The most surprising thing about Ilham Tohti being charged with separatism is that it didn’t happen sooner. Tohti, a 44-year-old professor of economics in Beijing, has for a long time been an outspoken critic of government policies in Xinjiang. The religious and cultural repression of Uighurs in the region is almost never publically discussed in China: apart from conditions in Tibet, and the legitimacy of Communist Party rule, few topics are more sensitive. When the Chinese media cover violent incidents in Xinjiang, such as the riots in Ürümqi in 2009, they always take the line that it’s the fault of Islamic terrorists who wish to separate Xinjiang from China.
Tohti founded Uighurbiz, a website in Chinese and Uighur for discussing government policy in Xinjiang, in 2006. It was shut down in mid-2008, when the authorities alleged it had links to extremists. Tohti was detained the following year for drawing attention to the higher levels of unemployment among Uighurs, but eventually released without charge. He was arrested again in July, just after the Ürümqi riots, along with thousands of others, but later released.
His arrest in January this year, along with ten of his students, was probably prompted by his comments following the car explosion on the edge of Tiananmen Square in October 2013 in which five people died. The authorities, as usual, blamed religious extremists. Tohti urged them not to respond with the usual the wave of arrests, house-to-house searches and increased surveillance in Xinjiang. ‘The best thing would be for the authorities to take a step back and examine what drives people to such desperation in the first place,’ he said. A few weeks later his car was rammed by a vehicle driven by plainclothes security officers, who warned him not to speak to foreign reporters. He pointed out that his children were in the car and could have been hurt. ‘We don’t care,’ they said. ‘We want to kill your whole family.’
What’s different this time is that he has been charged with inciting separatism, a crime that carries a prison sentence of ten years to life (or, in theory, the death penalty). As in most high profile political trials in China, a guilty verdict is certain. Tohti is being denied access to a lawyer, on the grounds that ‘state secrets’ are involved. The most likely outcome is that Tohti, like other imprisoned intellectuals, will be convicted and then all but disappear.