One year after deadly riots in China’s Xinjiang, Beijing has reaffirmed policies that have angered Muslims in the region, raising the specter of further unrest, a top Uighur activist said.
Iilham Tohti — an outspoken professor, blogger and member of the Muslim Uighur minority — said China’s “carrot and stick” pairing of economic development with tight security controls had failed Uighurs.
It has instead benefited members of China’s majority Han ethnicity who are flooding into the region, while Xinjiang’s 8 million Uighurs are becoming further marginalized in their ancient homeland, with no end in sight, he said.
“The situation for Uighurs in Xinjiang is increasingly bad,” Tohti, 40, said in his modest apartment on the campus of Beijing’s Minzu University of China, where he lectures — under watchful eyes — on economics and Uighur issues.
“In this climate, it is very hard to bring together Uighurs and Han, immigrants and locals,” he said. “This is a huge problem, but the government has come up with no plan for it.”
Xinjiang’s Uighurs — a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people — have for decades alleged Chinese political, religious and cultural oppression in the vast region abutting Central Asia.
Their anger erupted on July 5 last year when Uighur rioters savagely attacked Han in the capital Urumqi, leaving nearly 200 people dead and up to 1,700 injured, according to official figures.
Amid the unrest, Tohti — perhaps the top Uighur activist within China — disappeared into police custody for six weeks. Authorities also shut down his Uighur Online Web site — which criticized government policy in Xinjiang while advocating Han-Uighur understanding — alleging it was fueling the unrest.
Tohti has since relaunched the site on an overseas server, though it remains blocked in China, and has resumed his lectures despite periodic interference by the authorities. He says he carefully measures his words to prevent provoking the authorities.
In April, China’s government removed Xinjiang’s unpopular hardline Chinese Communist Party boss, Wang Lequan (王樂泉), who had held the post for nearly 15 years, and pledged to raise living standards in the region.
But “nothing has really changed. Only the propaganda has changed,” the diminutive, chain-smoking Tohti said, speaking fluent Mandarin.
Economic growth alone — even if it did benefit Uighurs — cannot appease a people with centuries of history and culture who seek true autonomy, he said.
“It’s as if someone went to a pharmacy with a headache and they gave them medicine for foot pain,” Tohti said.