Journalist Ian Johnson interviewed Chinese intellectuals and asked them about Ilham Tohti, the economist and Uighur activist who was arrested in January. For the New York Review of Books looks for a reason why the moderate intellectual was arrested. China does not like moderate Uighurs, is one of his conclusions.
In my series of interviews with Chinese intellectuals, there is an empty chair for Ilham Tohti, the economist and Uighur activist. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of him or hadn’t been in China long enough to have met him before he was arrested earlier this year. I had, but foolishly had put off pursuing a meeting, thinking that of all the people who might be snapped up by the authorities, he was the least likely. We had many mutual friends and I knew him to oppose independence for Xinjiang, the giant, sparsely populated province in China’s far west that is now the source of a serious terrorism problem. Even though Ilham Tohti is a fierce critic of the government and often followed by state security agents, I didn’t think the forty-four-year-old professor at Beijing’s Minzu University would be lumped in with those who want independence for China’s minority regions.
I was wrong. In January, Ilham Tohti was detained. And unlike in a previous detention, he was not released. Last week he was put on trial on charges of “separatism,” a loosely defined crime of seeking independence for a part of China that can carry severe penalties. The only suspense about the verdict, which is expected on Tuesday, is how long his sentence will be. Over the last few months, I have asked several prominent public intellectuals who knew Ilham Tohti for their thoughts on him and his trial. Some of these people have appeared separately in this series, but their views on Ilham Tohti appear here for the first time.