In the afternoon on January 15, 2014, China’s Minzu University Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was taken from his home in Beijing by the police. His home was also ransacked twice. His whereabouts are unknown to this day. Authorities have also restricted his wife and mother’s movements. On January 16, 2014, the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said that Tohti was suspected of committing crimes and violating the law.
Forty-four year old Ilham Tohti is an associate professor of economics at Minzu University. In 2006, he founded the website Uighur Biz. Despite being constantly blocked and suppressed, it has become an important window for the Chinese-speaking world to know about the reality of the Xinjiang situation. Ilham Tohit has always opposed Xinjiang independence and violence of any kind. He actively pushes for friendly communication between Uighurs and Chinese. He put his faith of solving the Xinjiang issue in the Chinese government adjusting its problematic Xinjiang policy. Because of this, he has criticized the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policy, and at the same time, proposed various changes. His criticism and suggestions are all based on serious academic research. He is regarded by the intellectual community as a precious man who bridges Uighurs with Chinese, and by the local Xinjiang people as a courageous representative of Uighurs. In the future, he should be an important civic leader in solving the Xinjiang issue, and play an irreplaceable role in ethnic reconciliation.
The following is my translation of an article My Professor Ilham Tohti written by a former student of Professor Ilham. The original Chinese version can be read here.
In the morning, from the university micro-chat, I heard that Professor Ilham was taken away by the police, I was shocked and sad.
Sitting in the car, I thought of my university life that was not being thought of for long, and I also thought of my teacher Ilham that I have not contacted for long.
I racked my mind and still could not make sure in which year, 2003 or 2004, I really got to know him. Such an important person, I almost only think of him occasionally, and not mentioning sending him greetings.
When I was in my third year in the university, I took his optional course, Sustainable Development Strategy and Research in Xinjiang. It is the class that I did my best in my university studies. He was frank and knowledgeable, left me with deep impression and inspiration. I was the only Han Chinese in his class, every time when I entered the class, I felt a bit uncomfortable. However he was very kind and made me feel that I was respected. Later he said, that was a respect towards a Han Chinese student who would like to seriously thinking about Xinjiang’s development. When he said this, he looked very serious and frank.
There are many different kinds of people in this world. There is one type of people that when he talks with you, you know that he is a straight, honest, kind, and wise. He often expressed his opinions about China’s ethnic policy and the developing situation of Uighur people; his opinions were objective and rational. When talking about his own ethnicity, he was proud and worried. He supported many Uighur students to study and to find jobs, guide them to understand life and ethnic issues clear-mindedly and comprehensively. Their relationship was naturally close, looking at them, I felt envious and touched.
Gradually we started to know each other more. I continued to take his optional courses. I took a lot of notes for his International Audit course and almost got a full grade in the exam. He said, that he should have taken me as his student earlier.
He liked telling jokes, often he started to laugh loudly when talking jokes. Many times, he told us his own stories, he talked about his suffering at a young age in a light and half-joking tone. He said he was an unrestrained person, often got drunk and fought for friends. He became our friend. During the recesses, he often chatted with us. He said, we have mind, and we are not afraid of working hard, how can we be poor then?
Later, he became our major course professor. I cannot remember if we started to be closer to each other or not. I only know that he became busier and busier. I left university for intern work and did not see him for long. When I saw him, he still said if I would like to stay and work in Beijing, I could ask him for help. When he said this, he looked at me with his big eyes, sincerely and firmly.
I did not reply him, I felt so regretful that I even did not reply him for I was just eager to go back home.
Then later he established Uighur online, did research, established refuges, helped trafficked Uighur children back home. We contacted each other for a few times, and each time when he asked about me, I felt sorry and guilty, and not dare to answer.
Then later, he became a pivotal point of the voices and power for Uighur people; I became an ordinary working man, working, quitting job, and sometimes even living idly. Each time when I thought of him, I felt ashamed. If he would ask me if I have been doing things conscientiously and living happily, I do not know what I shall say.
We have not seen each other for eight years.
Looking at his photo in the news, his eyes are peaceful but weary, my tears start to run down quietly.
I do not believe what is said about him in the media, I just want to say something about him according to my experience and in my own way.
Ilham Tohti, my university professor. His father died when he was young, he even did not know how to write his name in Chinese when he was sent to university. He did small business to support his university education and continued his master’s study afterwards. Later he became a university professor and got married, invested in stocks and established his companies. He is open-minded, warm-hearted, courageous, and he is a true man. He told us that violence could not solve any problems including ethnic issues; he told us that we should be good to our parents and not to waste time.
He is a smart businessman, an always helpful friend, an ordinary person who loves his nation.
He is an honest, kind, wise, and energetic person.
He is my mentor; he is the most charismatic person that I have known.
If I have to add something, I want to say, he will not be a politician, neither is he a revolutionary. He is a hero.
I hope he is safe, I miss him very much.
A petition has been organized by Wang Lixiong, scholar and writer about Tibet, calling for the immediate release of Ilham Tohti.