A Conversation With Ilham Tohti: Reflections on the 9th Anniversary of His Detention


January 13, 2023

By Yaxue Cao

I wrote down the title the way I pop in two pills to ease the rising blood pressure in my skull. There is no conversation, as Ilham Tohti, the former economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing, recipient of the 2019 Sakharov Prize, has been serving a life sentence in a prison in Xinjiang since January 15, 2014, and has not been heard for more than six years. People are forgetting him, myself included, as prolonged silence does to our memory and short attention spans. Beijing is counting on our forgetfulness. Never mind that, by China’s law, he should be receiving one family visit a month. 

He loves a good conversation. “When he grew excited while speaking, he would invariably rise from his seat as if he were a kettle whose lid was bursting under the pressure of steam,” a close Chinese friend of his describes their early encounters some fifteen years ago, when Ilham was running UighurBiz website, teaching, and doing business too. He has “a mighty power, a kind of red-hot passion and dedication plucked from his breast.” 

The conversation I’m having is barely audible. 

“How have you been?” is my first question, gingerly put forward. Last time we heard about him, he was in solitary confinement and lost a lot of weight. Information was scarce even then, when we had some news about him. His two sons, seven and three at the time of his arrest, have grown up without him, and he without them. The boys and the mother, so I heard, have not had an easy time. Imagine what time Ilham has had missing them.  

Nobody, not even his brothers in Xinjiang, who in the first two years visited him a few times, has been able to send him extra clothes and pocket money with which prisoners can purchase more food and basic supplies such as toothbrushes and toilet paper. 

However, Ilham Tohti would have a pretty good idea of what has happened in Xinjiang since his arrest — from prisoners’ compulsory viewing of CCTV’s 7 p.m. Evening News every day. Most political prisoners in China have the uncanny ability to decipher truth from CCTV News’ barrages of lies, denials, and glossovers. As someone who knew every nook and cranny of what the government had been doing in Xinjiang over the years, Ilham would be a master decipherer. 

When speaking of his people, the Uyghurs, he was like a father, or a brother. He knew he couldn’t just hide in the ivory tower of the university, and he had to be an ambassador for his people. “I no longer feel that I belong to my own family, I belong to my people, to my friends, to China – it’s a major responsibility I have,” he told Voice of America in one of his last interviews in November, 2013. 

I dare not imagine how much pain he has been going through all these years, knowing the genocide in Xinjiang.  

With millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps and many others sentenced to years or decades in prison, the situation in Xinjiang is far worse than Ilham Tohti had warned it could become. Over the years, Ilham wrote papers and letters to the Politburo, “in as moderate a tone as possible using language the central authorities would find acceptable,” and asked the guobao, his political security police handlers, to pass them up the chain of command. Some were requested by the higher-ups themselves, such as the 2011 “Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations”, which he wrote when under police surveillance, a norm long before his arrest.

And he wrote articles on the UighurBiz website that he had founded in 2006 at a time when Internet expressions were exploding in China, calling for attention to the deteriorating ethnic tension in Xinjiang, mitigated often heated arguments, and tried to bring people on both sides to understand, not hate, each other. Such effort was not appreciated by the authorities, and the site was frequently attacked or ordered to shut down. 

Ilham’s analyses of Xinjiang combine panoramic overview with attention to specific issues and events. He wrote about employment, education, religion, economic imbalance between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, ethnic alienation and segregation, systematic distrust for minority leaders and intellectuals, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and Han Chinese chauvinism. He hoped that “it would be a great thing if the central government listens to my sincere recommendations,” and “I’m doing this for their own good.”  But as his Chinese friend said, “it’s taboo for the Uyghurs to discuss any of these topics.”

He was involved for several years in searching and providing shelter for Uyghur vagabond children in Chinese cities. He wrote commentaries about current events involving Uyghurs and the danger of the state media labeling everything “terrorism” and “separatism.” Instead, he urged the government to focus on good governance that respects ethnic minorities’ basic rights and dignity.  

Just what “crime” did Ilham commit exactly? Of course it’s not “splitting the state.” The most direct and concise enunciation came from his police minders in Beijing: “You’ve talked too much!” 

“Do you regret having become a spokesperson for your people?” I hesitantly ask another question. Look at the price you have paid, and all of your loved ones have paid. Family aside, your students were tortured and imprisoned. Your niece, a young nurse in the city of Atush, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in early 2016 for possessing on her cellphone photographs of you and two articles about you by Radio Free Asia, and her grieved mother has fallen ill. “Is it…” my voice trails off, “worth it?” 

In the 1990s, Ilham was arguably the wealthiest Uyghur in Beijing, following an instinct for business opportunities with neighboring countries to the west of Xinjiang. He could have enjoyed a stellar professorship, going around the world on lecture tours, or making money quietly…if he filled his kettle with cool water and never brought it to a boil. 

By 2009, he was poor. His savings were frozen by the government and he was raising his family of four with a little over 2,000 yuan a month. The household would often go a week without meat.     

He was not naive. Far from it. He knew that in China “anything can happen” — he could be put in prison, even to death, for speaking the truth, but he took it as an honor. He was calm when speaking of his own sacrifices, but his voice began to halt and tremble when envisioning the fate his three young children could face. 

If he dies, he told his Tibetan friend Tsering Woeser in November 2009, he wants to be buried in Xinjiang, “home of the Uyghurs.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s on an ice-capped mountain, in the desert, or by the roadside.

“In spite of different things I hear, and all that I anticipate, I refuse to believe that this country might actually do such things to me, a man who poses no threat? Sometimes I wonder. Surely, as bad as they are, nothing that aberrant could happen.” He knew too that this was wishful thinking; he just couldn’t help it. 

The top priority of Chinese prisons is to force political prisoners to denounce themselves. But this much I’m sure: Ilham Tohti would not, and will not, “admit guilt.” If a man is ready to die for his conscience, nobody can force him to smear mud on it. 

Despite it all, he was hardly appreciated. People shun his wife and children who still live on the university campus. Only a few friends would evade police attention and visit them now and then. Students who show independent thinking were told “the cautionary tale” of that economic professor.  

There are people in this world whom I can’t fathom. Ilham Tohti is one of them. 

Who are we, the rest of us? I sometimes wonder with concentrated self-loathing. 

“Ilham, are you still alive?” 


Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of China Change, editor and one of the translators of We Uyghurs Have No Say – An Imprisoned Writer Speaks, a collection of Ilham Tohti’s writings and interviews.