On July 30, Chinese communist authorities indicted Ilham Tohti, a Uighur intellectual, on charges of separatism, a charge that could carry the death penalty. Tohti was detained in mid-January, and the timing of the indictment seems related to an attack the Chinese authorities claim was carried out by knife-wielding militants in the Uighur homeland, which China calls Xinjiang, near Kashgar. An overseas Uighur group says the violence took place around a protest against Chinese restrictions on the observance of Ramadan.
It is impossible to know what really happened. China allows no independent monitoring and little access to Xinjiang, a large but remote area that is home to China’s Turkic Muslim Uighurs.
Tohti, however, is an open book. He is an academic economist who focuses on China’s policies toward its minorities. He is known for rejecting violence and seeking improved conditions for Uighurs under Chinese rule, including by telling the Party how their policies backfire. Tohti’s daughter Jewher, now a student in the U.S., testified before a congressional commission about her father in April.
He is, she said,
exactly the sort of person a rational Chinese political structure would seek to engage with in order to address the conditions of the Uyghur people. Instead, by arresting my father and threatening him with charges that carry the severest of penalties it has driven many Uighurs to a point at which they can’t even imagine that their wholly justified grievances can get any sort of a hearing under Chinese rule.
Tragically, for Tohti and other citizens of China, the Party is not rational when it comes to those who question their rule.
Worse, Beijing’s propaganda about the Uighurs frequently goes unchallenged. It would be a full time job to bat down each and every pernicious Chinese Communist Party statement about the Uighurs. But not to do so puts the U.S. in the position of appearing to accept Beijing’s policies. On July 16, the Obama administration hosted Chinese officials in Washington for a “Counterterrorism Dialogue.” According to a terse official announcement from the State Department, “the two sides noted their opposition to terrorism in all forms.” In light of China’s depiction of Uighurs’ cause as “terrorist,” the Obama administration should clarify the U.S. definition of terrorism publicly—explicitly excluding non-violent, peaceful speech and association—and refuse cooperation with China so long as it peddles nonsense, and arrests and tries people like Tohti.
Tohti should be released. His treatment will be a test of how far the Chinese Communist Party will go to conflate non-violent, intellectual opposition with crimes that carry long prison terms and even the death penalty. It is also a test of how far the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration will go to speak up for Tohti who is, in his daughter’s words, “an honest, outspoken dissident.”