09/17/2014, 00.00
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On trial for separatism, Ilham Tohti says Uighurs and Han Chinese have the same problems in Xinjiang

Jailed in January, the economist has never supported separatism. However, he has called on Beijing to talk with Uighurs and check its corrupt local government, which angers both Uighurs and Han Chinese. However, Chinese government repression could generate a more unified and violent movement.

Urumqi (AsiaNews) - Economist and university professor Ilham Tohti went on trial today. Accused of Uighur "separatism", he was arrested last January for criticising Beijing's policy after an attack in Tiananmen Square, in October 2013, blamed on Uighurs. The government responded to the attack by increasing its repression in the Xinjiang region.

For years, Tothi has called on the Chinese government to open a real dialogue with the Uighurs. For this purpose, he set up a website, Uighur online, to allow Uighurs and Han Chinese to talk. However, for his accusers, the website is evidence of the scholar's "separatism".

In reality, as the text below shows, Tohti only wants the two sides to hear each other out and greater checks on those who currently rule Xinjiang because their corruption is a source of problems for Uighurs and Han alike. For the Uighur scholar, repression is not the answer and the violence associated with it explains the desperate response by Uighurs.

Over the past few decades, China has tried to supress Xinjiang's independence movement by bringing in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese settlers. This has led to the political and social marginalisation of indigenous Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group.

What is more, their religious practice has been severely curtailed. Mosques and Qur'anic schools are under tight control; religious practices like fasting and praying have been mocked; and jail time and the death penalty have been liberally meted out.

Soon after Tohti's arrest, his close friend Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser put together an outline of Tohti's ideas in February. AsiaNews is publishing them, courtesy of China Change, which provided the original translation from Chinese.

Currently in Xinjiang, a developing tendency is that the authorities are over-extending anti-terrorism measures to conceal other problems in their name, including the incompetence of both the local governments and the security maintenance apparatus. In fact, the biggest problem in Xinjiang is not anti-terrorism, nor is it terrorism, but rather, the problem is that political power is unrestrained, unequal, controlled and monopolized by the very groups that profit from it.


I've seen this in Xinjiang: the more the authorities suppress religion, the more the Uighur people embrace religion. What should the government do? The government repeatedly applies pressure when in fact it should first examine itself. If they cannot govern themselves, then they cannot govern the country. If they cannot govern themselves, if they do not change their way of dealing with and thinking about the Uighurs, if they do not respect the people's right to speak, including respecting the Uighurs' right to ethnic autonomy, then the conflicts between the Uighurs and the government will become more and more pronounced.


In 2009 when I was under house arrest, I warned the Chinese government that future protests by the Uighurs could become a protest movement the scale of which would surpass anything seen in the past sixty years. The government would see the Uighurs become more and more united in this protest movement. I now boldly predict that, if the government does not change its policies toward the Uighurs, the Uighurs will more and more choose to confront the government in order to make their appeals.


Some Han Chinese scholars say that the issues confronting the Uighur and the Han are fundamentally the same. I agree somewhat with this statement because, from the perspective of human rights, government, and democracy, the Uighur and the Han face the same issues. Nonetheless, the Uighurs also face a particular problem: social resources. We Uighurs also face such problems as ethnic and religious discrimination, and so on, due to the great differences we Uighurs have with the mainstream Han culture, including language, physical appearance, religious beliefs, and so on.


At present, Xinjiang is under the "one village one police station, one household one police officer" campaign.1 This campaign came into effect after Zhang Chunxian (张春贤) took office in Xinjiang. The campaign stipulates that one village will have one police station and each police officer will be responsible for a single household. The personnel making visits to the villages and households include cadres, unemployed people whom the government hires, even some young ruffians, people on government subsidies, police officers, special weapons and tactics (SWAT) officers, and so on. I absolutely could not put up with people like this randomly breaking into my house.


At present in Xinjiang, the exclusion of and discrimination against Uighurs is quite systematic, with the government leading the way . . . the Uighurs' dissatisfaction with the government is unanimous with no internal disagreements. After all these years in Xinjiang, the government has failed to cultivate a Uighur vested interest group. There are some Uighurs with vested interests, but they are few and far between. I believe that, in this respect, the government has failed miserably; they failed even to achieve this.


I have always upheld the unity of the nation and opposed separatism. I have never had a thought of secession, thus I have not participated in any separatist activities, let alone organizing a so-called separatist organization. I advocate governing Xinjiang according to the law, including implementing and improving the regional ethnic autonomy system, respecting the rule of law, respecting human rights, allowing each ethnic group to share equitably the fruits of development, equality in employment, elimination of discrimination, including discrimination based on locality, ethnicity, gender, and personal status." [This paragraph is a tweet of Ilham's lawyer @xiao_xiaoyuan.]


Right up to the present, although I've been in difficult circumstances, I have never sought financial assistance from any country. I will not be anyone's lackey. I am an independent person who thinks independently. I am a Uighur intellectual. My first responsibility is to my people, the Uighurs, to my hometown, and to my country. I will not be anyone's lackey.


I admire the American system, I like America's academic freedom, I like American values such as the protection of human rights, respect for the opinions of political minorities, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, democracy, and so on. I am not, however, an American. Nor do I believe that the Uighur issue can be solved by depending on the U.S. The issues facing Uighurs ultimately can only be solved through a mutual dialogue between the Han and the Uighurs.


I make no appeal whatsoever to the international community. What we need is for the Communist government to take a responsible attitude and to reflect on its Xinjiang policies. The government should not politicize individual criminal cases or make them ethnically specific. It must act based on evidence. (A Voice of America video interview on November 07, 2013)


I am not going anywhere. The issues facing the Uighur are in China, and the resolution of these issues is also in China. If I have to be imprisoned, then I will remain in a Chinese prison. After my release from prison, I will still be in China seeking a future for the Uighurs. If I die, I have only one desire: to be buried in my hometown. It would be enough of a solace for me.


Translator's note: the "one village one police station, one household one police officer" was a campaign initiated by Zhang Chunxian, a Politburo Member and the Party Secretary for the Uighur Autonomous Region, as a means to more tightly control Uighur villages.


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