Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur professor at China’s Minzu University in Beijing, was reportedly detained on February 2, 2013, at Beijing International Airport when he was planning to depart for Indiana University in the U.S.
News of Tohti’s detainment and prevention from leaving China quickly surfaced in major media outlets and generated much discussion and speculation on Tohti as why he has been detained and blocked once again.
Tohti’s detainment seems to be ironic because as a Uyghur intellectual and the founder of the Uyghurbiz, Tohti’s Uyghurbiz is probably the only Uyghur voice to express concerns under the framework of Chinese legal system and via the Chinese language. Many of his articles on Xinjiang and the Uyghurs simply appeal to the Chinese government to fully implement China’s constitution and autonomous laws in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (www.uyghurbiz.com). The only reason for his arrest, as Tohti correctly pointed out, was due to his Xinjiang Uyghur ethnicity.
A careful scrutiny of Mr. Tohti’s detainment may indicate a subtle yet discernible secret behind his detainment and blockade. According to Radio France, Tohti was reportedly first detained in the Beijing International Airport not by Beijing’s security personnel but by Xinjiang security personnel. Here, it is clear that Xinjiang security personnel’s action was not coordinated by Beijing counterparts. Tohti “was currently controlled by Xinjiang security officers and they are waiting for their Beijing counterparts to come” (“我现在被新疆的国保看着，他们在等北京的国保”). In other words, Tohti’s detainment was carried out by Xinjiang authorities, not by Beijing.
Those who are familiar with China’s politics and administration may quickly raise the question of why, Tohti, as a Beijing resident with Beijing resident card (hukou), was first detained by Xinjiang security officers, instead of Beijing authorities. To better understand the behaviors of Xinjiang security officers towards Uyghurs outside Xinjiang, one has to review the strategies of local Xinjiang rulers, often called as “kings of Xinjiang” (新疆王) by locals from the warlord period to the present. Since the fall of the Qing rule in Xinjiang, every governor of Xinjiang successfully converted the region into their own domain, ruled by each governor’s ideology and policy (not by the central government’s laws). To realize the dictatorship in Xinjiang, the Republic-era governors had manipulated foreign or domestic security threats to China’s sovereignty. Sheng Shicai’s rule of Xinjiang best exemplifies this logic and strategy.
Although China’s external security threats have reached a minimal level especially after the establishment of “Shanghai 5,” the ruling logic and strategy of Xinjiang under Wang Lequan have strikingly resembled that of Republican warlords in Xinjiang. If one recalls the brutal policy of Jin Shuren that prohibited Uyghur from going to Hajj, then one can easily find an updated, contemporary version of controlling the physical movements of Uyghurs by denying them access to passports. As Tohti’s case demonstrates, even if a Uyghur outside Xinjiang can hold a Chinese passport and pass the security check at an airport, Xinjiang security officers can still practice “extra-territoriality” to block them from leaving the country. More interesting enough, Wang’s Xinjiang policy advisors mainly came from the study of frontier history of Xinjiang, especially during the Republican period. There is no surprise then that during Wang Lequan’s dictatorship in Xinjiang, he successfully put Xinjiang on the track of Chechnyanization through his own official separatist, radical, and extremist policies against the Uyghurs.
Zhang’s replacement of Wang in the last couple years seemingly ushered in a new reform and open policy, which he repeated on many occasions. However, his new policy attempts encountered tremendous resistance from local security enforcement. After all, Xinjiang’s security officers and personnel under Wang Lequan’s rule had been indoctrinated with anti-separatism, anti-extremism, and anti-extremism. More importantly, Wang’s long harsh rule of Xinjiang enabled him to appoint and promote many security officers. A possibly open-minded new policy towards Xinjiang under the Zhang Chunxian would greatly affect the budget for security personnel and, of course, their personal interests.
To maintain their privileged budget and other benefits, Xinjiang security personnel need to highlight their continued importance by arresting Uyghurs, even outside Xinjiang. It is not coincidental then that Xinjiang security officers went to Guangzhou to interrogate employees of Aizhixing (爱知行) on their involvement in assisting Uyghur AIDS-carriers. These two almost simultaneous actions of Xinjiang security officers in Guangzhou and Beijing represent a new effort to put Xinjiang policy back on old tracks, probably in order to influence Zhang Chunxian’s ongoing new Xinjiang policy this critical year. In the best case scenario, the Tohti case testifies the complexity of local power struggle after the dismissal of Wang Lequan in Xinjiang between his existing security confidantes and the new party secretary. In the worst case, it simply announces the death of Zhang’s new policy and return to old repressive policy towards the Uyghurs.