By Alexa Olesen
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Young men climb a railing at the back for a better view, while a woman in a Muslim head scarf snaps photos on her cell phone.
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 Hans, Uighurs, Kazakhs, 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 Hans and Uighurs. The government has so far refused to endorse his middle road and work with him. This shows how difficult it is to resolve differences between the party and its restive Uighurs and Tibetans.
“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.”
China’s Uighurs, about 10 million, make up less than 1 percent of China’s population and inhabit a region rich in oil and gas deposits that abuts Central Asia. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of militant Islam revived nationalism among some of the region’s mainly Muslim Uighurs for a separate Xinjiang, or what they call East Turkistan.
An influx of Han Chinese settlers embitters Uighurs who say it is costing them jobs and threatens to swamp their culture. The resentment exploded in riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. Han-owned shops were vandalized and torched, and many Han were beaten and even burned to death.
The government has tried dozens of Uighurs and executed nine of them.
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 U.S. server, but it remains blocked in China.
Tohti is an animated speaker, more of a preacher than a teacher. A slideshow running behind him in a continuous loop flashes images of Urumqi in the days after the riots. The images included burned-out cars, police and soldiers patrolling the city, weeping Uighur women begging Chinese security forces for information about their detained relatives, and angry Han marching in protest against the violence.
He uses the classroom to build ethnic pride.
He reminds his 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.
In China, these are topics not usually talked about in public. Hearing them 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 Han 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.” He asked not to be identified by name lest it damage his job prospects.
After two rousing hours in the stifling lecture hall at the Central Nationalities University, Tohti pauses and asks the students if he should keep going.
“Keep talking,” they shout back in unison, and he does.
“His students really worship him,” said Huang Zhangjin, a Chinese journalist who befriended Tohti after interviewing him about Uighur street kids. “When he came back to class after being detained for questioning about the incident, he got a standing ovation.”
Tohti’s comments and the slideshow are provocative, but he treads carefully, never advocating independence or violence and never questioning outright whether China is entitled to rule Xinjiang.
Instead, he urges students to use Chinese law to protect themselves, and to avoid overseas Uighur rights activists.
“I tell them, ‘You need to engage with the Han in Beijing. Stop looking to the West,” Tohti said with a barking laugh during an interview in his Beijing apartment. “The West isn’t going to send troops to fight a war against China for you.”
Yet officials lump him together with the overseas activists and accuse him of inciting the riots.
“If they make even someone like Tohti their enemy, how can they ever expect to improve relations with this minority group?” says Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual who petitioned for Tohti’s release when he was detained this summer.
Tohti has never been charged with a crime, but he’s prepared for it. In 2007, he and his wife divorced for her own legal protection. The couple are still together and expecting their second child.
“The police have been after me for so long that I am used to it,” he said. “It doesn’t stop me from doing what I do and as long as I am living, I am going to keep at this.” ♦