July 29, 2023

This is a China Change translation of a Radio Free Asia column by Beijing-based author Wang Lixiong (王力雄), published on July 24, 2023. Wang Lixiong is a well-known author on Tibet, and Xinjiang, as well as of several works of political fiction, including the apocalyptic novel “Yellow Peril” (《黄祸》), and has traveled in Xinjiang extensively. We feel the underlying anxiety of a friend, and appreciate the courage it takes to write about Ilham Tohti from inside China. — China Change Editors

I came to know Ilham Tohti when he read my book “My West, Your East” (《我的西域,你的东土》) and took the initiative to ask me for a meeting. He was an associate professor at the Central University for Nationalities [now Minzu University], and the founder and director of the Uyghur Online website [now defunct], the only platform for Uyghurs to make their voices heard in China around the time when the Urumqi unrest occurred on July 5th, 2009.

When Ilham mentioned my book, he would refer to it as “My East, Your West”, not as a slip of the tongue, but as a Uyghur’s necessary perspective, and he said that Uyghurs all referred to the book in this way. After that, Ilham and I developed a friendship that lasted several years until his arrest in early 2014. I took the last photo of him before he lost his freedom when we met at a Uyghur restaurant, a few days before his arrest.

I value Ilham and saw him as playing a pivotal role. Whereas my interactions with other Uyghurs are person-to-person, Ilham was keyed into a vast network that was, on the one hand, neither Uyghur interest groups loyal to the regime, nor organizations advocating for Xinjiang’s independence on the other. Representing the aggregate of the Uyghur nation in their voiceless multitude between the two ends, Ilham was a rare player who could facilitate dialogue between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

At that time, I had already hosted a Twitter conversation between the Dalai Lama and Chinese netizens, organized a video meeting between Chinese human rights lawyers and the Dalai Lama, and was considering a dialogue between the Uyghurs and the Han. I hit it off with Ilham, who was willing to facilitate Uyghur participation — he would be a bridge between the two ethnic groups. Although it would be a stretch to expect such dialogue among the two peoples to yield immediate results, at least it was still possible to do so under the political circumstances at that time. Even if there were only a few participants at the beginning, it would be vital to develop and maintain such a communication mechanism and form a social network, as the existence of such a space would make a real difference in the event that official channels became unavailable. I think this is where Ilham played an irreplaceable role.

Among the Uyghur dissidents with whom I have had contact, Ilham is the only one who has publicly stated that he only seeks autonomy but not independence for the Xinjiang region. He places the solution to Xinjiang’s problems on the Chinese government changing its ethnic policies, with the premise that Uyghurs must have their own rights respected and be able to voice their criticism of these government policies. In my view, his ideas are basically a Uyghur version of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way.” Where Ilham and I agree is that, fundamentally, neither of our positions is predicated on the idea of state, whether it be a grand unified state or an independent Uyghur state, but rather on a wish to avoid potential disaster and tragedy caused by ethnic strife.

Uyghur activists outside the country generally reject this “middle way.” They believe that it has been proven that the Dalai Lama has achieved nothing but wasted decades for the Tibetan people. The subsequent life sentence for Ilham has demonstrated once again that, for both Tibetans and Uyghurs, the idea of dialogue with the Chinese government about a “middle way” is just wishful thinking.

In September 2014, Ilham was sentenced to life in prison and the confiscation of all his assets for the crime of “splitting the country.” The verdict shocked everyone who had been following the case. Ilham had already been taken into custody nine months prior, and it was expected that he would be sentenced, but no one expected such a heavy punishment. All things considered, he should not have been sentenced to a prison term longer than that of Liu Xiaobo, the leading Chinese dissident who received 11 years in prison in 2009. The disparity was so great that it was clear that the authorities did not want to see Ilham leave prison alive. The sentence also made Uyghurs realize that Uyghurs are not equal to Han Chinese, even within the same category of dissidents. They are all enemies of the state, but some of these “enemies” are worse than others simply based on their ethnic identity.

Ilham has been arrested twice [the first time being after the July 5, 2009 unrest in Urumqi], and twice I publicly campaigned online for his release. In 2009, he returned home after a month and a half in Beijing police custody; but this time, in 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. After the verdict was announced, I did not make another futile online campaign for his release, except for inviting friends to raise funds for his family.

Instead, I did something that would be laughed at and that I myself now find laughable — I presented a memorial to the throne. I wrote a letter titled “Letter of Opinion to Seek Re-sentencing for Ilham Tohti” (《改判伊利哈木案意见书》) to China’s top leaders, and sought private channels through which to deliver it. Although I did not specify to whom the submission was addressed, the target in my mind was the new Chinese Communist Party leadership that had been in office for just over a year.

On the surface, my letter was written with the Chinese leaders’ perspective in mind. It was argued from their position on the basis of what would be advantageous for their rule. Firstly, I submitted that such a severe verdict for Ilham Tohti would do a disservice to their image as well as their governance; and secondly, I argued that, by amending the sentence, they could make the best use of the situation to their benefit.

I proposed a resolution: Ilham had already indicated that he would appeal, and the High Court in Xinjiang would certainly uphold the original decision; at that point, the leaders in Beijing could have Ilham appeal to the nation’s highest court, and instruct the court to retry the case and amend the sentence. Even if the Supreme People’s Court merely reduced Ilham’s sentence, it would show that the central government did not necessarily agree with the practices of the Xinjiang authorities, and this alone would revive hope among the Uyghurs, help ease ethnic relations, and mark the beginning of a policy reset. At the same time, it would show to the outside world that Ilham’s trial was not a preordained decision by the central government, and could therefore improve perceptions of rule of law in China. If, concurrently,  the “Ngawang Tashi bombing case” (Tenzin Delek Rinpoche) in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan were to be retried and re-sentenced as well, it would be seen by ethnic minorities across the country as the new central government ushering in a new era, help China sidestep international criticism, and win a major breakthrough at minimal cost.

The Chinese dissident community has always despised the idea of making such an appeal to the Communist Party leadership, believing that the powers-that-be will simply follow their own programming. Yet authoritarianism is by definition the rule of man, and history is replete with precedents where new leaders make changes to previous policies. While in most cases the changes were for the worse, there have been cases where the opposite is true. A typical example in our lifetime was the changes brought to China by Deng Xiaoping after Mao Zedong’s death. The new CCP leadership that I was trying to persuade with my letter had just taken down Zhou Yongkang (周永康), China’s long-time judicial czar, and was purging Zhou’s henchmen at all levels. Had Zhou and his subordinates made these extreme court decisions in the name of political correctness in order to rope the new leadership into staying on the same path?

I made such reasoning hoping to make use of the Party’s internal politics — even if it could not bring about an overall change in the country’s ethnic policies, it would not be for nothing if it helped to somewhat improve the situations of Ilham Tohti and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. Despite otherwise harboring no hope in the government apparatus, I wanted to try my luck.

Of course, both my prior expectations and the subsequent developments have proved that apprehensions about appealing to the top leaders were not misplaced. Ilham is still locked up behind high prison walls somewhere deep in the desert of Xinjiang, totally incommunicado. Barring radical change in China, I wonder if we will ever see each other again in this life.