Uighur Scholar Caught Up In China's Ethnic Conflict Among those blamed by the government for ethnic violence in China's far west is Uighur economist Ilham Tohti. He says the government accepts many of his suggestions on ethnic policy, but still doesn't trust him. He has been arrested four times, though never charged with a crime.
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Uighur Scholar Caught Up In China's Ethnic Conflict

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Uighur Scholar Caught Up In China's Ethnic Conflict

Uighur Scholar Caught Up In China's Ethnic Conflict

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This past July we reported on an outbreak of ethnic violence in far western China. The riots pitted Han Chinese against Uighurs. Nearly 200 people were killed. We also reported how the Chinese government blamed Uighur separatists who live overseas. The government also pointed fingers at someone inside China.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story.

ANTHONY KUHN: Hours after rioting began in the streets of Urumqi city on July 5th, Xinjiang provincial Governor Nur Bekri went on state television. He accused U.S.-based Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer of being the chief culprit.

Governor NUR BEKRI (Xinjiang): (Through translator) On July 5th, Rebiya Kadeer made calls to China in which she instigated violence. Another Web site, Uighur Online, also brazenly spread inflammatory propaganda and rumors.

KUHN: Uighur Online is run by Ilham Tohti, an economist at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing. It's China's top school for minority studies. Tohti is an ethnic Uighur, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in western China's Xinjiang region. Four months before the riots, Tohti said Bekri was unqualified to be governor and suggested he resign. He also warned of disaster unless governance in Xinjiang improved.

Professor ILHAM TOHTI (Economist, Central Institute of Nationalities, Beijing): (Through translator) 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.

KUHN: Tohti says that in private, some officials admit they should've heeded his warnings. In some other cases, the government has consulted him and adopted his suggestions. But Tohti has been detained four times and accused of separatism, most recently after the July riots.

Prof. TOHTI: (Through Translator) 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.

KUHN: Barry Sautman is an expert on China's ethnic minority policies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He says Tohti's dilemma is shared by other outspoken Chinese scholars.

Professor BARRY SAUTMAN (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology): 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 certainly should know their limits in terms of what they're able to do.

KUHN: Tohti considers himself a moderate. He doesn't support independence for Xinjiang. He believes Uighurs should own up to their own faults and give China's government credit where it's due. But Tohti is a tough critic when he thinks the government hasn't delivered 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 had set no targets for minority hires. Tohti says there are many jobs for which Uighurs are just not welcome to apply.

Prof. TOHTI: (Through Translator) A Uighur can't be a bank manager or a personnel department head or a county or regional party boss. I'm not saying there are none. There are, but they're exceptions.

KUHN: Tohti estimates that roughly 70 percent of Xinjiang's economic output is controlled by government corporations, which employ very few Uighurs. He also mourns his people's loss of their historical memory. He says that while the forefathers of Uighur culture receive no public mention, ethnic Han migrants to Xinjiang are celebrated as pioneers.

Prof. TOHTI: (Through Translator) Some Han feel they are conquerors. Even street sweepers, cotton farmers or truck drivers 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.

KUHN: Professor Tohti is hopeful that some progress may come after 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 Tohti worries that he, too, might end up as a scapegoat in the process and lose his freedom again.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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