As the European Parliament weighs this year’s nominations for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, I believe, deserves special consideration.
It may not seem so to some. The so-called Xinjiang Autonomous Region, formerly known as Eastern (or Chinese) Turkistan, is far away, its people, the Uyghurs, little known. Unlike other centers of systematic repression, it rarely features in headline journalism, and its travails do not resonate with the world as those of, say, Tibet do. Nevertheless, roughly the size of Iran, Xinjiang is historically and geopolitically important – China’s gateway to the Middle East, and historically its Silk Road avenue of trade with distant Rome. In those days, the Uyghurs were famed as traders and lived in relative peace with their Chinese and other neighbors.
Today, the divide between the Islamic Uyghur people and Chinese, ostensibly communist, supporters of Beijing’s policies runs deep. Beijing’s response to that has been to repress religious traditions and stifle free speech in Xinjiang to such an extent that the only possible outcomes are complete subjugation or radicalized opposition.
Ilham Tohti, a professor of economics at Beijing’s Minzu University, saw that as clearly as anyone and articulated it more eloquently and persuasively than anyone else. A critic of China’s policies of encouraging Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang and repressing Turkic traditions, such as public observation of Ramadan, Ilham Tohti argued that Uyghurs deserved the same access to economic opportunities as their newly settled Han Chinese neighbors, as well as the right to preserve their way of life and codes of dress.
However, Ilham Tohti is no firebrand. He argued against separatism. He cautioned that his people were increasingly turning to militancy in opposition to Beijing. He advocated non-violence, dialogue and mutual understanding. For such a moderate voice to be simply ignored in China would be cause enough for global concern, but after repeatedly being put under house arrest and being prevented from leaving China to take up a post at Indiana University as a visiting scholar in 2013, in September 2014, he was sentenced to a life in jail.
In short, amid all the news of jailed human rights lawyers and forced, televised confessions, China’s treatment of Ilham Tohti is in many ways the last word on the absurdity of President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream and a “resurgence of Chinese civilization.” If this is civilization, it is something utterly at odds with the civilizational ideals that define Europe.
As a refugee crisis unprecedented since World War II unfolds in Europe and racial tensions run high, it is to be expected that European values of inclusiveness and tolerance will prevail. Let us, for example, try to imagine a Europe 10 years from now in which voices calling calling for tolerance and dialogue between followers of divergent religious faiths and those divided by ethnicity and cultural traditions are silenced by permanent incarceration. This is a terrifying Europe to imagine, and yet it is a fact of life in contemporary China, where nationalism is being leveraged to eradicate diversity and pluralism in the interests of projecting Chinese power into both its occupied peripheries and its claimed territories such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The world may rightly look to China’s rapid transformation into a global power with awe, but the flipside of that is that it is all too often inclined to regard Beijing’s brutal repression of internal dissent as an inconvenience. Visiting world leaders are frequently the subject of speculation – will they provoke their deep-pocketed host by bringing up the subject of China’s appalling human rights record? Often they do not, and when they do, more often than not, it is relegated to a footnote in a busy agenda of trade deals or lost amid the pomp and ceremony of a global summit.
China is engaged in a frenzied propaganda campaign to bring international perceptions of its cruel absurdities into line with those that it imposes on its own people. It would like the world to forget about Ilham Tohti, just as it would prefer the world to take a “practical” self-serving position on other human rights issues that China classifies as “internal affairs”.
That is all the more reason for the European Parliament to take a stand on the values that it prides itself on and recognize that Ilham Tohti is as worthy of the Sakharov Prize as other great Sakharov laureate supporters of human rights and freedom of thought such as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.