Uyghur Scholar Calls for Jobs

While China accuses Uyghur "separatists" of fomenting unrest, a Uyghur economics professor says, Give them jobs.
2009-03-06
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Ilham Tohti in France, February 2009.
Photo: RFA

HONG KONG—A leading moderate in China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority has sharply criticized Chinese policies in the northwestern Xinjiang region, saying that joblessness remains the single biggest problem and residents have suffered under the current governor.

“Unemployment has existed in Xinjiang since the 1950s,” Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, said in an interview with RFA’s Uyghur service. “No matter what … I will still talk about the issue of unemployment.”

“Unemployment among Uyghurs is among the highest in the world,” he said after returning home to Beijing from a weeklong academic exchange in France.

Xinjiang has developed, but the people are living in poverty, especially Uyghurs."

Ilham Tohti

Tohti spoke as the National People’s Congress, China’s annual session of parliament, met in Beijing—where the governor of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Nur Bekri, warned Friday of a “more fierce struggle” against separatist unrest in the region.

China has accused Uyghur separatists of fomenting unrest in the region, particularly in the run-up to and during the Olympics in August last year when a wave of violence hit the vast desert region. The violence prompted a crackdown in which the government says 1,295 people were detained for state security crimes.

“The [security] situation will be more severe, the task more arduous, and the struggle more fierce in the region this year,” Nur Bekri said Friday, according to the official Xinhua news agency. “It’s a time of celebration for Xinjiang people, but hostile forces will not give up such an opportunity to destroy it."

This year marks 60 years since China’s People’s Liberation Army entered Xinjiang and implemented what it calls a “peaceful liberation” of the region. Many Uyghurs regard the move as an invasion.

Tohti also called for the inclusion of Uyghur intellectuals in regional government.

“In the 1990s, I participated in the central government’s 9th five-year research plan, and I was responsible for research on Xinjiang. At that time I wrote that there were 1.5 million unemployed workers in Xinjiang, but the Xinjiang government rejected this,” he said.

“Two years ago they finally acknowledged that there is surplus labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” he said.

“Other provinces in China have had some improvements with regard to democracy. But in Xinjiang, the situation has worsened,” he said.

The [security] situation will be more severe, the task more arduous, and the struggle more fierce in the region this year."

Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri

Citing official media, Tohti noted that 1.2 million workers migrated to Xinjiang from elsewhere in China in 2008. “This indicates that there are abundant employment opportunities in Xinjiang, but why are these opportunities not for Uyghurs?” he asked.

“I don’t oppose migration [to Xinjiang], but we need to re-evaluate it. Xinjiang doesn’t need migrants the way it needed them in the 1950s and 60s, so why bring in migrant workers? If there’s really no unemployment in Xinjiang, why transfer young Uyghur women to inland China as cheap labor?”

Asked about Bekri, the regional governor, Tohti said, “I think he’s unqualified … I don’t know how he became governor of Xinjiang, and I don’t recognize him as a qualified governor."

“He doesn’t care about Uyghurs. He’s always stressed the stability and security of Xinjiang and threatened Uyghurs. Xinjiang has developed, but the people are living in poverty, especially Uyghurs. Laws that should have been applied in the Uyghur Autonomous Region haven’t been implemented.”

Safety fears

Tohti said he hasn’t visited Xinjiang for two years because of tensions there, adding that he fears for his own safety because he has been outspoken in criticizing the government.

“Of course I worry, but what I have said doesn’t conflict with Chinese law. If they put me in jail, I am ready. I’ve sat in front of a computer for so many years—jail would give me a chance to exercise and lose weight…Then I will sue them, and I believe I will win.”

Web site

In mid-2008, Chinese authorities closed a Web site launched by Tohti in 2006 and aimed at promoting understanding between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs.

Tohti said it was fellow Uyghurs who told authorities his Chinese-language Web site, Uyghur Online, had links to Uyghur “extremists” abroad.

At the time, Tohti said his site—which employed 67 people of 12 nationalities, all unpaid—sometimes scored 1 million page views daily, with content published in Chinese and written by Uyghur, Han, Korean, Tibetan, and other contributors.

The site was later reopened but went offline again this week.

“My Web site has been shut down again because of an unlawful decision. I am not accountable to anyone but to the Constitution—and I believe my Web site will be reopened soon. I don’t oppose the Constitution, but I object to its wrongful implementation.”

According to his official biography, Tohti was born in Atush, Xinjiang, on Oct. 25, 1969. He graduated from the Northeast Normal University and the Economics School at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing.

Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Rukiye Turdush. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and  produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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