Uighur Scholar Caught Up In China's Ethnic Conflict

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When the worst ethnic violence in decades erupted in far west China in July, the local government was quick to accuse overseas separatists of stirring up the riots that left nearly 200 dead. But what got less notice was that the government also blamed someone inside China for inciting the violence: an ethnic Uighur economist.

Hours after rioting began in the streets of Urumqi city on July 5, Nur Bekri, the provincial governor of the Xinjiang region, appeared on state television. He accused U.S.-based Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer of being the chief culprit instigating the clashes between Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority, and ethnic Han Chinese.

Then Bekri added, "Another Web site, Uighur Online, also brazenly spread inflammatory propaganda and rumors."

Uighur Online (a Chinese-language Web site) is run by Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur economist at Beijing's Central Institute of Nationalities, China's top school for minority studies.

In March, Tohti said Bekri was unqualified to be governor and suggested he resign. He also warned of disaster unless governance in Xinjiang improved.

"I said that if the Xinjiang government continues incorrectly implementing the central government's laws and policies, then the ethnic policies of the past six decades could face failure. It could lead to ethnic tensions, riots and separatism," Tohti tells NPR.

Tohti says that in private, some officials admit they should have heeded his warnings. In some cases, the government has consulted him and adopted his suggestions on ethnic policy. But Tohti has been arrested four times and accused of separatism, most recently after the July riots.

"Each time, they accept many of my suggestions. But they still don't trust me. After a while, they see some article or speech of mine, they get angry and come after me. But each time they find that I've committed no crime," he says.

Barry Sautman, an expert on China's ethnic minority policies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says other outspoken Chinese scholars share Tohti's dilemma.

"Those people who are willing to step forward and be public intellectuals on very controversial questions like ethnic policy can be admired for their bravery. But on the other hand, they should certainly know their limits in terms of what they're able to do," Sautman says.

Tohti considers himself a moderate. He doesn't support independence for Xinjiang. He believes Uighurs should own up to their faults and give China's government credit where due.

But Tohti is a tough critic when he thinks the government has gone back on its promises of ethnic equality and autonomy. Last month, the Xinjiang government ordered businesses there to hire half of all employees from among local residents, but Tohti says Uighurs are just not welcome.

"A Uighur can't be a bank manager, or a personnel department head, or a county or regional party boss. A Uighur can't be a police chief, or a railroad manager or conductor. I'm not saying there are none. There are, but they're exceptions," he says.

Tohti estimates that roughly 70 percent of Xinjiang's economic output is controlled by government corporations, including oil and mining firms, and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military entity charged with developing and defending the frontier. These firms are dominated by the ethnic Han majority.

He also mourns his people's loss of their historical memory. He says that while the forefathers of Uighur culture receive no public mention, Han migrants to Xinjiang are celebrated as pioneers.

"Some Han feel they are conquerors. Even a street sweeper, a cotton farmer or truck driver may be hailed as developers of China's west and helpers of China's minorities. These depictions are wrong because they place these people above us," he says.

Tohti is hopeful that some good may yet come of this summer's violence. He says that once the spotlight on his homeland dims, Beijing could remove the region's hard-line party boss, Wang Lequan. But he is worried that he, too, might end up as a scapegoat in the process, and lose his freedom again.

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