Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Ilham Tohti's arrest demonstrates China's renewed hard line on Xinjiang

Ilham Tohti's arrest demonstrates China's renewed hard line on Xinjiang
Published 24 Jan 2014   Follow @meclarke114

The arrest and detention of the outspoken Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti (pictured) in Beijing on 15 January demonstrates that the Chinese Communist Party has returned to an uncompromising, hard line approach toward Xinjiang and the Uyghur.

Tohti, an economist at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was reportedly arrested after 30 police raided his apartment, confiscating the scholar's documents, books and computer hard drives. Hong Lei, a spokesman from China's Foreign Ministry, subsequently claimed that Tohti 'is suspected of breaking the law' and that 'the relevant departments will now deal with him in accordance with the law'. He is most likely to be charged with 'endangering state security', which carries heavy penalties including life imprisonment.

Tohti has for the past few years been the most prominent China-based Uyghur critic of Beijing's policy toward Xinjiang, and ethnic minorities more broadly, often questioning official versions of incidents of Uyghur-related unrest. Most recently, for example, in an interview with ABC's 7:30, he questioned Beijing's claims that the 28 October 2013 incident in Tiananmen Square last year, where 3 Uyghurs (all members of the same family) crashed their car into barriers near the portrait of Mao Zedong killing 5 and injuring 38, constituted a 'terrorist, suicide attack'

His arrest however must be placed in the context of two important developments. [fold]

First, the Xinjiang has seen regular and often violent unrest over the past year, with major incidents occurring in Kashgar and surrounding areas (23 April, 10 October and 16 December 2013), as well as in Turpan (26 June 2013) and Khotan (28 June 2013). The authorities have claimed that the bulk of these incidents were perpetrated by 'gangs' of 'extremists and terrorists' bent on 'jihad' with links to 'hostile external forces'. 

Authorities have gone so far in their attempts to link unrest to external sources that they've claimed up to 100 Uyghurs have travelled to Syria to sharpen their 'terrorist skills'. While it is difficult to either confirm or refute this claim, it is possible to confirm that at least some of the unrest has been the result of the government's heavy handed anti-religious campaigns in the region. A recent example is the 'Project Beauty' campaign, aimed at discouraging mostly Uyghur women from wearing traditional headscarves or veils. 

Second, in the aftermath of the July 2009 Urumqi ethnic riots which resulted in the removal of long serving Xinjiang CCP Chairman, Wang Lequan, Beijing appointed as Xinjiang party boss the reputably reform-minded and media-savvy Zhang Chuxian. This initially raised hopes that ethnic tensions in the region could be soothed by Zhang's lighter touch and sensitivity. This was quickly dispelled with Zhang's return to familiar strategies and political slogans, such as his 2011 call for the party to institute 'flexible iron-fisted rule' in Xinjiang. In policy terms this has amounted to the continuation of long standing emphases on the twin strategies of accelerated economic development and zero tolerance of overt ethnic minority dissent.  

The ongoing incidents of unrest and violence have prompted the regional government to announce on 17 January that it will double the public security bureau's 'counter-terrorism' budget for 2014 in an effort to 'curb the spread of religious extremism as well as prevent severe violent terrorist attacks and mass incidents from happening'. But perhaps more worrying for China's Uyghurs is the language the authorities are now deploying to describe their approach to Xinjiang's problems. In announcing the budget increase, Nur Berki, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, stated that the authorities 'must constantly strike hard against violent terrorism, showing no mercy, in accordance with the law, and maintaining a high-handed posture'.

A corollary of this 'high-handed posture' towards 'terrorism' is the CCP's evident desire to take up the ideological fight to those advocating greater autonomy or indeed independence for Xinjiang Uyghurs, be they within China or without. Days after Ilham Tohti's arrest the Global Times published a revealing editorial in this respect. 'Tohti', the piece claimed, 'is no ordinary Joe' but someone with links to the World Uyghur Congress and the West who has used his position to give 'aggressive lectures in class' on the Uyghur issue. Moreover, through his criticism of the Chinese government and his questioning of whether such acts as the 28 October 2013 incident in Tiananmen Square constituted 'terrorism', Tohti 'was attempting to find a moral excuse for terrorists'. Most damningly, the editorial suggests that the academic was the 'brains' behind the 'terrorists', who without such guidance would 'be like a clueless mob'. 

This arguably reveals the reason behind Tohti's arrest: Tohti's criticisms of the Party's line on the Uyghur and Xinjiang are seen as providing moral, intellectual and/or ideological succour to disaffected Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Image courtesy of the Uyghur American Association.

You may also be interested in