20111103-Wikicommons  Ilham Tohti.jpg
Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at prestigious Minzu University (Central Nationalities University) in Beijing. He drew large crowds of Uighurs and Han Chinese to lectures in which he spoke quite candidly about the problems Uighurs experience. He was put under house several times but was also a member of the Communist Party. In 2014 he was sentenced to life in prison.

For years, Tohti discussed and commented on not only Chinese policies in the Xinjiang, but also the state of Han-Uyghur relations. He founded the Chinese-language website (Uyghur Online), which is meant to facilitate communication and understanding between the two peoples. While pursuing his academic career, he operated businesses, conducted social investigation and supported many Uyghur students studying in Beijing.

Ilham Tohti has long been a critic of what he calls the systematic exclusion of Uyghurs from the economic benefits brought to Xinjiang by migrants from China’s Han majority, and has sought to prevent the Turkic Uyghur language and culture from being marginalised. [Source: Associated Press, November 21, 2014]”

Andrew Jacobs wrote in New York Times: “Tohti has become the unofficial spokesman for the embattled Uighur minority. His brazen outspokenness has landed him on the government’s list of citizens who warrant near-constant surveillance He frequently has a police escort and receives frequent calls form his Chinese government minders. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 20, 2010]

“After the ethnic riots in Xinjiang in 2009 the governor of Xinjiang blame Tohti’s Web site,, a lively forum for debate, of rumormongering and it was blocked by the censors. The next day, security agents from Beijing took him on what he said they called a vacation for three weeks, interrogating him for long periods and warning him to stop publicly criticizing the government’s policies and practices in Xinjiang. The agents later decamped to his living room, although Tohti declined to describe the experience for fear he might incur their wrath. Sometimes they were nice to me, but other times they said, “We can crush you like an ant,” he said.

“It is not clear why they have not crushed him yet. Since the unrest of 2009 the authorities have had little compunction about detaining scores of Uighurs whose whereabouts remain a mystery. Several have been given long prison terms. It could just be that different powers and interests within the government are divided over what to do about him...But at some point, a higher authority might decide to step in and do something.

“As one of the few prominent Uighur intellectuals living in China, Tohti said he felt he had no choice but to speak out against the discrimination and economic inequality he says fuel Uighur resentment. Tohti says no amount of money can assuage the widespread feeling that the culture and language of the Uighur are increasingly threatened by assimilation. He also has harsh words for China’s leaders, who he says pay lip service to the autonomy promised by Chinese law. I am worried that many of my people might be driven to extremism, he said.”

Ilham Tohti’s Early Life

Tohti was born in 1969 into a Uyghur family in Atush City, an ancient outpost on the northern branch of the Silk Road, in Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Tohti says he was a diligent, if slightly distracted, student. His father, educated at Beijing Normal University, died when Tohti was 2 under circumstances he still does not understand. I’m afraid to ask my mother, because the subject is too painful for the both of us, he said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 20, 2010]

Chinese activist and scholar Wang Lixiong told the New York Review of Books: “ His real name is just Ilham. For Uyghurs, the second name isn’t their family name; it’s their father’s name. So if you call him Tohti or Mr. Tohti, you’re addressing his father! The meaning of the name Ilham Tohti is “Tohti’s son, Ilham.” But if Ilham had a son say named Mehmet, his name would be Mehmet Ilham, not Mehmet Tohti. [Source: Ian Johnson,New York Review of Books, September 22, 2014]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in New York Times: "In the sixth grade, he became acutely aware that the Uighurs and the Han in Atush lived differently. It was the summer of 1980, when a crowd of Uighur children tried to force their way into a movie theater reserved for Han. During a scuffle with Chinese soldiers, a Uighur boy was grievously injured and in the melee that followed, Tohti joined a rampaging mob that smashed every light bulb and window in sight...Why light bulbs and windows? Because these are things the Han had; we lived in primitive dwellings, he recalled. I think that’s when many Uighurs opened their eyes and saw what was happening around them." [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 20, 2010]

Ilham Tohti wrote: “I grew up in a government employee residential compound where Uyghurs and Hans lived together. In 1985, I was admitted at age 16 to study in the interior of China. I left my hometown to undertake pre-undergraduate studies at Minzu University, undergraduate studies in the Geography Department of Northeast Normal University, and graduate study for a master’s degree at Minzu University’s Institute of Economic Research. My academic career was deeply influenced by Professors Shi Zheng Yi, Chen Cai, and Zhang Kewu. I will never in my life forget the lessons that they imparted upon me as a Uyghur youth, nor will I forget their genuine interest in, and concerns about, Xinjiang and the Uyghur society, as well as their academic integrity. ~

Ilham Tohti’s Family

Ilham Tohti wrote My grandfather’s generation was illiterate, but my father was among the first generation of educated Uyghurs brought up in New China. At the end of the 1950s, after my father graduated from middle school, he was sent to the interior of China for college. He studied at the Central University for Nationalities [now Minzu University], Beijing Normal University, and Lanzhou Railway Institute. After graduation, he worked at the Southern Xinjiang People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military zone, and then as a civilian. In 1971, at the age of 28, my father died tragically during the Cultural Revolution. I was two, and my little brother was only 11 months old. It was my mother who raised the four of us, my brothers and me, while doing auto repair work in Atush. Today, most of my father’s colleagues have become XUAR-level cadres. The older generation has kept silent about the past, and I have not understood the complicated politics of the time. As a result, while we are proud of our father, I don’t really know what kind of a person he was and how he died. [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

“In 1980, my eldest brother joined the army at age 15, but he soon left the army and pursued studies in universities in Shanghai, Urumqi, Dalian, and Beijing. As a cadre, he served as Secretary of the Atush Communist Youth League, Chief of the Personnel Office of the Organization Department of Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, Secretary of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Prefecture Communist Youth League, Chief of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Prefecture Administrative Bureau, and Chief of the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Prefecture. Currently he is the Communist Party Secretary of the Transportation Bureau of Kizilsu Kirghiz Prefecture and a member of the Kizilsu Kirghiz People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). ~

“My second older brother has worked in the public security system for many years now. He was once the youngest captain of the criminal investigation squad [in the prefecture], and now he is the Secretary of the Disciplinary Inspection Committee of the Kizilsu Kirghiz Prefecture Public Security Bureau, as well as a member of the bureau’s CCP committee. Aside from my two brothers, my sister-in-law (the wife of my second older brother) and my brothers’children also work in the public security system. To a degree, my family is actually a family in the public security system, although, because of me, they have all been implicated in recent years. ~

Andrew Jacobs wrote in New York Times: “Tohti’s outspokenness and frankness has had negative effects on those closest to him. His first marriage ended in divorce after his wife, spooked by sirens and jolted by every knock at the door, returned to Xinjiang with their young son. Last year his second wife also fled Beijing, and later she gave birth to their second child. He admits that the stroke that nearly killed his mother recently may have been brought on by her anxiety over his safety. She said she would have never allowed me to go to school if she knew I would turn out like this, he said. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 20, 2010]

“Tohti has more than a dozen relatives in Xinjiang who work in public security, including two brothers who have made repeated trips to Beijing in an effort to persuade Tohti to tone down his rhetoric, and perhaps ease the pressure from their own superiors.

Ilham Tohti’s Early Professional Career

Ilham Tohti wrote: “In 1991, after I graduated from college, I was employed by Minzu University; for a time I was Secretary of the department’s Community Youth League. In 1994, I transferred to Minzu University’s Institute of Economic Research, where I taught development economics, advanced foreign economics, and Xinjiang economics. In 1996, I studied abroad in Korea at my own expense. In 2001, I was an exchange scholar at the Pakistan National Development Research Institute through a joint China-Pakistan cultural exchange program to research on the security environment and economic development in Xinjiang and surrounding areas. In 2003, I became a faculty member at the International Trade Department of College of Economics at Minzu University. I have since taught many courses such as “International Trade Affairs,”“International Settlements and Credit,”“Strategic Research on Sustainable Development of Xinjiang’s Population, Resources and Environment,”and “Politics, Economics, Society and Culture in Central Asia.” [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

“Around 1994, I developed an intense interest in the economic and social issues Xinjiang faces. In addition to publishing articles in Guangming Daily, Economic Information Daily?and Western Development Paper?, I also published over 20 articles in academic periodicals including the Journal of Minzu University; the Journal of Research on Education for Ethnic Minorities; Tribune of Social Sciences in Xinjiang; National Economy; and the Journal of Kashgar Teachers College. As early as in 1994, I proposed setting up a special economic zone in Kashgar in southern Xinjiang. In order to expand the horizons of my professional research, I have been studying English. I have also taught myself basic Korean, Japanese, Urdu and Russian, and can conduct simple conversation and access information in these languages. ~

“Outside of my work, in my spare time I engaged in business and had had pretty good results in the stock market and joint venture projects. For a time, when I was restricted from teaching, my friends even suggested that I make a complete switch and become a businessman. However, having witnessed a great number of cases of ethnic conflict and killing, political unrest, and failed social transformation during my extensive travels throughout Central Asia, Russia, and South Asia, my desire grew stronger and stronger to completely devote my energies to researching Xinjiang and Central Asian issues, so that tragedies abroad won’t take place in China. ~

“To this end, I have personally funded and conducted large-scale social surveys. I simultaneously took time to study sociology, ethnology, and geopolitics by taking classes or self-instruction. Such endeavors have expanded my horizons beyond economics, and provided me with other perspectives and analytical tools. Aside from studying failed cases from the former Soviet Union as well as Eastern Europe, I have also looked at some successful cases to see how developed countries such as America as well as those in Europe have handled and resolved ethnic issues and social issues. My hope is that such examinations will provide abundant lessons for endeavors undertaken in China. ~

Ilham Tohti as a Teacher

Tohti taught at Minzu University of China, where his classes are a popular draw among Uighur students. Not surprisingly, his lectures tend to be fiery. They have also become popular keepsakes, recorded and surreptitiously passed among Uighurs around the country. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 20, 2010]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in New York Times: “Students are not the only ones interested in his talks. Not long ago he noticed a surveillance camera mounted in the ceiling of his classroom. Soon afterward, he realized that even when he changed rooms, the cameras followed him. A coincidence perhaps, he said with a grin.

“In his lectures Tohti shows images of burned buildings, beaten up Han Chinese and Uighur women pleading for information on disappeared loved ones. He knows the limits of what he can get away with and never advocates independence or justifies violence. Instead tells Uighurs to use Chinese law to protect their rights. “Tohti stands out for his commitment to working within the established Chinese political order.” Riam Thun, an Uighur history researcher at Harvard told AP, “He is an outspoken and articulate critic of many discriminatory Chinese policies, but his writings do not challenge the ideological foundations of the People’s Republic or the legitimacy of Chinese rule in Xinjiang.”

“Tohti could probably leave the country and become a Uighur exile, but he refuses to entertain the thought. Only by staying in China, he said, can he help jailed Uighurs. He also feels an obligation to his students, many of whom are still unemployed years after graduation. As a teacher, I feel like I have failed them, he said.”

Ilham Tohti and Uighur Issues

Ilham Tohti wrote: “I love my mother deeply, who suffered great hardships in raising me. I love my still impoverished and long suffering ethnic group. I love this land which has nurtured me. I earnestly hope my homeland can become as prosperous and developed as the interior of China. I worry about my homeland and my country falling into turmoil and division. I hope that China, having endured many misfortunes, will become a great nation of harmonious interethnic coexistence and develop a splendid civilization. I will devote myself to Xinjiang’s social, economic and cultural development, to the interethnic understanding, and to finding the way to achieve harmonious ethnic coexistence amidst the social transformation today. These are my ideals and personal objectives, and the choices I have made have their roots in my family’s history; my upbringing; my mother’s teachings; and my education as well as personal experiences. [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

“I am an academic dedicated to researching Xinjiang issues and Central Asian sociology, economics, and geopolitics. Although some people today continue to describe me as a political figure, or hope that I will become one, from the start I have maintained that I am only a scholar, and harbor neither the intention nor the desire to be politicized. Outside of my scholarship, I wish to be known solely as an emissary and a conduit helping to make connections and promoting ethnic exchange and communication. However, the call of duty implicates my family, which causes me great suffering.” ~

“As a Uyghur intellectual, I naturally have deep feelings for my ethnic group, and I feel uneasy about its impoverishment and its many sufferings attributable to historical and circumstantial factors. I have equally deep feelings for my country, and, having traveled to dozens of other countries, I have come to the conclusion that national pride runs deep within my veins. The pain and pride experienced by both my ethnic group and also my countrymen are my own pain and my own pride. ~

“Today in Xinjiang and elsewhere, we are witnessing a unique period where ethnic issues are of unprecedented importance and difficulty. Whether rationally or emotionally, I cannot accept any part of the nation being separated. With regard to ethnic issues, I do not oppose the natural fusing of ethnic groups, because it reflects a natural as well as a social law. Historically, both the Han and Uyghur ethnicities are products of multiethnic mingling. However, I do oppose a false and calculated ethnic harmony. Use of administrative means to keep ethnic groups together is, in essence, a use of force that breeds division, whereas tolerance as a means to encourage diversity will lead to mutual harmony and unity. ~

Ilham Tohti’s View of Uighur-Chinese Politics

Tohti is regarded as a moderate voice for Uyghur aspirations. He has been an outspoken advocate of Uyghur rights but not independence. From prison he told Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly that he opposed independence because "whenever there is an ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, it always starts with Uyghurs cutting people but ends with more Uyghurs dead than anyone else." In other words, any conflict in the region will lead to more deaths among his people. Tohti said there are many Uyghurs like himself pursuing the more modest goal of self-rule as promised to minority peoples by the People’s Republic of China constitution. "For the Uyghur people to be proud of living in China, and for China to have strength in soft power over Central Asia, Xinjiang must truly be allowed to be an autonomous region as part of a free and democratic China," he said. [Source: CNA, Want China Times, March 5, 2014 /*/]

Tohti wrote: “We can solve ethnic problems only by exploring ethnic autonomy and making China a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and attractive country. In terms of governance in China today, our multiethnic and multicultural reality has complicated the issues and problems of this era of social transformation. Yet, for culture and creativity, this diversity is an invaluable source of wealth benefiting all ethnic groups. Whether looking vertically at Chinese history or horizontally at the world today, it’s clear that the greater a country’s cultural diversity and tolerance, the greater its creativity. [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

“Any thinking that doggedly stresses a particular group’s cultural uniqueness and superiority, thus making it non-inclusive, is closed-minded and a thing of the past. It will inevitably kill the culture it means to enshrine and protect. In China’s Constitution, provisions governing ethnic autonomy provide a good framework for coexistence and the development of a multiethnic culture. But in practice, we need to explore how to better implement it through laws and regulations. We should take the initiative to learn from the successful experiences of other countries to fashion a suitable model for China. firmly believe that as long as we have the wisdom and vision for the future, as well as the courage to face reality head-on, China will be able to find a path to ethnic autonomy that achieves an ideal balance between the integrity of a unified nation and ethnic autonomy.” ~

Impact of the Urmuqi Riots in 2009 on Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti wrote: “After the tragedy on July 5, 2009, the world suddenly paid attention to Xinjiang issues. I too attracted widespread attention and was inevitably treated as a political figure. I do not reject any person or group’s interest in Xinjiang issues, but I have always endeavored to avoid being treated as a political symbol in any way, even when it is well intentioned. It is my belief that I will not be doing a service to my ethnic group and my country unless I remain a scholar—a ‘clean’one at that —and use my free time to help others and serve the public interest. [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

“Precisely because of this strong belief, since July 5th, 2009 I have doggedly refused to take a single cent from foreign organizations, whether diplomatic entities or NGOs, when I encountered financial difficulties resulting from external pressure. Even during business dealings, I was unwilling to make any money through foreign connections. I could have sat at home and made money from my political and economic contacts in Central Asia, Europe, and America. If I were a Han, maybe I could have profited this way, but as someone who has been under suspicion, I have to maintain even stricter standards for myself, bearing more pressure and facing more trials than Han intellectuals could possibly imagine. ~

“The July 5th tragedy—and Xinjiang’s ethnic relations in its aftermath—made it clear to me that ethnic hatred and suspicion had built up alarmingly. To thaw that hatred and suspicion, I came up with the idea of a grassroots “National Harmony Day”(or “National Reconciliation Day”), held on July 5th, to commemorate the tragedy. It would take advantage of the summer holiday and allow [groups of] two families of different ethnicities to send their children to live in the other’s home. This would hopefully build interethnic emotional ties and friendship and also serve to cultivate a sense of inclusiveness, understanding, and respect for different cultures. But the idea was aborted due to various external factors.~

“From the beginning, it was a rational idea born out of my education and training that ethnic relations should be built through reasonable, patient, tolerant, and moderate approaches that respect history and reality and focus on the future. As I have practiced it over time, such an attitude has grown to be a natural feeling of mine. As a university professor, I have the strong desire to share my views, hopes, and methodology with my students. Unlike a lot of teachers, I diligently prepare handouts and lesson plans for each class, and for a long time I have offered open and voluntary classes on Xinjiang issues on Saturdays. ~

“I encouraged more Uyghur students to pursue studies in sociology, law, economics, political science, anthropology, and other fields so that in making career choices they will be able to combine their personal goals with the progress of their ethnic group as well as their country. These subjects provide a systematic methodology, and can transform emotional energy and visceral enthusiasm for ethnic issues into a rational and scientific approach. The cultivation of such an approach is certainly rare among the Uyghurs, and therefore precious; but even in China as a whole, there is far from enough of it. I have maintained a long-term and sustained interest in Xinjiang and Central Asian issues. With regard to Xinjiang, this entails social, economic and cultural development; interethnic interaction; as well as the balance between sovereignty, unity, and local autonomy under China’s current conditions in an era of transformation. ~

Chinese Government Pressure of Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti wrote in 2011: “Since 1994, due to my frequent and blunt criticism of failures of the local government in Xinjiang, [authorities have] constantly interfered with my teaching. Since 1999, I have had no opportunities to publish any articles. From 1999-2003, I was barred from teaching at Minzu University where I had been employed. [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

“In recent years, following my growing research and investigation on Xinjiang’s problems, and after I had set up the Chinese language “Uyghur Online”website, pressure has mounted not only on my professional life, but also on my relatives in Xinjiang. They have often bitterly entreated me in the hope that I will speak out less, mind my own business, and focus on making money. Meanwhile, I can see that Xinjiang’s ethnic problems are increasingly grave and that interethnic hatred has escalated. ~

“I know very well that there are not many people from our ethnic group like me, who have enjoyed a quality education and have had [ample] opportunities and experiences. Similarly, few people in China possess the same natural advantages as I do with regard to Xinjiang issues and Central Asian issues. In this field, few scholars possess great insights or a sense of responsibility. Yet, the challenges facing Chinese society are so arduous that I cannot rightly dismiss the responsibility to pursue what I believe is the most meaningful career. ~

Ilham Tohti’s Website “Uyghur Online”

Ilham Tohti wrote: “Because of the sensitive nature of ethnic issues, for a long time there has existed not only social divisions between Han and Uyghur people, but also a lack of regular communication between Han and Uyghur intellectuals. This division, as well as mutual suspicions, have worsened the ethnic situation. Yet, amazingly, there have been almost no public discussions about it, and the atmosphere around it is both plain strange and also terrifying. As a result, I founded the “Uyghur Online”website at the end of 2005, to provide Uyghurs and Hans with a platform for discussion and exchange. Of course, I knew that there would be an intense clash of opinions, but I believe that confronting differences is not frightening. What is truly frightening are silenced suspicions and hatred. After founding “Uyghur Online,”I began to make an effort to interact with Han intellectuals in order to bring Xinjiang issues to their attention, thus allowing them to contribute their valuable perspectives and experiences to the discussion, and to introduce them to Uyghur culture and society. [Source: Ilham Tohti, January 17, 2011, published in China Change, April 6, 2014 ~]

““Uyghur Online” is a website I personally founded in order for all ethnic groups in China—as well as the world—to understand Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. Conversely, the website seeks to allow ethnic groups living in Xinjiang to understand the world. Thus it promotes mutual understanding as well as dialogue among ethnic communities. It is managed to prevent any pro-independence, separatist, or irresponsible inflammatory postings, and it does not post anything subversive. However, it does not forbid posts that expose social ills in Xinjiang or elsewhere, so long as they show good intentions and the content is authentic. ~

“Uyghur Online”is both a platform for exchanging views as well as a platform to perform acts of public service. In recent years, criminals have abducted, lured, or kidnapped Uyghur children and brought them to the interior of China, where their pickpocketing is increasingly a serious social problem. It disturbs local people’s sense of security and also damages the reputation of the entire ethnic community. Although just about everyone knows about this social issue and it has drawn growing attention, not a single media outlet has dared to discuss it because it is deemed too sensitive. No organization or agency has dared to make an attempt to systematically address the problem. Each child is a treasure of the nation and [represents] the future of society, regardless of his or her ethnicity. ~

Ilham Tohti’s Effort to Help Uyghur Street Children

Ilham Tohti’s Uyghur Online worked with anti-theft groups in various regions to find the homes of Uyghur street children and pickpockets caught by police. Lai Dan and Muzappar Qurban wrote in Phoenix Weekly, “In the beginning, the children were beaten or killed by the violent anti-theft movement in a lot of regions. We are not against anti-theft activities yet we ask for the activities to be legal'. Currently, Guilin and Chongqing's anti-theft groups are supporting the children to return home. The misconception against Uyghurs is being cleared among some Hans. [Source: Lai Dan and Muzappar Qurban, Phoenix Weekly, Issue 17, 2007 ~]

“No matter how busy he is” Tohti “works on maintenance of the website every day to communicate with the anti-theft groups in different regions. On the busiest time, he works through nights without sleeping. ‘Each child is the treasure of the nation and he or she must have a bright future. The children lose the family at young age with no skills to make living but to steal. If they keep thieving, they will grow up as adults who kidnap children and make them thieves as how they were brought up. The victims will turn into victimizers’, Ilham told us. ~

Quan Jia is a Han activist involved in helping Uygur street children. His “first contact to the Uyghur Online was to find out how the Uyghurs saw the street children stealing from people. He posted on one Xinjiang message board ‘How shall we deal with Xinjiang thieves?’ Then one post quoted from Uyghur Online caught his eyes. ‘There is a website that really concerned about the fate of the Uyghur street children!’ ~

Quan Jia posted: “I am a Han who lives in Anyang Henan. I am a member of anti-theft group. I work in an educational field. I love Xinjiang. We are all Chinese nationals. For the solidarity of the ethnics and Xinjiang street children, I am willing to devote everything including my life. Let’s work together for the future of those children! Please contact us’. A number of people were touched by Quan Jia’s post on Uyghur Online. ~

Tide Turns Against Ilham Tohti

On when Tohti’s troubles began, Hu Jia told the New York Review of Books, “It started” in 2013, “on October 28. A family in a jeep carried out an attack on Tiananmen Square,the Jinshui Bridge. That started everything. Ilham began accepting interviews, maybe more than one hundred, all from western media. Then on November 2, late at night he called me. He said he had to go to the airport to meet his mother. But then those political policemen crashed into his car and said they wanted to nong si him. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, September 22, 2014]

Nong si means kill your entire family. He called me to tell me this and asked me to put this out on Twitter. At the time, I was under house arrest myself for ten days, because it was the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress. [The Communist Party has congresses every five years and plenums every year. Last year’s third plenum was widely hailed as introducing new economic reforms.] But I could take his call and he told me that he was being criticized. They said to him, “You’re talking nonsense online. Stop it!” They meant the interviews. He gave interviews to American, British, French media. He was on television and in magazines, trying to explain the situation in Xinjiang. He talked to everyone, Reuters, AP.

Why? Because he was the only Uyghur with such a strong voice inside China. Just like Woeser is for Tibetans, Ilham was for Uyghurs. There was no one close to him. Those high-level Uyghurs, their skin is like a Uyghur’s, but their heart is Han. Those people realize that there’s no way back for them. Their people can never forgive them. Only Ilham could speak for the Uyghurs. That’s why officials in Xinjiang wanted to arrest him a long time ago. For a long while Beijing said house arrest is enough, don’t take him into custody.

But after this October 28 incident—the attack took place just 400 meters from the Ministry of Public Security’s headquarters and only 400 meters to the Xinhuamen [the “Gate of New China” the formal entrance to Zhongnanhai leadership compound]—it caused the Minister of Public Security, Guo Shengkun, to be criticized by Xi Jinping.

So as this is going on, Ilham kept speaking out and saying, Not all Uyghurs are terrorists. Uyghurs have been oppressed on their own territory by the Communist Party’s ethnic minority policy. From economics to politics, in every field, Han have the say, he said. Han carry out nuclear tests—boom—and plant fields and drill for oil. There are basically no Uyghurs in positions of power.

Ilham made this point in his interviews. He said they shouldn’t be using martial law and military force to control the Uyghurs and to turn them all into terrorists. This made the Ministry of Public Security really angry. So the differing attitudes of the Xinjiang and the Beijing police toward Ilham came into line. In the past, the Beijing police said, “It’s not worth arresting him, just put him under house arrest when something comes up.” He was under house arrest last summer, for example, on 7/5—On July 5, 2009, there were riots in Urumqi. Since then that’s been a sensitive date. On those anniversaries, he’d be under house arrest. But this time he was actually arrested and for charges of “separatism,” which is a serious crime.

Ilham Tohti Slams Beijing's Repression of Uyghur Minority

In July 2013, Ilham Tohti sharply criticized the Chinese government for it heavy-handed security presence in Xinjiang and and for fanning ethnic discord there. He said tensions would continue to develop into violence as long as the government maintains its stifling controls in Xinjiang and fails to address legitimate grievances about discrimination and marginalization. "Every time something happens, the government responds with one word: pressure. High pressure, high pressure, and even greater pressure. This leads to greater resistance and more conflict," Tohti told Associated Press. "The government should reflect and take responsibility for what is happening in Xinjiang now and in the future."[Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, July 5, 2013]

Tohti said the lack of transparency surrounding the recent unrest and controls on independent reporting from the region make it difficult to determine what the true nature of the violence has been. He said that local frustration with Beijing's policies has likely fueled the unrest in part. "The government should know that in Xinjiang there is a peaceful resistance to violence, as well as a violent struggle against violence. Some of it has nothing to do with terrorism or separatism," Tohti said. "A lot of people just cannot go on this way. They can't turn to legal channels or the media; they have no way to protect their own rights or express themselves. What are they supposed to do? Some of them choose confrontation and agitation," he said.

Ilham Tohti Arrested in Early 2014

In mid January 2014, Tohti was forcibly taken from his Beijing home without explanation, his wife said. A few weeks later, in late February, he was formally charged with separatism and subversion in late February, ahead of the opening of the Chinese National People's Congress in Beijing, and was denied access to his attorney. His apparent crime was to document abuses by Chinese security forces and to call on the government to deliver the autonomy initially promised by Mao Zedong. He was detained after he criticized Beijing's heavy response to a suicide car attack near Tiananmen Square carried out by Uighurs. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 12, 2014 ]

Associated Press reported: Tohti’s wife “Guzaili Nu'er said she received the arrest warrant and learned that her husband is being held in a detention center in the far-western region of Xinjiang. The arrest of Ilham Tohti came as Beijing is stepping up security in the region. A statement by local authorities in January accused Ilham Tohti of spreading separatist ideas, inciting ethnic hatred and engaging in separatist activities. [Source: Associated Press, January 26, 2014 /=/]

A few weeks earlier, Police alleged that Tohti used his website to recruit and manipulate people to "make rumours, distort and hype up issues in a bid to create conflicts, spread separatist thinking, incite ethnic hatred, advocate 'Xinjiang independence' and conduct separatist activities." They also alleged that in classes he had said Uyghurs should engage in violent struggle, and encouraged students to hate China, subvert the government and emulate Chinese who resisted Japanese invaders in the second world war in their opposition to the government. Several of his students were also detained in January. It is not clear whether all of them have been released. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 30, 2014]

Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “Police in Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi said Tohti was being investigated for promoting Xinjiang's independence and abetting separatists. Tohti used his classes to laud the attackers in recent militant incidents as "heroes", "inciting the students to hate the country, hate the government and seek to overthrow it", Urumqi police said on their official microblog. The Chinese-language statement implied a link with the terrorist-separatist group ETIM, but a later English translation by Xinhua did not use such specific terms. "Ilham Tohti used his position as a teacher to entice, lure and coerce certain people to form a gang, colluded with leaders of overseas East Turkestan separatist forces, and sent followers overseas to engage in separatist activities," the statement said. Tohti also sowed misinformation and rumors and "agitated for Xinjiang independence", the police said, adding they had "cast-iron evidence" against him. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, January 26, 2014]

Ilham Tohti Subjected to Prisoner Abuse

In June 2014, after five months in confinement, Tohti was finally allowed to see his lawyer and told him he had endured long periods of shackling and food deprivation. The PEN American Center reported: Tohti was finally given access to his lawyer, Li Fangping, at a detention center in Xinjiang. This initial meeting comes more than five months after Tohti’s initial arrest, during which time he has been held nearly 2,000 miles from his home in Beijing without any access to his family, his lawyer, or the outside world. [Source: Sarah Edkins, Pen American Center, June 26, 2014 /+]

“While Li reported Tohti’s health to be intact, PEN’s initial relief was mitigated upon learning he had suffered ill treatment in prison, spending 20 straight days shackled by the ankle and another 10 days deprived of food from March 1-10, presumably in retaliation for the March 1 knife attack in Kunming blamed on Uyghur separatists. Tohti had also staged a hunger strike in January to protest his prison conditions, and has lost a considerable amount of weight since his incarceration. /+\

The PEN American Centre gave Tohti an award in May 2014. It said: "Tohti … has never advocated violence or the separation of Xinjiang from China. Instead, he has worked within the country's laws to promote equal rights for all of China's citizens, and to encourage exchange and understanding between different ethnic groups...The charges against Ilham Tohti reflect the Chinese government's refusal to distinguish between peaceful advocacy and violent unrest. By targeting Tohti based on his ideas, writings, and teachings, Beijing sends the message that advocacy for Uyghur rights is prohibited in any form. The government claims an aim to discourage violence, but the denial of peaceful means of expression risks having the exact opposite effect."

In late July 2014, China indicted Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism, prosecutors announced. Tania Branigan of The Guardian wrote: “Tohti was not informed of the latest move directly, according to his lawyer, who accused authorities of "shocking" handling of the case and ignoring Tohti's rights to a defence. Supporters of the economics professor say that the case against him is retaliation for criticising government policies and questioning official accounts of violence in or related to the region. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 30, 2014 ~~]

“Prosecutors in Urumqi, where Tohti is held, announced his indictment in a statement posted online. Once charged, conviction is all but certain, particularly in such a high-profile case. Separatism charges in theory carry the death penalty, though they usually result in imprisonment. Tohti's daughter Jewher Ilham, who is studying in the US, said: "I am angry about this, they have not followed the legal path. My father was only trying to foster a dialogue. What they have charged him with is untrue." Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping, who was not allowed to see his client until June, said: "I just saw online that Ilham Tohti's case has been transferred to the court and it is quite shocking.” "The procuratorate has failed to follow the proper procedure of informing the defence lawyer of their decision to formally charge Ilham Tohti with separatism. I am very shocked by the procuratorate's lack of respect for the right to a defence." ~~

Ilham Tohti’s Trial

Ilham Tohti’s trial in September 2014 lasted two days. “Separatism”—the main charge against him—is a loosely defined crime of seeking independence for a part of China that can carry severe penalties. The only suspense about the trial was how long his sentence would be. Government media in China covered the trial rather extensively, compared with legal action against dissidents in the past. The prosecution relied on isolated quotes from his university lectures taken over many years along with testimony from some of his students who had been kidnapped and jailed, and presumably were coerced to speak against him. Associated Press reported: “At Ilham Tohti’s closed-door trial, prosecutors presented evidence including a video of one of his lectures at a Beijing university in which he said Xinjiang belonged to Uyghurs not Hans, state media reported. They also said the scholar publicised a fake poll showing that 12 percent of Uyghurs favoured separating from China, the reports said. [Source: Associated Press, November 21, 2014]”

Some of the evidence presented against him: The prosecution presented video material from lecture school Tohti “openly espousing separatist ideas”. For example be said: ‘Is Xinjiang for you Han? No, above all it belongs to us Uyghurs, above all it belongs to us Central Asian ethnic groups.’ ‘I’m not Chinese, because I’m Uyghur.” Strange. Shouldn’t it be, like in – Kyrgyzstan? [Source: Martin Winter, Sinosphere, New York Times, September 25, 2014 |+|]

A CCTV Xinjiang report on Ilham Tohti’s trial used quotes from videos of Ilham’s classroom lectures. Tohti in class: “From the standpoint of the oppressed, any kind of resistance is justified. These people say we are living in hell on earth. Welcome to hell!” [...] “The Bingtuan military rule in Xinjiang is China’s shame. When the man in control asks me, do you still think that the land in Xinjiang belongs to you Uyghurs? I say yes it does (said softly).” Then some other professors, from different universities and research centers in China, come in. They all say practically the same thing. One says a lot more than the others. He says Tohti has overstepped the boundaries for freedom of speech and incites action by one race against another race, which is not allowed anywhere on earth, because it led to Nazi-style racial hatred in the Second World War and so on. |+|

Tohti is quoted as saying: “Among the non-Han population in Xinjiang, if I remember correctly, 13 percent want independence, 83 percent want autonomy for the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. They want a higher degree of autonomy. If they can’t get autonomy [like it is promised in the name of the region], they will want independence. For them it is either autonomy or independence.” |+|

Before as second round of classroom video footage for the prosecution, three government informers testified from prison. They had been Ilham’s students. They say Tohti told them to write tendentious articles. One says he was threatened that he couldn’t graduate if he didn’t comply. They are interviewed in prison, but there is no mention why they were imprisoned, of what they had been convicted. |+|

Ilham Tohti in class: “If you answer violence with violence, if you resist, what should we call you? If you resist, we say you are a hero. Resisters are heroes.” Ilham Tohti interviewed: ”After that car crashed into the railings at Tiananmen Gate and burned out, the government stated they found Uyghur flags, religious propaganda and a petrol can inside the car. If the car exploded and burned out, how could they still finds these things? Why would a flag not burn, if the whole car burned out? Or propaganda papers? Or even a petrol can? So I have my doubts about this kind of evidence.” |+|

In the CCTV program another informer, talking in Uyghur, speaks. The subtitles say he said he and others attacked people indiscriminately. Then the TV speaker says the prosecutors said they had evidence that Ilham T. published distorted news in connection with acts of violence, spurring racial hatred. Then the professor who talked about international standards comes on again. He says it is very clear Ilham T. was working for secession, all his writings, thoughts and actions have pointed in this direction, there is absolutely no doubt. “No matter if you see it from an objective or from a subjective standpoint, I say the decision of the court to convict Ilham T. of taking action towards secession is correct.” |+|

At the end two people from the audience are interviewed. One woman, who may be Han, says the same as the professor. The trial was fair, the decision is correct. Then comes an Uyghur man in a suit, who says Ilham T. is a secessionist, and so he doesn’t represent Uyghurs, doesn’t represent Uyghur intellectuals. |+|

Ilham Tohti’s Students Denounce Him at His Trial

Describing a scene during the trial, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “The three students appeared one after another in video images broadcast to millions of Chinese, sitting behind bars and denouncing Ilham Tohti, the man they had once called their mentor. One of the students said that Mr. Tohti had used a news website where they worked to “hype” ethnic tensions. Another said the professor had threatened to “bury” the student if he did not continue to do design work on the site. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 26, 2014 ***]

The videos were presented by prosecutors in the two-day trial of Mr. Tohti. In the video presented at the trial, a relative of one of the three who appeared in the video — Perhat Halmurat, an ethnic Uyghur— “spoke of how Mr. Tohti had asked him to write an article for his website, Uyghur Online, about a fight between a Uyghur student and a Han student on the university campus. “Anything that happens between Han and Uyghur, Ilham wants to put it on the website and hype it up, little by little,” Mr. Halmurat said. “He hypes up one thing after another. His unspeakable goal is to separate the country.” ***

“The first student in the video, a Uyghur graduate student of journalism whose name was given in Chinese as Xiaokelaiti Nijiati, said Mr. Tohti had told him that every article posted to Uyghur Online had to represent a “position that was different from that of the government.” “If the government says it is white, then we must say it is black,” he said. The third student shown in the video, Luo Yuwei, an ethnic Yi, said Mr. Tohti had threatened to withhold his degree if he did not continue doing design work for the website. Mr. Luo said Mr. Tohti told him, “I can drag you into the desert and bury you right there, and no one would know.” ***

“Two of the detained students are a couple, Mutellip Imin and Atikem Rozi, according to a report earlier this year by Radio Free Asia. Mr. Imin, a former student at Minzu University who was studying for a master’s degree at Istanbul University in Turkey, came home to China for vacation last summer to see Ms. Rozi and was interrogated by the border police. Later he was detained by the police for 79 days. He wrote about that earlier period of detention on his blog last December and demanded “human rights for all the victims of enforced disappearances, including me.” Nothing has been heard from Mr. Imin or Ms. Rozi since they were detained in January. ***

Ilham Tohti Sentenced to Life in Prison

In late September 2014, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment by officials at the Intermediate People’s Court in Urumqi. Widely condemned by foreign governments and human rights advocates, it was the harshest sentence against a political dissident in recent years. The BBC reported: A court in China found Tohti guilty of separatism and jailed him for life, his lawyer says. Correspondents say China is taking a tougher line amid rising Xinjiang-linked violence. Amnesty International has called the verdict "deplorable". [Source: BBC, September 23, 2014 \^/]

“The Urumqi People's Intermediate Court found Tohti guilty after a two-day trial that ended last week. It also ordered all of Tohti's money and property seized. His lawyer, Li Fangping, told BBC Chinese that he would be filing an appeal. "He told us that no matter the verdict, he will not be angry nor seek revenge. No matter whether he is in jail or if he is freed in the future, he will still advocate for dialogue between Uighurs and Han Chinese," he said. "I won't give in." The last words Ilham Tohti uttered before police dragged him from a courtroom to start a life sentence for attempting to divide China. \^/

“Calling for independence is illegal and always punished severely when the offender belongs to China's minority Uighur community. But what is so extraordinary about the sentence is that Ilham Tohti was not an independence activist, far less a terrorist, but an outspoken advocate of building bridges between the two communities. In his academic essays and on the website he ran, he insisted that Xinjiang should remain part of China and frequently expressed revulsion against growing violence employed by Uighurs against the state. But he likewise criticised the mounting police crackdown in Xinjiang, complaining that punitive policies were radicalising young Uighurs and convincing them that the battle was not between China and terrorists, but between China and Islam. \^/

“Today's life sentence is a message that amid the battle to contain Xinjiang's surging violence, there is no longer room in China for an outspoken moderate. Prosecutors at the trial alleged he was engaging in separatist activities including promoting independence on his website, according to his lawyers. A spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress said Tohti was being persecuted. "China has sent a clear message...thoroughly disappointing all those who hope to use the legal process or reasonable proposals to change the status quo of Uighurs," Dilxat Raxit told Reuters. \^/

Plights of Students Who Denounced Ilham Tohti

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Now the fate of the seven students, whom Mr. Tohti taught at Minzu University in Beijing, hangs in the balance. Relatives say they are being held in Xinjiang. “Those things he said on TV, they don’t mean anything,” said a relative of one of the three who appeared in the video — Perhat Halmurat, an ethnic Uyghur. “We still haven’t heard anything from the authorities,” the relative said. “I’ve been talking to the parents of other students, and we’re going to talk more and decide whether to hire a lawyer.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 26, 2014 ***]

“Li Fangping, one of Mr. Tohti’s lawyers, said he expected the students to be put on trial, perhaps in secret. It was unclear under what conditions the three students, seen one at a time in the video wearing orange prison vests, made their comments. Confessions given under duress, including after torture by the police, are common in China. “We are seriously concerned about whether any of these young men have had any access to any of the most basic protections guaranteed under domestic and international law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. ***

“On September 17, the first day of Mr. Tohti’s trial, three relatives of the detained students — an older couple and a man in a black jacket — sat together on a wooden bench one block from the rear entrance of the courthouse here. They said they learned from people at Minzu University in January that the students had been detained, but could not persuade the authorities in Urumqi to allow them to see the students. The families then got in touch with one another and traveled from different parts of Xinjiang to the courthouse in the hope of learning more. ***

“All we wanted was for our son to be a useful person,” the mother of one student said in a low voice as plainclothes police officers strolled nearby. “My son hasn’t done anything illegal.” She added, “He never said anything bad about his teacher.” The woman was here with her husband. The man sitting next to them, the older brother of another student, showed a photograph on his cellphone of a gray concrete building, and he said it was the prison where the students were being held.” ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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