Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. (Photo: YouTube)
Before he was arrested in 2014, Ilham Tohti was a leading Uyghur intellectual best known for his website.
When Tohti, an economics professor who was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was charged with separatism on Sept. 25, 2014, he said: “It’s not just!” He is now serving a life sentence in a Chinese prison.
Tohti, 50, had been on a Chinese government watch list since 1999 and was subject to house arrests and grilling before he was formally arrested in 2009.
Like most residents of China’s western province of Xinjiang, Tohti is Uyghur, an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority against which Beijing has spearheaded what has been described as cultural genocide.
Born in 1969 in Xinjiang, he had his advanced studies at Minzu University in Beijing. He joined the faculty there and became an expert on the economic and social conditions in the region.
The People’s Republic of China had its eyes on Xinjiang, which means “new frontier,” since 1949 when it was founded.
Despite Xinjiang’s status as an autonomous region, China has gone the extra mile to assimilate the Uyghur culture into the Chinese mainstream. Beijing has never lost a chance to promote the Chinese language at the expense of Uyghur language and culture.
Ilham locked horns with the government over this bilingual education policy, though he initially supported it.
China has taken for granted that Xinjiang is an integral part of the mainland and sees other suggestions and views as treasonous. That is the reason why Tohti was charged with promoting separatism.
As part of the cultural genocide in Xinjiang, China has been favoring a demographic change. Beijing has been promoting Han Chinese migration into the western province.
According to media reports, the Han population in Xinjiang was nearly 5 percent in 1949 and had risen to more than 40 percent in 2020.
Tohti stressed opening lines of communications between the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs and became a target for authorities. He was also a critic of cultural assimilation and settler colonialism by China among the Uyghurs.
Tohti’s Chinese-language website, Uyghurbiz.cn, launched in 2006 to kick-start talks between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, was forced to shut down in 2008 for alleged ties to Uyghur extremists abroad.
China had labeled many Uyghur outfits terrorist groups but was unable to garner enough international support until 2001, when the US effected a policy change in the wake of 9/11 and went for the Chinese way to gain the support of China in its “war on terror.”
In his writings, Tohti appears to be moderate on questions of Uyghur autonomy. However, he was arrested to set an example.
After Tohti’s conviction, the international community has condemned his imprisonment and hailed his work to promote healthy ties between Uyghurs and Hans.
In 2019, he was awarded two major international prizes: the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the Council of Europe’s Vaclav Havel Prize for Human Rights.
He was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which last week was conferred on the World Food Programme.
Jewher Ilham, his daughter, said while accepting a top European human rights prize in 2019 that she does not know if her father is alive.
Under the leadership of Xí Jinping, China has beefed up suppression of the Uyghurs, with a million sent to internment camps and authoritarian steps like religious suppression and re-education.
Tohti fell victim to the Chinese clampdown, which is aimed at destroying the Uyghurs’ language and culture through indoctrination programs and arresting Uyghur intellectuals.
Since April 2017, more than 1 million Uyghurs have been sent to internment camps where they are forced to give up their ethnic identity and swear loyalty to the Chinese government.