Ilham Tohti appeals for an end to the repression of the Uyghur Muslims in this unique insight, writes Simon Gilbert
June 27, 2022
Thousands protesting for the freedom of the Uyghurs, last year London (Picture: South London SWP)
“In the past few days, I have been under constant surveillance by police vehicles and national security police officers,” wrote Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti in July 2013. “I don’t have too many good days ahead of me, it is necessary for me to leave a few words behind before I no longer have the ability to do so.”
The “Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time”. And so it did. One year later, Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment. His book, We Uyghurs Have No Say, presents some of those words he left behind, available for the first time in English.
Despite the extreme harshness of his sentence, Tohti is certainly no revolutionary firebrand. He describes himself as an intellectual who relies “only on pen and paper to diplomatically request human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs”. He is at pains to reject any accusation of separatism, calling himself a “Chinese patriot”. But Tohti became increasingly frustrated at the regime’s failure to implement its own legal commitments to China’s minorities, or to give any substance to the autonomy they supposedly enjoy.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim people, living in Xinjiang in China’s far north west, who have long been made to feel “strangers in their own homeland”. The US has used their plight to justify trade wars and sanctions in its imperialist clash with China. But, as Tohti makes clear, the Uyghurs’ oppression at the hands of the regime is horribly real.
At the heart of the book is an essay where Tohti lists nine grievances over the treatment of his people. To take a few examples. Uyghur children are the victims of a “bilingual” education that is really monolingual—they have to learn in Chinese—and widely seen as part of a forced assimilation drive. After they leave school to look for work, they “face significant employment discrimination”, making their prospects far worse than those of Xinjiang’s Han Chinese. This is despite an employment law that mandates government and state enterprises to give priority to ethnic minorities.
Uyghurs cannot even pray in peace. A strategy of opposing “three forces”, introduced to Xinjiang in 1997, has “morphed into a policy of opposing religious tradition and suppressing normal expressions of religious belief”. In the process, these forces of “terrorism”, “religious extremism” and “separatism” have been made virtually synonymous, justifying the imprisonment of Uyghurs.
Since the 1990s, the Chinese regime has intensified repression in Xinjiang. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw neighbouring central Asian republics, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, gain independence. The disintegration of another state capitalist regime was a shock to the Chinese Communist Party bosses, and raised hopes of Uyghur independence. The US “war on terror”, and wave of state-sponsored Islamophobia in the West, allowed the Chinese state to recast Uyghur repression as “counter-terrorism”. And, as China’s turn to the market took off and inequality grew, the CCP relied more on crude nationalism to ensure social stability.
At the end of each section, Tohti recommends policy changes to improve the situation. But the regime under Xi Jinping is heading in the opposite direction—tightening its grip across China, most severely in Xinjiang.
Yet if assimilation is the objective, increasing repression may be having the opposite effect. Tohti writes about Uyghurs adopting a “form of silent resistance by privately turning back to traditional culture, religious worship, and a strengthened sense of ethnic identity”. Suppression of open religious observance has allowed imported “ultra-conservative and xenophobic strains of religious thought”, which previously had little appeal to the Uyghurs, to be “disseminated via the religious underground”.
This book provides a unique record of a voice, whose critique of ethnic policy remains within the parameters set by the regime. But it could only counter that voice by silencing it. Throughout the book Tohti’s humanity shines through. For instance, he rejects the idea that “the international community” can solve their problems and argues for “dialogue between Uyghurs and Han Chinese”.
His optimism is admirable too. Even on the verge of incarceration he remained convinced that “China will become better and that the constitutional rights of the Uyghur people will, one day, be honoured.” Making that a reality will certainly require the sort of unity across ethnic lines that Tohti advocates. But it will also require a much more radical political vision that challenges China’s state capitalist rulers who exploit China’s workers and oppress the Uyghurs.