HONG KONG—An outspoken economist from China's Uyghur ethnic minority, whose blog was cited for allegedly instigating deadly ethnic clashes in Xinjiang, has gone silent and his whereabouts are unknown after he reported police had summoned him from his Beijing home.
"Police have been watching my home for two days now," Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, said July 7 in a telephone interview, two days after deadly clashes in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed at least 156 people.
"They are calling me now, and I have to go. I may be out of touch for some time," he told RFA’s Uyghur service.
"I wasn’t involved in anything, but I am not safe. The police are calling me," Tohti said, and then hung 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 too sensitive.
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.
Tohti’s blog, 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’s last blog entry, published through a U.S. server at 10:52 a.m. Beijing time July 7 and now blocked inside China, reads:
"As the editor of Uyghur Online, I want only to tell Nur Bekri, ‘You are right, everything you say is right, because you will decide everything. I have already offended too many powerful people, including yourself and others whom I don’t want to and don’t dare to offend. But right or wrong, there will be justice."
"I always tell myself [to be] cool and calm and make rational analyses. Going to court to resolve disputes is the fairest course of action in a lawful society. I have my own lawyer. When my trial comes up, don’t appoint a lawyer for me. I will refuse any court-appointed lawyer."
"Even if we say that Uyghur Online and outsiders stirred thing up—stirred what up? People can think for themselves. If everything were working so well, why did so many people suddenly come out and riot? I think after this event the central government and the local government should give this some thought."
The clashes on Sunday in Urumqi, the XUAR capital, flared between Han Chinese and Uyghurs following attacks on Uyghur migrant workers at a factory in the southern province of Guangdong last month. Official media said 156 people died in riots Sunday. The ethnicity of the dead was not specified.
Online photos of corpses sparked calls for revenge, and thousands of armed Han Chinese poured onto Urumqi’s streets Tuesday, trying to break through police lines into Uyghur neighborhoods.
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.
He has called on authorities to ease curbs on free expression and foster greater economic opportunity for Uyghurs in their native Xinjiang region, where poverty and joblessness are commonplace.
"There are visible changes in China," he said in an interview with RFA’s Uyghur service in May. "But in terms of freedom and democracy, Xinjiang's situation is the worst of the worst, compared with other regions of China.
"What I have encountered at this time is typical. My Web site was shut down without notice. I was interrogated many times and threatened. I am a legal Beijing resident, and by law I should not be interrogated by Xinjiang police officials, but it has happened."
"This shows how long the local authorities' reach is. They accused me of separatism," he said. "But is demanding implementation of the autonomy law separatism?"
China's 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law is the main legal framework for managing the affairs of China's ethnic minorities. It promises a high degree of autonomy for minority groups, but critics say its implementation in many areas has been weak.
"There is no major problem with the main points of the central government's policy," Tohti said. His goal, he said, is "equal opportunity and equal development in Xinjiang, equal with other provincial regions of China—and equal opportunity and equal development between the Uyghur people and the Han Chinese immigrants in Xinjiang."
In an interview in March, Tohti also sharply criticized the governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, as incompetent.
Tohti, who said he feared for his own safety, was speaking as the National People's Congress, China's annual session of parliament, met in Beijing, with Bekri warning of a "more fierce struggle" against separatist unrest in the region.
"My message to the Xinjiang government is, 'You should know that there is no peace without equal development between Han immigrants and native Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Similarly, there is no stability in the Uyghur region without freedom of speech.'"
"My message to the central government is, 'Don't listen only to what the local government officials in Xinjiang say—listen to the people. Don't just make decisions based on government research—also look at independent research. This will be very helpful for protecting the unity of the nation, and the long-term prosperity of the country.'"
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. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Additional reporting by Gregory Ho for RFA’s Cantonese service. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.