It’s been two years since Ilham Tohti, a well-regarded ethnic Uyghur economist and peaceful critic of the Chinese government, was sentenced to life in prison by the Xinjiang People’s High Court for alleged “separatism” after a grossly unfair trial. Tohti and his family had already endured years of harassment and periods of house arrest by state agents, but in September 2014 Beijing evidently felt it necessary to take him off the grid permanently.
Since then, human rights defenders and the rule of law in China have been under sustained attack from President Xi Jinping’s government. But the dynamics in Xinjiang – a region synonymous with gross discrimination against the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population, restrictions on religion and speech, economic development plans that favor Han Chinese over Uyghurs, and now a highly politicized counterterrorism campaign to stem violence – provide fertile ground for further serious human rights violations.
The signs are ominous: restrictions on observing Ramadan are now an annual reality, and some Uyghurs are now being required to give DNA samples and other biodata in order to obtain passports. China’s state media reports on counterterrorism operations when it’s politically convenient to do so, but we don’t know how many local residents die in these raids, how those detained in connection with the operations are treated, or even whether the state is responding to a credible threat. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Uyghurs have fled the country, some of whom have been forcibly returned under Chinese government pressure.
Tohti had been well-placed to help lessen some of these tensions. He critiqued and proposed solutions to the economic discrimination against Uyghurs. He spoke passionately about how an independent legal system could ease abuses in the region. And perhaps most important, he helped Xinjiang-watchers inside and outside China understand developments there, and urged peaceful debate – not violence – among students, scholars, and others.
In heartening gestures of solidarity and recognition, the Martin Ennals Foundation and the European Parliament have recently announced that Professor Tohti is a finalist for their prominent human rights awards this year. But if Beijing was actually serious about stability, economic development, and respect for human rights in Xinjiang, it would give itself and many others the most important prize: Ilham Tohti’s freedom.