“There are so few of us left,” Ilham Tohti reflected during a walk through the lush grounds of Beijing’s Minzu University, which specialises in the study of China’s ethnic minorities, during a conversation in 2013.
Mr. Tohti, an Uyghur economist and intellectual from China’s vast western Xinjiang region, had become among the few minority Uyghur scholars with a wide following in Xinjiang, where independent voices had been gradually stifled, particularly after Han-Uyghur riots in 2009.
Mr. Tohti’s university lectures and writings focused on ethnic relations, Xinjiang’s economy and why, despite the region’s energy riches, unemployment was rife among young Uyghurs amid an influx of Han residents.
Only a few months after that conversation, Mr. Tohti’s apartment that sits right outside the campus gate was raided, and he was taken away. He was put on trial and sentenced to life in prison in September 2014, charged with “separatism”.
Over 300 Uyghur intellectuals jailed
According to rights groups, more than 300 leading Uyghur intellectuals have been jailed since Xi Jinping coming to power in 2013. Many were swept up in the extraordinary mass internment of Uyghurs between 2016 and 2018, when hundreds of thousands were sent to detention centres.
The Chinese government initially denied the camps, but later claimed they were for “vocational training”. The government has never explained why leading scholars, historians, writers and poets were also among those being “trained”.
Rahile Dawut sentenced to life
On Friday, the Dui Hua human rights foundation reported that Rahile Dawut, another prominent Uyghur intellectual, who like Mr. Tohti had become a rare independent chronicler of Uyghur society, had been sentenced to life in prison “for endangering state security”. Ms. Dawut was detained in late 2017 and tried a year later.
A renowned anthropologist who studied folk traditions in Xinjiang, she had founded the Ethnic Minorities Research Centre at Xinjiang University College of the Humanities in 2007. Like Mr. Tohti, as an academic at a prominent state-run university, she had worked with Communist Party administrators through the early 2000s. In Ms. Dawut’s case, she was even a Communist Party member and had worked on projects with the Ministry of Culture.
For long, Beijing had, to some degree, valued as bridged to the Uyghur community independent voices like Mr. Tohti and Ms. Dawut, who had championed a Uyghur identity within the framework of China’s ethnic autonomy laws – which were passed in the 1980s and remain, on paper, guarantors of ethnic rights even if their enforcement has often failed them.
However, the shift under Mr. Xi has been so pronounced that even these voices have now been deemed as threats to the state.
Friday’s news of Ms. Dawut’s sentence, observed James Millward, professor at Georgetown University who researches Xinjiang, had clearly rebuffed the Chinese government’s “claim that its oppression in the Uyghur region is about terrorism, job creation or poverty.”