Young men climb a railing at the back for a better view, while a woman in a Muslim headscarf snaps photos on her cellphone.
Every Friday afternoon, students pack a college classroom in Beijing to catch a glimpse of the sharply dressed professor punching the air as he speaks with surprising candor about the travails of his ethnic group, the Uighurs.
“We are not descendants of the dragon but of the wolf,” Ilham Tohti shouts, drawing a clear line between the creation myths of the Han Chinese and the Uighur minority. “We were not created by the Chinese Communist Party. Our history stretches back much longer than 60 years.”
The weekly lectures are a kind of high-wire act for the 40-year-old economist from Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim region in China’s far west. He has been put under house arrest dozens of times over the past decade for criticizing how China runs his homeland and treats his people.
The fearlessness so admired by his students, a Chinese ethnic mosaic of Han, Uighur, Kazakh and others, is exactly what the government fears.
Yet Tohti is not a separatist or even a political dissident. He’s a Communist Party member and a teacher at a top Chinese university who sees himself as a bridge between the Han and Uighurs. That the government has so far refused to endorse his middle road and work with him shows how difficult it is to resolve differences between the party and China’s restive minority nationalities.
“Tohti stands out for his commitment to working within the established Chinese political order,” said Rian Thum, a Uighur history researcher at Harvard University. “He is an outspoken and articulate critic of many discriminatory Chinese policies, but his writings do not challenge the ideological foundations of the People’s Republic or the legitimacy of Chinese rule in Xinjiang.”
After riots on July 5 last year in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, Tohti was kept in a Beijing hotel for three weeks of police questioning and released without charge. A Web site he founded in 2006, Uighur Online, had to shut down after authorities said it contributed to inciting the violence. He relaunched it on a US server but it remains blocked in China.
Tohti is an animated speaker, more preacher than teacher. A slideshow running behind him in a continuous loop flashes images of Urumqi in the days after the riots: burned-out cars, police and soldiers patrolling the city, weeping Uighur women begging Chinese security forces for information about their detained relatives, angry Han marching in protest against the violence.
He uses the classroom to build ethnic pride.
He reminds his many Uighur students that they have to speak two radically different languages — Mandarin and the Turkic-based Uighur tongue — and yet are mocked for their accents.
He asks why stewardesses on flights to Xinjiang speak English but not Uighur, and why staff on trains into the region only speak Chinese.
Hearing such topics in class is exhilarating for young Uighurs, who say discrimination is a daily fact of life. Uighurs are often barred from hotels and Internet cafes because they are assumed to be criminals or terrorists. Many say they are watched with suspicion by security guards in shops.
“He represents us,” a Uighur undergraduate says of Tohti. “It would be hard for us to speak out the way he does, to talk about how the Han Chinese should not be so prejudiced against Uighurs, how they should respect us.”