Uighur activist’s detention rallies China’s dissidents to his cause

Ilham Tohti’s absence from cyberspace leaves international rights workers, journalists and family in the lurch

Ilham Tohti in 2010.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

In the six months before Uighur rights activist Ilham Tohti’s arrest, his website filled with a crescendo of reports of an intensifying religious and socioeconomic crackdown on ethnic Uighurs in China — characterized as Beijing's response to episodes of political violence that it blames on the predominantly Muslim minority.

Uighurs are the Turkic-speaking native inhabitants of China’s remote western region of Xinjiang, and many of the 9 million who live there fear a loss of livelihood and culture as majority Han Chinese settlers pour into their home region. In recent years Uighur resistance has grown in the region, which abuts Afghanistan and Kashmir. Uighur separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have been implicated in sporadic attacks and riots, and the United States captured a handful of Uighurs at training camps in Afghanistan and detained them at Guantánamo Bay.

Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing’s prestigious Minzu University, took a different path to press for Uighur rights. He posted pictures of arrested Uighur political dissidents and wrote of crippling poverty in his homeland. He reported local governments' efforts to place Chinese flags in sacred parts of mosques, and to make Uighur women remove traditional headscarves in public venues. His work made Uighurbiz an independent information lifeline on Uighur affairs.

A few weeks ago, the website suddenly went silent. 

Tohti was arrested on Jan. 15 and charged with separatism — allegedly colluding with violent groups to seek independence for Xinjiang.

Relatives, friends and associates ridicule the charges, pointing out that Tohti has devoted his life to promoting socioeconomic and political parity for Uighurs as Chinese nationals — not as a separate nation.

Separatism is punishable by death in the People's Republic.

In the two months since Tohti’s arrest, and amid the ongoing detentions of the students who helped produce Uighurbiz, the website has stagnated.

It was previously published in the Uighur and Chinese languages, but all that remains on the site is a single Reuters story, in English, on Tohti’s arrest — and a promise that news of China's Uighurs will eventually return to the site.

But Tohti's wife, Guzailai Nu'er, told Al Jazeera that may be an empty promise.

After the recent arrest of yet another contributor to the website — a former graduate student of Tohti's, whose detention brings the total of incarcerated Uighurbiz bloggers to six — Guzailai said there is no one to continue her husband’s project of "bettering the status of his race" within the People's Republic through intellectual discourse.

"I also hope that Uighurbiz will have someone to take care of it while my husband is gone. But people are afraid to touch it. We have lost friends who won't get in touch with me" now that Tohti faces separatism charges, she said.

Police continue to interrogate Guzailai, who is a mother of two young sons, as they search for three more students accused of complicity in Tohti's alleged separatism.

Unlike their Tibetan counterparts, Uighurs have no high-profile allies in Hollywood to champion their cause, and information about them is scarce.

"Uighurbiz was by far the most interesting source of information and analysis about current issues in Xinjiang," said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Many of the crucial issues are never addressed in the official realm, such as the extent of phenomena such as socioeconomic discrimination, the assessment of education policies or the credibility of the allegations made by the government in respect to violent incidents,” Bequelin said. “In line with Tohti's own very moderate views, [Uighurbiz] was never a platform to advocate separatism, ethno-nationalism or religious radicalism."

Tothi’s “willingness to talk openly about issues affecting Uighurs has made him an important Uighur voice within China," said Radio Free Asia spokesman Rohit Mahajan.

Family matters

Tohti's relatives and close friends are pessimistic about his prospects.

His daughter Juer, now 19, and her father were detained at the Beijing airport on Feb. 2 last year en route to Indiana University, where Tohti was set to accept a fellowship. Juer was allowed to travel to the U.S., but Tohti was not.

That’s the last time she has seen her father.

"Honestly, I don't think I'll ever see my parents again," said Juer, who has remained in the U.S. and plans to pursue an undergraduate degree at Indiana University.

A former colleague of her father’s helps support her — but with a visa that doesn’t allow her to work, Juer struggles to make ends meet.

Before Juer’s departure, Tohti told her that although times would be tough financially, she should never accept any assistance from Uyghur rights organizations in the U.S., which have been accused by the Chinese government of inciting and funding unrest among their people in China.

"If I contact an organization I could get money easily, but my father said, 'Don't contact them for any reason,'" Juer said. "He put his money into He could have received lots of help to produce the site from overseas organizations, but he never did."

"The charges against my father are ridiculous," she said. "He said, 'I am Chinese. If someone helps me, it must be Chinese people, not an overseas organization.'"

The Beijing-based Tibetan author and activist Tsering Woeser, a close friend of Tohti's, agreed with Juer that the charges are ironic, given Tohti's efforts to promote peaceful dialogue between Uighurs and the government.

"I was very shocked when he was arrested," she said. "Ilham is not that kind of person. From his writing, you can see he's a very peaceful person. He mounted a fight entirely through writing. He would never endanger national security."

Tohti himself told Al Jazeera on multiple occasions that he sees himself as similar to a number of other Chinese human rights advocates who are demanding rights guaranteed them by the Chinese Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against any ethnic group and preserves freedom of religious belief.

Hu Jia, a high-profile Chinese rights and HIV/AIDS awareness advocate, considers Tohti to be a "brother," he told Al Jazeera.

"Ilham and his students are innocent," Hu said. "He wants the Chinese government to respect the right of Uighurs and their religious freedom. He pursued peace and equality so that Uighurs and Han [China’s ethnic majority] could work together. He warned the nation's youth not to use violence and attack innocent fellow citizens."

Tohti’s Chinese philosophy

As Tohti's Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping engages in a third attempt to meet with the activist, who is reportedly incarcerated in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi, there are other people willing to spread his message of social equality.

"In Ilham and Uighurbiz's absence, we need to pay more attention to ordinary Uighur people and forward the comments of [Uighur] users on Twitter and other social networks,” Hu said, adding that nationalist and separatist extremism should also be countered online.

"In real life, we have to make Uighur friends, appeal for their dignity and reduce the discrimination faced by our Uighur brothers in Chinese society, who face exclusion and repression," Hu said.

Perhaps amid previous run-ins with police, Tohti foresaw that his colleagues in rights advocacy would rally to this cause in his absence.

Amid uncertainty over the future of her father and his website, Juer portrayed Tohti as an eternal, albeit subdued, optimist. 

As she struggles to make it in America, she recalled how her father has often used a Chinese idiom, 车上山前,总会有路 (che shang shan qian, zong hui you lu): “When a car finds itself before a mountain, there's always a road through.” Perhaps the closest English-language equivalent is “Where there's a will, there's a way.”

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