HONG KONG—A prominent economist from China's mainly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority 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.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, said he was interrogated repeatedly and accused of separatism after he spoke out in March against Chinese policies in Xinjiang.
He said at the time that unemployment remains the single biggest problem in Xinjiang and that Uyghurs have suffered under the current governor.
"There are visible changes in China," he said in an interview. "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?"
I have received more than 1,000 e-mails from intellectuals—Chinese, Tibetans, and Uyghurs—all saying they are behind me."
Ilham Tohti, economist
China's 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law is the main legal framework for managing the affairs of China's ethnic minorities, and it promises a high degree of autonomy for minority groups. 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."
"Chinese law and my pen are my tools," Tohti said.
While the closure of his Web site had silenced him, he said, "I have received more than 1,000 e-mails from intellectuals—Chinese, Tibetans, and Uyghurs—all saying they are behind me."
In an interview in March, Tohti sharply criticized Chinese policies in Xinjiang after returning home to Beijing from a week-long academic exchange in France. He 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.
Tohti, who studied French immigration policy while he was in the country Feb. 22-March 1, also spoke out against racial discrimination in China against ethnic Uyghurs.
China has accused Uyghur separatists of fomenting unrest in Xinjiang, particularly in the run-up to and during the Beijing 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.
"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 in Uyghur and translation by Shohret Hoshur. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.