Arrest of academic Uygur Ilham Tohti shows gloves are off when it comes to dissent

Arrest of outspoken scholar shows Xinjiang's former Mr Nice Guy party boss is now adopting a hard line on dissent in his restive province

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 7:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 11:25pm

The detention of outspoken Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti shows Beijing has moved from a carrot and stick approach in the restive region to a crackdown on any dissent, analysts say.

Xinjiang party boss Zhang Chunxian was known for his populist image and media savvy when he took over from hardliner Wang Lequan in 2010 following a massive riot.

His priorities have included accelerating economic development and increasing trade with Central Asian countries.

But analysts say that since the third party plenum in October, Zhang has been adopting a hardline approach, exemplified by Tohti's arrest.

The English-language official Global Times newspaper yesterday ran an editorial saying China must punish the "brains" behind terrorists and fight against those who preach with "malicious intent".

"Being a Uygur has made Tohti special, and he and the West seem to be taking advantage of this," it said, accusing the economist who teaches at Beijing's Central University for Nationalities of giving "aggressive" lectures.

"Freedom of speech and thought is encouraged on campus. But freedom has boundaries. Teachers with malicious intent should not be allowed to freely preach to students," said the editorial.

"The authorities must resolutely crack down on the terrorists, as well as the 'brains' behind them."

The editorial noted the "particularly close link between Tohti and the West", illustrated by the US State Department's "concern" over the fate of the academic.

Tohti, 44, was suspected of "committing crimes and violating the law", a Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday.

Lin Bao-hua, a Taipei-based political commentator also known by his pseudonym, Ling Feng, said Tohti was taken away from his Beijing home just few days after Zhang wrapped up his sixth plenary session with the regional government.

Lin noted that Zhang's recent speeches no longer mentioned economic development but highlighted the importance of maintaining stability.

"Zhang's speeches tell us that Beijing has decided to use overwhelming political means to make Xinjiang under its control," Lin said.

Xinjiang media reported that President Xi Jinping gave a policy speech about Xinjiang during a Politburo Standing Committee session in Beijing on December 19.

The speech came just days after 14 Uygurs and two police officers were killed in a riot in Xinjiang.

Details of Xi's speech were not revealed, but Zhang immediately organised six conferences with various officials about carrying out the instructions as soon as he returned from Beijing, according to Xinjiang Daily.

Jiang Zhaoyong , a Beijing-based expert on ethnic issues, said that since the third plenum Beijing had adjusted its Xinjiang policy to focus on stability.

In the past, Beijing encouraged the Xinjiang government to boost economic development in a bid to improve the living stands of Uygur and other minorities, which they believed would improve relations between Han majority and the Uygurs.

"But now economic development obviously is not the top issue," Jiang said.

The Xinjiang government on Friday announced a draft for this year's budget, with spending for fighting terrorism doubled to 2 million yuan (HK$2.54 million).

Xinhua reported that the money would be used to combat the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

A Beijing-based Xinjiang expert said all scholars, especially Uygurs, were warned not to contact the World Uygur Congress, a Uygur exile group, because it was defined as a separatist organisation that encouraged "the independence of Xinjiang".

Another Urumqi-based Uygur scholar said his institution "had repeatedly remind everyone not to make any comments on Tohti's detention because it was a "very sensitive and complicated case".