Like the US with its determined efforts to stumble into another war in the Middle East, China continues to do everything possible to further radicalize Muslims and manufacture the political Islam it claims to be thwarting. The newest chapter in this sad story came with yesterday’s news that Central Minzu University Professor of Economics Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison after his two-day trial for separatism in Urumqi. While the US Embassy, along with numerous other Western diplomats, protested Tohti’s arrest and conviction, the United States unfortunately has little moral ground to stand on when criticizing another country for violating the rights of Muslims. Last March, Tohti was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN/American Center, and he received a visiting scholar position at Indiana University, where his daughter is a student. He was detained last February by police while trying to board a plane for the US to take up the Indiana post. It is probably the case that Tohti’s international exposure only hurt him further during his trial, where he was accused of “internationalizing” the Uighur issue, talking to foreign reporters, and translating foreign articles about Uighurs and Xinjiang and posting these on his website Uighur Online, which ran from 2005 to 2008.
Indeed, Tohti’s online presence was almost certainly a major factor in the harshness of his sentence. Since 2006, when China launched its “Civilizing the Internet” campaign, the government has grown increasingly intolerant of internet freedom. That campaign’s launch was accompanied by a People’s Daily editorial that signaled the end of the state’s patience with the openness of China’s rapidly expanding blogosphere (see Jeremy Goldkorn’s account of the campaign in the China Story Yearbook 2013). The editorial read, in part:
There’s a base line for social ethics, and the patience of the public
has a limit. If you do not learn to cherish freedom, if you do not learn to respect the rules of society, then in the days to come it may be difficult to avoid external regulation. If bloggers that hurt others at every turn are not alerted to this fact and act responsibly, if they insist on someone else taking out their garbage, then they may well find that there’s no place for them anymore.
By 2012, repression of internet freedom was being chalked up to ‘rule of law’, but the underlying message was clear:
The Internet is a public space. Public order and good behavior require the collective effort of all Internet users, and all users must ‘purify themselves’, recognising from the bottom of their hearts that the Internet is not a ‘Utopia’ in which they can wilfully satisfy any appetite, or a ‘Shangri-La’ beyond the reach of the law.
Ilham Tohti’s case is a good example of why any celebration of the internet’s role in helping to produce more democratic freedoms in China is premature, if not entirely misguided.
China Digital Times reminds us that Tohti’s views, for all the government’s hyperbole about separatism and “bewitching students,” are quite moderate. CDT’s account also helps us understand the state’s approach as a possibly very cynical strategy to radicalize Muslims and manufacture the political Islam it fears:
Ilham Tohti has long opposed Xinjiang independence. In a 2011 essay, he wrote of his determination to promote harmony between Han and Uyghurs in order to avoid “ethnic conflict and killing, political unrest […] turmoil and division” in China. A spokesman for the pro-independence World Uyghur Congress told The Financial Times after the sentencing that “China has issued a clear signal that Uighurs hoping for change through legal and other rational channels will be thoroughly disappointed…” In an interview with Ian Johnson for The New York Review of Books (via CDT) this summer, scholar Wang Lixiong predicted that clearing out the ideological middle ground might be precisely the authorities’ goal: “The only conclusion is dark: it’s that they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.”