China, Uyghurs may have lost middle way in mounting ethnic tensions

After Kunming attack escalated Uyghur-Han tensions, human rights lawyer says renowned advocate’s chances are grim

Ilham Tohti, a university professor, blogger and member of the Muslim Uyghur minority, chats with students after a lecture in Beijing in 2010.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

Hopes are fading over the plight of a jailed Uyghur rights activist — and for a middle-way solution to escalating ethnic tensions with China's majority ethnic Han that he represents — with the imprisoned activist's lawyer saying Tuesday that he fears his client may face the death penalty.

Attorney Li Fangping told Al Jazeera that he has been barred from speaking to Ilham Tohti, adding that there was "a possibility" that he may never again have the opportunity to consult with the man he legally represents.

If Tohti – who advocates increased rights for western China's minority Muslim Uyghurs but stops short of calling for a separate state — faces execution, it could further escalate tensions exacerbated last week by a deadly knife attack that Chinese state media have attributed to Uyghur "terrorists."

Tohti, 44, told Al Jazeera on the phone late last year that his treatment by Chinese authorities is a "barometer" for Beijing's stance on Uyghurs, at the center of a growing debate on what Chinese officials call terrorism and Uyghur rights advocates call a smear campaign designed to legitimize the crackdown on the ethnic group's civil liberties.

Days after Chinese media reported that eight Uyghur assailants slashed 143 people at a train station in the southern city of Kunming, killing at least 29 people, Li said he has returned to Beijing after a failed attempt to meet with Tohti at a prison in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang province, which is home to most of China's Uyghurs.

Tohti's mobile phone had been turned off.  

"They say they want to keep him from giving up state secrets. They won't let him talk to his lawyer," Li told Al Jazeera, adding that he feared that he may never have the opportunity to consult with his client before Tohti facies capital charges. 

Tohti was charged with inciting separatism last week, after more than a month in detention. Unlike his fellow Uyghur rights advocates outside China, Tohti said he did not believe that a desire for a separate state for Uyghurs in their ancestral homeland in China's far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was the cause of the recent unrest and a mysterious crash in Tiananmen Square last year, blamed by China on Uyghur "terrorists."

"For Uyghurs, religion is the most important thing," Tohti said in September, blaming Beijing's perceived crackdown on Islam in China's far west. Tohti added that socioeconomic marginalization resulting from noninclusive economic development policies in the region leads to desperation that incites Uyghurs — like other Chinese nationals who bemoan economic disparity and a lack of government accountability — to violence.

Tohti insisted that in advocating for Uyghur rights, he was abiding by the tenets of the Chinese constitution, which protects against discriminatory policies and preserves religious freedom. "(I) don't oppose this country. I am calling for people's rights, rule of law, freedom of religion and an end to discrimination," he said.

Still, Li, who also represented blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng before the activist sought asylum in the United States, said Tohti's chances look grim.

"I don't think the government will let him go," Li said, "Because the Xinjiang issue is a very sensitive situation right now."

A kind of political solution

Meanwhile, Uyghur rights advocates outside China say the Kunming attack highlights the need for a more diplomatic solution to mounting ethnic tensions.  

"There has to be some kind of political solution to the issue acceptable to both sides," said Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), an international organization that advocates for Uyghur rights.

If not, WUC Secretary General Nuri Musabay said, China can expect more violence. Beijing's response to ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han that killed at least 21 in April and an additional 27 in July last year was to conduct a series of raids that killed scores of Uyghurs. Beijing claimed they had been implicated in the violence. "East Turkestan is undergoing mass arrests, home to home," Musabay said, using a name that some Uyghurs use refer to their homeland.

Kunming city officials, Communist Party staffers and police authorities did not respond to telephone interview requests by the time of publication.

And China has since engaged in an effort to seek international partners in its war on what it calls Uyghur terrorism; Musabay and Seytoff characterized that as an attempt to seek support from the West in China's bid to quiet the Uyghurs.

Musabay said the raids and a "war on terror" with Chinese characteristics serve only to polarize tensions and enrage Uyghurs. The "Chinese are pushing Uyghurs to become more violent," he said, adding that he is not entirely convinced that Uyghur groups perpetrated the violence in Kunming. The scene of the crime was reportedly cleaned up within 24 hours, and virtually all the information on the assailants has come from Chinese media, he said.

Beyond a territorial dispute

As much as Musabay wants a political solution to the Uyghur unrest, he, unlike Tohti, says Uyghurs ultimately want their own nation — and he is unsure what Uyghurs would concede in a political dialogue with Beijing.

"As other nations around the world, we want the right to self-determination," Musabay said.

"Chinese should respect our self-determination — like South Sudan," he said, referring to the world's youngest nation, which separated from Sudan in 2011.

For many Chinese, Xinjiang's status as part of China is an indisputable given. Many Chinese argue that, with the exception of a short period of Soviet-backed sovereignty, Xinjiang has been a part of China since ancient times.

More recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a slew of energy deals to direct much-needed oil and gas to China through Xinjiang from neighboring countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Seytoff agrees that the impasse between Uyghurs and Han is about self-determination in what he considers the Uyghur homeland, but he said other issues compound the long-running tension between them.

He cited as an example the 1963 Chinese propaganda blockbuster Bing Shan Shang de Lai Ke, in which a young Muslim in China's far west is disillusioned with his culture when his childhood sweetheart is sold to a rich man. The young boy grows up to join the secular Communist army.

"Their propaganda is that instead of slaughtering, the Chinese civilized the savages, and they brought them airplanes and modern technology," Seytoff said, adding that films like that still color Han Chinese perceptions of Uyghurs. There's a respect necessary for dialogue that has been lacking for over half a century, he said.

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