Ilham Tohti’s Case Show Chinese Human Rights Abuses Continue

By Patrick Brogan

Chinese Democracy is a Guns N’ Roses album that seemed to take forever to make. It became something of a mythical beast within the music industry. For a time, I thought it was a conceptual joke, Chinese democracy will never happen. Indeed, China has many problems relating to freedom that some in the West have overlooked.

Freedom of expression, democratic values and human rights abuses are way behind standards Europeans and North Americans take for granted. Given the rise of Daesh, the civil war in Syria and Kim Kardashian’s necklace theft, the Chinese civil rights abuses have gone under the radar. For this reason, most people won’t have heard of Ilham Tohti and his imprisonment.

Who is He?

He is a Chinese economist and a member of the Turkic Uighur community, which is mainly Muslim. Born in Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, he migrated east to Beijing for his studies. Although living a city thousands of miles away, his thoughts were never far from his homeland. He started to write about his homeland and the issues that were affecting his people.

As his writing was critical of the Chinese system, it wasn’t long before the authorities took notice of him. In 2014, tensions in the region escalated and it wasn’t long before the Chinese intelligence service came clamping down and Ilham Tohti was no exception.

Trial and Prison

In February of that year, he was charged with separatism. In the September, Tohti was tried. Many human rights observers described it as a “politicized show trial”. Although he advocated peaceful protest and wanted to build a bridge between the various factions, he was found and given a life sentence.

Just to give you a flavour of the pantomime nature of the trial, Human Rights Watch reported; “The indictment also cited as evidence a survey Tohti re-posted about Uighurs’ attitudes toward independence and a meeting on religion at a Hong Kong university that Tohti suggested some of his students to attend. The authorities alleged that Tohti’s expressions and writings have “subversive intent.” The indictment gives no evidence or precise details about how these articles, interviews, or meetings constitute “separatism.” His lawyers said that none of these writings incited violence or terrorism.”

Since then, many human rights campaigners have tried to highlight his imprisonment –he recently was awarded the Martin Ennals award for defending human rights– but the rest of the global media have been slow giving his plight the attention it deserves.

International Reaction

Maybe China is out of the news cycle and the Tohti story is not sexy enough to be covered. Maybe the world needs another Tiananmen Square to stand up and take notice. Really, they shouldn’t. There is enough evidence to highlight China’s abuses. Although the official numbers of death penalties remain a State secret, China is without doubt one of the most persistent offenders in this regard. Also, equally important is the dubious nature surrounding a number of the convictions. Workers’ rights also leaves a lot to be desired, particularly for migrant workers. Interestingly, China is run by a communist party. There have been many labour strikes in the last few years with people demanding better rights and conditions. Gender equality is lacking, too. In recent weeks, it has come to light that many financial institutions are using pictures of women naked as collateral on loans.

China’s reputation may change with Trump’s election in the US. Although, the US ran Guantanamo for years and may want to lay off the human rights issues for a few years. The trade China does with the rest of the world puts it in a strong position and almost above criticism. Unless this changes, nobody will seriously question them on these issues. If the international community keeps patting itself on the back rather than challenging nations’ deplorable behaviour people will continue to suffer. The Chinese Government will certainly not do it on their own volition.


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