uyghur scholars barred from leaving the country weren't available.
“I’m very sad—not only because I am unable to attend the meeting to present my article, but because the Chinese government does not trust scholars,” Tohti said in an interview.
“Even [majority] Han Chinese scholars are refused the right to travel outside of the country to present their work.”
Tohti, who holds a valid Chinese passport, said in his open letter that according to China’s Law on Civil Rules of Exit and Entry, authorities may refuse exit or entry only to Chinese citizens who hold invalid, altered, or forged travel documents.
The Chinese Constitution prohibits “unlawful detention and other means of illegal deprivation or restriction of personal freedom of its citizens.”
“I am a citizen in possession of proper identification, and the government has no factual or legal basis to prohibit me from leaving the country—this is clearly illegal,” Tohti said.
Tohti said he had received invitations to seminars in Hungary and the Netherlands during May, but his requests for permission to travel have gone unanswered.
“For now, I am continuing to work on a paper about Chinese policies towards the Uyghurs, and I hold lectures each week. But I am restricted to speaking at my own university and I am being carefully watched by [plainclothes] officers,” Tohti said.
“I have tried to do what any moral citizen can do—what any socially responsible citizen can do. I will spare no effort to uphold my beliefs for the fair and just treatment of ethnic Uyghurs,” he said.
“I call on Uyghurs, Han Chinese, and our friends in other nations to respect the rule of law and human rights, and to respect themselves and others. Do your best to be dignified citizens!”
According to Qeyser Ozhun, president of the International Uyghur PEN Center, Tohti was also blocked last October from attending a PEN International conference in Norway, when police stopped him from obtaining a Norwegian visa in Beijing.
Detained and freed
In August, soon after deadly clashes between majority Han and minority Uyghurs in Urumqi, Tohti was released without charge after he was detained for allegedly promoting separatism, but he said police then visited his home to warn him he could still be tried and executed.
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, along with exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, in a July 5 speech by the governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, as an instigator of the clashes.
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.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the XUAR in northwestern China.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in July 2009 in rioting that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Original reporting by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated by Mihray Abdilim. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.