China took Xinjiang by conquest in the late 1800s, and although the Chinese constitution promises them autonomy, the region’s Uyghur people are still waiting for those promises to be kept. Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, now serving a life sentence for writing about these issues, explains how broken commitments, religious intolerance and totalitarian ethnonationalism have contributed to Uyghur discontent. Anyone with an interest in China or in human rights should be aware of this important insider’s take on the Uyghur experience.
- Before his incarceration, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti was outspoken in his criticism of China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.
- The Chinese constitution guarantees Uyghurs autonomy, but in practice they enjoy little independence.
- Han Chinese workers advance by taking jobs in Xinjiang, while Uyghurs struggle.
- Although China claims to be fighting Uyghur separatism, its policies are quashing the Uyghur identity.
- The quality of Uyghur education has deteriorated.
- Protests in 2008 and 2009 raised questions about China’s policy toward ethnic minorities.
- Most ethnic minorities do not seek independence but rather affirmation of their culture.
- A “totalitarian ideology” and an “ethnonationalist chauvinism” are dangerous.
Before his incarceration, Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti was outspoken in his criticism of China’s treatment of ethnic minorities.
Tohti was only two years old when the Cultural Revolution claimed his father’s life in 1971. Although his grandfather was illiterate, Tohti’s father pursued university studies and served in the military, but Tohti knows little else about his father or why he died. The author’s brothers also served in the military and in public security; in fact, one is a Communist Party secretary and member of the Kizilsu Kirghiz People’s Political Consultative Conference. Tohti began his university studies at the age of 16. He pursued a master’s degree at Minzu University’s Institute of Economic Research and in 2003, he joined the university’s faculty.
“I worry about my homeland and my country falling into turmoil and division.”
Having traveled in regions plagued by ethnic conflict, Tohti decided to focus his research on matters pertaining to the region of Xinjiang and to Central Asia. He started publishing academic articles about Xinjiang in 1994 – a move that resulted in the authorities branding him a political figure. The government began to monitor and restrict his professional activities, eventually preventing him from teaching or publishing his research.
Tohti sees his interest in Xinjiang’s social and economic issues in academic – not political – terms. To protect his reputation, he refuses to accept any monetary support from foreign organizations. Despite being sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for writing and speaking about the situation in Xinjiang and what it portends for China, the author continues to believe that China can improve. He also still hopes that the Uyghurs’ right to autonomy will be affirmed. Despite his situation, Tohti continues to trust that the truth will prevail.
The Chinese constitution guarantees Uyghurs autonomy, but in practice they enjoy little independence.
In many ways, the “Xinjiang problem” is not unlike the situation in Tibet. Uyghur and Tibetan autonomy preceded the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The various uprisings that have occurred in Xinjiang since the 1800s all stem from the Uyghurs’ desire to maintain their cultural and religious integrity: The atheistic nature of the CCP is in fundamental opposition to the Uyghurs’ deep commitment to their Muslim faith.
“Few dare to touch upon these problems directly, let alone conduct systematic social investigations and analyses in search of solutions.”
People in Xinjiang share many linguistic and cultural traits, and even family ties, with the residents of neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China conquered part of Turkestan during the Qing dynasty in the late 1800s and named it Xinjiang, which means “new territory.” Both the Kuomintang and later the CCP promised the region its autonomy: In 1955, the People’s Republic of China established the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Yet there are today few signs of autonomy in Xinjiang. The 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law gives Uyghurs the right to reject laws that would undermine their language and culture, and it says that businesses in the region should support local interests and hire local workers. In practice, however, the CCP has handed regional power to the Han Chinese, at the Uyghurs’ expense.
Han Chinese workers advance by taking jobs in Xinjiang, while Uyghurs struggle.
Xinjiang is the largest province in China, some one-sixth of the country’s landmass, and the Chinese government has prioritized its economic development. But these efforts have not benefited the locals. Gains have mostly gone to the Han Chinese who moved from the country’s interior to Xinjiang. The population of the capital of Xinjiang, Ürümqi, and of other cities in the province are three-quarters Han. From 1949 to 2007, the proportion of Han residing in the province of Xinjang grew from less than 5% to 40%, while the Uyghur share of the population has declined from 79% to 46%.
“Han have even begun to take over the production of traditional Uyghur products, from traditional markets to Muslim foods.”
Uyghurs and Han live apart, with the former residing mostly in remote rural areas and the latter in cities. Ethnic Balkanization prevails, with people from each ethnicity sticking with their own kind. Current policies in Xinjiang reinforce rather than reduce that segregation. State-sponsored entities control most of the arable land in Xinjang, and Han Chinese staff the civil service and bureaucracy. As a result, a vast majority of Uyghurs face under- or unemployment, and their communities struggle with theft, prostitution and drug abuse.
“Xinjiang is the only place in the world where local university graduates have a lower status than migrant farmers.”
The situation makes Uyghurs nostalgic for the planned economy – and its relatively fair distribution of resources among minority groups – that started with the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and lasted until the 1980s. More recently, development efforts have focused on Han Chinese areas in the north and south, with almost nothing going to the predominantly Uyghur rural areas. Petroleum and mining activities have largely served Han workers, so the wealth gap has widened. The Han Chinese instinctively feel that they have a right to success in Xinjiang because they work hard, but they are oblivious to how their success affects the Uyghurs. For instance, as part of a centrally planned urban redevelopment project, Uyghurs were not properly compensated when their dwellings were seized and they were evicted from their homes.
Although China claims to be fighting Uyghur separatism, its policies are quashing the Uyghur identity.
No real Xinjiang separatist movement or organization exists. In attempting to control the Uyghurs, Chinese authorities have gone further than they did in the Cultural Revolution; for example, they have forbidden men to wear beards – an edict that equates a personal grooming choice with political rebellion. Instead of helping this ethnic minority succeed, official policy seems to be looking for ways to drive its failure.
“When you’re not allowed to go to the mosque and pray, everyone will feel the sense that they’re being repressed.”
In 2011, Tohti wrote a letter to the Politburo – the CCP’s main rulemaking committee – pointing out the risks of these policies and strongly urging that the CCP deliver on the promise of autonomy. He proposed some goodwill measures, including greater religious freedom. Initially it seemed that the authorities accepted his recommendations. They asked for more information, but this was soon revealed as a ruse – an excuse to further curtail Tohti’s ability to share his knowledge with the wider world.
The quality of Uyghur education has deteriorated.
In the early 20th century, Uyghur modernizers imported teachers from Turkey and Central Asia. Uyghur schools taught geography, accounting, animal husbandry and several branches of mathematics in the 1930s and 1940s, before schools elsewhere in China covered these topics. The CCP at one time prioritized the training of cadres from ethnic minorities. But after the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s, China tightened the screws on Xinjiang, especially on its educated class. Social ills like drug abuse, prostitution and crime, formerly all but unknown among the Uyghur, arose. Young people from Xinjiang left for Beijing and supported themselves however they could, including by illegal means. Inadequate education has also resulted in “street kids,” a phenomenon formerly unknown in Xinjiang but now common.
“From a certain perspective, what’s happening now in Xinjiang is a Great Cultural Revolution that is destroying the indigenous culture.”
Some Uyghurs study to take the national college entrance exam in the Uyghur language, others in Chinese; the former (a group that included the author) learn about their history and culture, while the latter do not. The increasing numbers of young people on the Chinese language track illustrates how the education system in Xinjiang is helping to cut young Uyghurs off from their cultural history. Pedagogically sound bilingual education should teach children their native tongue, history and culture. In Xinjiang, bilingual schooling has instead had the effect of alienating Uyghurs from their roots. For example, students learn how to read and write Mandarin from a young age, but they don’t learn the Uyghur alphabet until the fourth grade.
Protests in 2008 and 2009 raised questions about China’s policy toward ethnic minorities.
The author gave a speech in November 2009 at his alma mater that centered on the 2008 protests in Tibet and Kuangdong involving Uyghur workers, and on the riot in Ürümqi in 2009. Tohti said that China shouldn’t “be indifferent to domestic ethnic problems,” noting that some Chinese officials were open to looking at changes.
“We all know how history punishes its lazy students.”
When the incidents in 2008 and 2009 occurred, many authorities blamed the unrest on overseas instigation rather than on inequities on the ground. Until the uprisings, most Chinese believed that harmony existed in Xinjiang. In truth, the Han–Uyghur divide is nothing new, but it is getting worse. China shouldn’t try to cover up ethnic tensions or ignore the fact that problematic government policies are, in many ways, driving them. Some have called for the revision of ethnic autonomy laws, but this would make a bad situation even worse. Unless a real reconsideration and reworking of existing policies occurs, nothing will change. The government needs to get to the root of the unrest – that is, they must stop making the Uyghurs feel like “strangers in their own homeland.”
Most ethnic minorities do not seek independence but rather affirmation of their culture.
The United States has racial and ethnic challenges on a par with China’s. America, too, struggles with systemic inequality, but when such conflicts occur, the government and media tend to use the events as opportunities to promote messages of equality. In the United States, political and thought leaders can offer their views on what occurred without exacerbating the issue. In China, leaders respond by arguing in favor of either abolishing ethnic autonomy altogether or of continuing along the current path – proclaiming a right to autonomy while, in practice, ignoring the laws related to that right. Both approaches worsen on-the-ground tensions between majority and minority groups. China should do better than the West, and it should certainly not seek to eradicate minority cultures, as the colonial powers once did. It should encourage and uphold ethnic autonomy, not just in word but also in deed.
“Many recruitment notices in Xinjiang state clearly that only Han need apply.”
All Han Chinese are not to blame for the situation in Xinjiang, but neither should the Han blame Uyghurs. The rising tide of nationalism, which authorities have used as a means of inuring the Chinese populace against Western influence, plays a major role in keeping tensions high. And a number of people enjoy influence in government and good salaries as a result of the ongoing problems in Xinjiang. They are more incentivized to exacerbate the region’s issues than they are to resolve them. These facts help explain why the government has repeatedly shut down and otherwise attacked Tohti’s website, Uyghur Online, which he founded in 2006 to help “bridge the information gap between the Han population and the Uyghur people.”
A “totalitarian ideology” and an “ethnonationalist chauvinism” are dangerous.
As capitalism has grown, it has not brought greater equality but rather more power to the powerful. The authorities who undervalue ethnic groups and even treat them as though they don’t exist create the conditions for “irreconcilable conflict.” Chinese nationalism has gotten so intense that, even though Han outnumber Uyghurs by 100 to 1, Han skinheads attack Uyghurs. The promotion of ethnonationalism not only harms the minorities targeted but imperils the nation of China as a whole.
“Uyghur officials account for a very small proportion of total government officials, and Uyghurs who occupy positions of real power – bureau-level cadres or higher – are even rarer…The situation is even more glaring in Xinjiang’s state-owned enterprises: one would be hard-pressed to cite even a single example of a state-owned enterprise headed by a Uyghur.”
Uyghur officials and intellectuals are the objects of CCP suspicion. The government implicitly brands Uyghurs as harboring separatist sympathies. This belief has resulted in the de facto demotion of Uyghur party members, further fueling distrust between Han and Uyghur cadres. Uyghur officials are scarce in general, and even scarcer at higher levels of government. Although the CCP theoretically rises above ethnicity, the Uyghur consensus is that the government is Han Chinese. How can they think otherwise, when authorities continue to use ethnic conflicts to consolidate their influence?
“Over the past 20 years, Han people – especially the younger generation – have grown up drinking the wolf’s milk of nationalism.”
The July 5, 2009, riots involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang led authorities to arrest thousands. Thirty-four individuals disappeared while in custody. After three years of pressure from their families, officials suggested that the detainees had escaped or fled the country. When local authorities dodge responsibility in such cases, or worse – attempt to intimidate or create additional burdens for those searching for their loved ones – they erode public faith in the rule of law. The government should come clean, apologize and offer compensation for any wrongful deaths.
About the Author
Ilham Tohti is a Uyghur economist serving a life sentence in China on separatism-related charges. He was the host of the website Uyghur Online, lectured in economics at Beijing’s Minzu University, and is known for his essays on Uyghur and Han Chinese relations.
Certainly, I’d be happy to provide a detailed review of the book “We Uyghurs Have No Say: An Imprisoned Writer Speaks” by Ilham Tohti.
“We Uyghurs Have No Say” is a powerful and thought-provoking book that offers a unique perspective on the experiences of the Uyghur people, an ethnic minority group that has faced significant persecution and discrimination in China. Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist and writer, was arrested in 2014 and has been imprisoned ever since, accused of separatism and endangering national security. Despite the restrictions on his freedom, Tohti has continued to write and speak out about the situation of the Uyghur people, and his book is a testament to his commitment to justice and human rights.
The book is divided into six sections, each of which explores a different aspect of the Uyghur experience. In the first section, Tohti provides an overview of the history of the Uyghur people, from their origins in Central Asia to their modern-day situation in China. He challenges the narrative of the Chinese government, which portrays the Uyghurs as a “local” people who are an integral part of Chinese society, and instead argues that the Uyghurs have a distinct cultural and historical identity that must be respected.
In the second section, Tohti examines the political and social changes that have affected the Uyghur people in recent decades. He discusses the impact of Chinese government policies, such as the forced relocation of Uyghurs from their homeland to other parts of China, and the erosion of Uyghur cultural and religious practices. Tohti also analyzes the role of media and propaganda in shaping public opinion about the Uyghurs, and he argues that the Chinese government has been successful in portraying the Uyghurs as a threat to national security.
The third section of the book focuses on the economic and social conditions of the Uyghur people. Tohti describes the poverty and inequality that plague the Uyghur community, and he argues that the Chinese government’s economic development policies have had a devastating impact on the Uyghurs. He also discusses the situation of Uyghur women, who face discrimination and marginalization in both Chinese society and Uyghur culture.
In the fourth section, Tohti turns to the issue of education and cultural identity. He argues that the Chinese government’s education policies have had a destabilizing effect on the Uyghur community, as Uyghur students are forced to adopt a Chinese curriculum and give up their own language and cultural traditions. Tohti also discusses the importance of education in preserving Uyghur cultural identity, and he argues that the Chinese government’s policies have made it more difficult for Uyghurs to maintain their cultural heritage.
The fifth section of the book focuses on the political and social movements that have emerged among the Uyghurs in recent years. Tohti discusses the growth of Islamic extremism in the region, and he argues that this is in part a response to the marginalization and oppression of the Uyghur people by the Chinese government. He also analyzes the role of civil society organizations and grassroots activism in promoting Uyghur rights and challenging the Chinese government’s policies.
In the final section of the book, Tohti offers a vision for a more just and equitable future for the Uyghur people. He argues that the only way to achieve this is through non-violent resistance and a commitment to democracy and human rights. Tohti also discusses the potential for international intervention and support, and he argues that the international community has a moral obligation to stand up for the rights of the Uyghur people.
Throughout the book, Tohti’s writing is clear, concise, and powerful. He draws on a wide range of sources, including his own experiences as an activist and writer, as well as academic research and interviews with Uyghur community leaders. The book is well-researched and well-written, and it offers a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the Uyghur experience.
Overall, “We Uyghurs Have No Say” is an important and timely book that sheds light on the experiences of the Uyghur people and the challenges they face in China. Ilham Tohti’s