When in China, Do as Chinese Do: The Unfortunate Case of Professor Ilham Tohti


The Guardians headline, “Ilham Tohti should get the Nobel peace prize, not life in prison,” exposes sharply how Western and Chinese assessments on a same issue can be irreconcilable. Under this headline, Professor Teng Biao suggests that China should approach the separatist aspiration of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in a similar way as the Scots did, with a referendum for independence. Also, he accuses the Communist Party of China (CPC) of being a tyrannical regime trampling reason, freedom, and peace, and warns the world not to turn “a blind eye to it all.”

Another of the countless Western supporters of Professor Tohti is Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. She condemns the CPC for trying to eradicate all criticism “no matter how mild, peaceful, or constructive; no matter whether it’s wholly within the confines of Chinese law.” In summary, the CPC is repeatedly accused by the West, and rightfully so, of jailing a constructive contributor to Chinese ethnic harmony and of criminalizing peaceful, constructive, and legal criticism.

Most recently, significant Western support for Tohti has come in the form of his nomination by the European Parliament for the prestigious 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which distinguishes those who dedicate their lives to promoting predominantly Western models of freedom and democracy. This nomination is being followed up on October 10, 2016 by the UNPO conference: “Ilham Tohti and the Sakharov Prize: Courage in the Face of Brutality.” The conference will accuse Beijing of being a brutal regime that ignores the will of its people, the Uyghurs in particular.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This criticism strongly resonates with Western audiences and scholars because they prioritize self-determination, Western human rights, individual freedom of expression, rule of law, and democracy. Also because, as expected by Western audiences, it accuses the CPC of all the imaginable evils, such as being tyrannical, destructive, disrespectful of ethnic minorities, lawless, and intolerant. An obvious question that follows this aggressive criticism: Is the Chinese regime really such a despicable tyrannical regime that ignores the will of its peoples and sacrifices their fundamental human rights?

The simple answer is that the Chinese regime, despite all its shortcomings, is not a despicable tyranny. And the simple proof to support this is the fact that living standards – economy, education, health care, infrastructure, and yes, freedoms – of most Chinese peoples have improved exponentially in the last 35 years. A fundamental source of disagreement between the West and China results from the West and Western-minded Chinese using Western standards and values to evaluate the CPC’s actions, resulting in numerous serious misinterpretations. Information, statements, laws, policies, etc., must be interpreted within the historical, cultural, political, social, economic contexts in which they are produced, exist and evolve. Interpreting them outside this unique context is irresponsible. This, obviously, does not only apply to China.

For twenty years, Professor Ilham Tohti had been engaged in constructive criticism about Beijing’s interethnic policies in Xinjiang, which, from my point of view, are Beijing’s biggest failure since the Cultural Revolution. Tohti was well aware that he had to share his valuable criticism privately, directly with relevant Chinese scholars and officials. He knew that, despite the fact that in China it is “legal” to express criticism publicly, doing so about important national policies results is crossing one of Beijing’s red lines. However, a serious handicap with keeping criticism private and the decision-making process shrouded in secrecy, as the CPC does, is that it is practically impossible to evaluate if one’s constructive criticism has been taken into account or not by the authorities.

After 20 years of patient, constructive criticism, Tohti might have felt that he was being ignored and grew desperate about Beijing’s increasingly draconian measures to curtail Uyghur identity in Xinjiang. Following the deadly riots of Urumqi in July 2009, Tohti might have felt that he needed to become more public, more vocal, and more explicit about Beijing’s repression of the Uyghurs. He accused the CPC publicly for having failed to address Uyghur’s legitimate grievances and implementing policies that were responsible for fanning ethnic discord: “Every time something happens, the government responds with one word: pressure. High pressure, high pressure, and even greater pressure. This leads to greater resistance and more conflict.” Also, he blamed the government publicly for the numerous violent interethnic tensions and clashes that Xinjiang was witnessing. As put by the renowned Chinese dissident Hu Jia, Tohti became “a thorn in the side of the Communist Party.”

Tohti took his blunt criticism of Beijing’s policies from the private circles to the public arena. He discussed his criticism in his lectures, interviews, and social media postings. By doing so, he crossed one of the numerous invisible red lines that crisscross China’s sociopolitical life: public criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies. His increasingly public criticism combined with a diminished tolerance for criticism by the current leadership in Beijing, resulted in Tohti being sentenced to life in prison. His removal from the academic and public life is not only a serious blow to Uyghur community, but also a great loss for the Chinese regime. This is because he might be the only Uyghur capable of understanding both the Uyghur and the CPC views on Xinjiang, and acting as a bridge between the two.

The lesson to be learned from the unfortunate imprisonment of Tohti is that when in China, do as the Chinese do. The CPC is aware of its numerous shortcomings and failures, including its ethnic policies in Xinjiang, and knows that needs the critical input of outsiders to overcome some of the challenges that it is facing. However, the CPC expects this criticism to be shared in private. Attempting to coerce the Chinese regime into accepting and follow Western values and principles by shaming its leadership and exalting its critics is ineffective. China will not yield. China will continue on its own Chinese way, whether we agree with it or not.

Patrik K. Meyer is a New America Security Fellow and a Visiting Professor at Muhammadiyah University Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief