HONG KONG – Chinese authorities have warned a prominent economist from China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority against speaking or writing publicly after he criticized China’s handling of his native Xinjiang region, friends and colleagues who have seen him in recent days said.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing, “is working as usual, but he’s being questioned by state security police after class every day,” one friend who spoke on condition of anonymity said in an interview.
Other friends, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tohti had been warned against speaking or writing in the media.
“His Web site has been shut down. We don’t know how long this situation will continue,” one friend said.
In a blog post dated March 12, Tohti himself wrote: “I apologize to my readers, but I’m told I must be silent for some time. I am facing unbelievable threats and pressure now, but whatever happens, I call on my friends to stay firmly on course.”
Officials contacted by telephone on Wednesday at the Central Nationalities University’s economics, security, and propaganda departments declined to comment on Tohti or where he could be reached.
In an interview earlier this month, Tohti sharply criticized Chinese policies in the northwestern Xinjiang region where he was born, saying that joblessness remains the single biggest problem and residents have suffered under the current governor.
“Unemployment has existed in Xinjiang since the 1950s,” Tohti told RFA’s Uyghur service after returning home to Beijing from a weeklong academic exchange in France. “No matter what … I will still talk about the issue of unemployment.”
He also sharply criticized the governor of Xinjiang, Nur Bekri, as incompetent.
“I think he’s unqualified … I don’t know how he became governor of Xinjiang, and I don’t recognize him as a qualified governor,” Tohti said.
“He doesn’t care about Uyghurs. He’s always stressed the stability and security of Xinjiang and threatened Uyghurs. Xinjiang has developed, but the people are living in poverty, especially Uyghurs. Laws that should have been applied in the Uyghur Autonomous Region haven’t been implemented.”
Tohti, who said he feared for his own safety, was speaking as the National People’s Congress, China’s annual session of parliament, met in Beijing, with Bekri warning of a “more fierce struggle” against separatist unrest in the region.
Repeated calls to Tohti’s telephone numbers since his March 12 interview have rung unanswered.
In an interview with Radio France International in late February, Tohti urged the United States not to repatriate to China the 17 Uyghur men held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility but cleared of terrorism charges.
China has demanded the return of the 17 men, but human rights groups say they would likely face persecution in China, and the United States continues to seek a third country in which they can be resettled.
Tohti, who studied French immigration policy while he was in the country Feb. 22-March 1, also spoke out against racial discrimination in China against ethnic Uyghurs.
“Compared with France, racial discrimination is widespread in China, especially in job opportunities. Race discrimination is prohibited in both countries by law, but the differences between the two countries in implementing those laws is unbelievable,” he said.
China has accused Uyghur separatists of fomenting unrest in Xinjiang, particularly in the run-up to and during the Beijing Olympics in August last year when a wave of violence hit the vast desert region.
The violence prompted a crackdown in which the government says 1,295 people were detained for state security crimes.
In mid-2008, Chinese authorities closed a Web site launched by Tohti in 2006 and aimed at promoting understanding between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs.
Tohti said it was fellow Uyghurs who told authorities his Chinese-language Web site, Uyghur Online, had links to Uyghur “extremists” abroad.
At the time, Tohti said his site—which employed 67 people of 12 nationalities, all unpaid—sometimes scored 1 million page views daily, with content published in Chinese and written by Uyghur, Han, Korean, Tibetan, and other contributors.
The site was later reopened but has now been closed again for the sixth time.
According to his official biography, Tohti was born in Atush, Xinjiang, on Oct. 25, 1969. He graduated from the Northeast Normal University and the Economics School at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing.
Original reporting in Uyghur and translation by Shohret Hoshur. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.