Prof. Ilham Tohti: Beware of the Danger of Exaggerating the Xinjiang Independence Issue

Prof. Ilham Tohti: Beware of the Danger of Exaggerating the Xinjiang Independence Issue

[Translation of a summary of a Radio France International Chinese service interview with Prof. Ilham Tohti on the Radio France International website at ]

Why did three Uighurs immolate themselves near Tianamen? How should we understand the “Xinjiang independence issue”? What are the differences between the Tibet issue and the Xinjiang issue? Should the 17 Uighurs imprisoned at Guantanamo be returned to China or should they remain abroad? The famous Uighur intellectual and head of Uighur Online, Assistant Professor Ilham Tohti of the Central

Don’t Allow a Small Group Be Used to Stereotype an Entire Nationality

On the Xinjiang independence issue, Ilham Tohti believes that the Uighur independence movement certainly exists, but it is outside of China. he doesn’t believe that a Xinjiang independence or East Turkmenistan movement exists openly in Xinjiang today. The Xinjiang independence movement is not as powerful as Westerners think. The issue perhaps arose because the Xinjiang local government exaggerated it.

Riots do occur in Xinjiang, Ilham Tohti says, but there are also riots in interior China. Some riots in Xinjiang have nothing to do with politics. These are being exaggerated. In China there are some violent incidents involving individuals and groups that sometimes develop into riots. Whenever these occur in Xinjiang, however, as long as Uighur are involved, it is just assumed that they are connected to Xinjiang independence and that they were fomented by forces outside of mainland China and so “outside agitators” are held responsible for them. This actually makes relations worse, and damages trust, and creates tensions among the nationalities in Xinjiang, and expands the size of the target that is to be suppressed. If the violent tendencies or independence activities of a small group are imputed to an entire nationality, this is in fact no different from what the East Turkistan organization does as a small group claiming to speak for all the Uighur. This is very dangerous and is harmful to China. Ilham Tohti believes that the strengthening of the legal system and democratization are powerful trends. China’s leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao over and over that China needs reforms and that government administration should operate according to the rule of law. Local government, however, in some areas goes to extremes.

The Future of the Uighurs is in China

Ilham Tohti said without any hesitation that China is the homeland of the Uighur and the future of the Uihgurs is in China. If you have chosen your future to be in China, then you must uphold the territorial integrity of the country. He believes that some people say that China is getting more and more democratic, and that later it will be possible for Uighur to seize their independence. This is impossible. Moreover, some people believe that independence can be achieved through violence or the power of western countries. This is also impossible.

Let the Seventeen Uighurs in Guantanamo Stay Outside of China

The problem of the 17 Uighurs imprisoned at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo has once again arisen. The case of these Uighur is very special. The U.S. justice system investigated and found that they are guilty of no terrorist crimes. However, for fear that they would be tortured if they were to be returned to China. However they in no way constitute a threat to China since they have never been involved in terrorist activities. So they should be allowed to stay. This is a problem created by the United States and so the United States should take responsibility for it.

Ilham Tohti is concerned “If these people return to China, it could cause nationality problems within China. This is a sensitive issue. If they were to be executed, it would not only make it an international problem but the Uighur would definitely be unhappy about it and could cause a nationality problem. Therefore, I believe from a humanitarian perspective and from a Chinese domestic perspective, they should stay outside of mainland China.

“If You Meet a Uighur, Dial 911”

Recently three Uighur immolated themselves near Tiananmen. Ilham Tohti began consideration of this issue by discussing the situation of Uighur living in Beijing. There are many Uighur in Beijing. Some come to present petitions to the central government redress grievances. Some are peasants who can’t speak Chinese and have never been to Beijing before. Since they are Uighur, most hotels won’t accept them. “We made a study just before the Beijing Olympics. Some authority issued an urgent notice that said: “What do you do if you meet a Uighur? Dial 911”

The causes of all this, says Ilham Tohti, is that the rights of the Uighur nationality have certainly been infringed upon and that local government in Xinjiang has exaggerated the threat from the East Turkistan independence organization. Moreover, most Han people have never met a Uighur in their entire lives so they don’t understand them. Although there are 8 million Han people living in Xinjiang, they are in a very special situation. One third of them are in the military construction corps (bingtuan). Many are government or Party cadres. Some others work for energy companies that employ almost no Uighur. Most factory works and labor intensive industries also employ few Uighur. Therefore, the Han in Xinjiang really don’t understand the Uighur. What people in Beijing know about Uighur comes only from exaggerated propaganda put out by the government or connected to their feelings about the migrant worker population. “Now it seems like the Uighur in the old days who were good at singing and dancing are not to be found. The memory of the humor of Afanti, they have forgotten. Now the Uighur are terrorists, thieves and roving bands of juvenile delinquents.” Thus the image that society at large has of the Uighur is highly distorted.

The Han Nationality Bears the Major Responsibility that the Nationalities Understand One Other

How can the Uighur, other nationalities and the Han come to understand each other better? How can the culture, religion and language of the Uighur and other minority nationalities be better protected? How can the Uighur, other nationalities and the Han come to understand each other better? How can the culture, religion and language of the Uighur and other minority nationalities be better protected?

Ilham Tohti says that present laws are very good, but need to be better and the law needs to be implemented. The Han nationality population is very large and has historically had a strong ideology of unification that makes it hard for them to understand other nationalities. The Han nationality needs to understand, that there exist other nationalities beside yourselves in this country. The Han nationality, to speak bluntly, is the nationality in charge in China. They have the responsibility to run this country well and they have the responsibility to understand other nationalities. They need to give them opportunities. Whatever he thinks, you need to make the effort to communicate. True representatives of the various nationalities should participate in devising some policies. Some research studies should be jointly conducted by Han nationality scholars and Uighur nationality scholars. Some fields should be opened up to research. For example in the Xinjiang region there are no “ethnic studies” etc. This kind of research is in fact prohibited. Although there are no written rules prohibiting this kind of research, there are many unwritten rules.

Ilham Tohti said that many people don’t understand the real situation in Xinjiang, including many Chinese scholars. Some of the so-called scholars researching Xinjiang participate in some government decision-making. But they don’t understand Xinjiang and they can’t speak Uighur. Some scholars in order to curry favor with leaders, make up a conclusion and they make a survey report to support it. One example is a research group studying the Uighur nationality concluded that the Uighur identify more strongly with China than do the Han nationality. Therefore, they need to first understand a nationality before they can create the correct policy.

Listen to the interview for more details.

[Click on the box labeled “Citizen’s Square” Gongmin Guangchang just below the Chinese text to hear the Radio France International Chinese language service March 2009 interview with Professor Ilham Tohti at ]



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