07/02/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

Why Beijing Fears Uyghur Scholar Ilham Tohti

Since Xi Jinping became China's new president more than a year ago, questioning or criticizing Chinese Communist Party rule has become an extremely risky business for academics, scholars and lawyers in China. Beijing has resolutely brushed aside China's legal protections for freedom of speech and arrogantly disregarded international concerns when it comes to dealing with regime critics, even those moderates whose intention is pure and criticisms are constructive. The case in point is China's treatment of prominent Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. Mr. Tohti's case illustrates that China's legal system is merely a theatrical performance. It gives a veneer of legality to a deeply flawed process, all in the name of China's national interest and maintaining state stability.

According to reports circulated mid-June, Mr. Tohti was tried in secret by the Chinese authorities and given a heavy sentence. The information stemmed from Mr. Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping who stated he had received the news from two sources. Although the secret trial turned out to be a false alarm after Mr. Li visited Professor Tohti last week in his prison cell for the first time in five months, nobody is optimistic that Mr. Tohti will receive a fair trial in an open court. The trial, whenever it happens, will most likely be a show trial backed by shadowy evidence with a predetermined sentence from Beijing. During Professor Tohti's nearly six-month long incommunicado incarceration, he was denied food for ten days and shackled with a big iron chain. The harsh treatment of Professor Tohti essentially prevents any future peaceful resolution of Beijing's increasingly contentious relations with the restive Uyghur population of East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).

Mr. Tohti is a well-respected economic professor at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing. He is also a moderate critic of the Chinese government's discriminatory policies in East Turkestan, frequently urging Chinese leaders to find rational solutions to racial discrimination and marginalization of the Uyghur people. In order to foster interethnic understanding and reconciliation between China's Han majority and the Uyghur people, he created Uighurbiz, a website which was widely respected by both Han scholars and Uyghur academics. In spite of his sincere efforts as a loyal Chinese citizen to correct the chronic mistakes of Beijing's Uyghur policies, China's current leaders saw him instead as a troublemaker and a thorn in their side.

On January 15, at least two-dozen Chinese security officers raided Professor Tohti's apartment in Beijing, confiscated his computers and written materials, and dragged him away in front of his terrified wife and children to an unknown location. Despite strong international condemnation and expressions of deep concern by both the U.S. and EU, Mr. Tohti has been held incommunicado since his detention. His whereabouts are not known. Even his wife and children did not know where he is being held.

Only three days after his detention and forced disappearance, China's state run Global Times issued an op-ed accusing Professor Tohti of having links to the "West," delivering "aggressive lectures and being the "brains" behind alleged Uyghur terrorists. The op-ed was followed by a statement from the Urumchi Public Security Bureau on its Weibo account alleging Professor Tohti "made use of his capacity as a teacher to recruit, lure and threaten some people to form a ring and join hands with key people from the East Turkestan Independence Movement to plan and organize people to go abroad to take part in separatist activities [and]...was involved in splitting the country." Professor Tohti was formally charged with the crime of "separatism" according to February 2014 reports in the overseas media.

There is no public record Professor Tohti has ever advocated independence for East Turkestan, supported terrorism against China or formed a ring to join hands with key people from the East Turkestan Independence Movement, whoever these unnamed people may be. Mr. Tohti was very public about his opinions and documented them extensively, and consistently rejected so called "splittism." However, in China's legal system, which serves only the party-state, a man is presumed guilty until found innocent. This is the diametric opposite of the Western legal system. A regime critic, especially a Uyghur like Professor Tohti, will never be legally found innocent, even though he is factually not guilty of government charges.

But why would a rising and confident China go so far as to detain, disappear, fabricate charges and then sentence a peaceful, sincere, and moderate Uyghur scholar like Professor Tohti, who believes he is doing this as a concerned and loyal Chinese citizen? What is it that Professor Tohti says or does that keeps Chinese leaders awake at night? Why is it that Beijing fears him so much? Many people in China and the West are simply baffled by the Chinese government's rather harsh and unconscionable treatment of Professor Tohti.

In fact, Beijing 's harsh and unconscionable treatment of Professor Tohti is not quite surprising. The real reason that Bejing has feared and then decided to silence him is simply because Professor Tohti's constructive criticism didn't fit into the Chinese government's domestic propaganda narrative that "China respects the rights of all Uyghur people," "Uyghur people are happy and warmly embrace Communist Party rule and support Chinese government policies," and "China has preferential policies for the Uyghur people." In essence, Professor Tohti's constructive criticism, no matter how sincere, mild or helpful, exposed the hypocrisy of China's domestic propaganda narrative about the Uyghur people and East Turkestan since 1949, when communist Chinese troops conquered the once independent state.

It is easy for the Chinese government to defend criticism of its ethnic policies coming from someone overseas and to attack a regime critic based outside of China as someone who has no credible information from the ground and is therefore completely cut off his or her influence in China. It is difficult for the Chinese government to defend criticism of its ethnic policies coming from an insider and one of the leading intellectuals of that group living in the capital, Beijing; a person who has first hand information on the effects of Chinese discriminatory policies on his people and whose relatives, friends and students fell victims to them.

Furthermore, Professor Tohti's constructive criticism indirectly exposed the hypocrisy of Beijing's global propaganda narrative since 9/11 that "China is a victim of Uyghur terrorism" and "China faces a threat of Islamic terrorism and needs international support in its fight against three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism." Professor Tohti's criticism articulated the root causes of Uyghur discontent in modern China and unambiguously pointed out the fact that "Uyghur people have been a victim of China's six-decade long institutionalized discriminatory policies," "the high tension that exists today between the Chinese state and the Uyghur people is really the result of China's repressive policies," and "China needs to prove its case with substantive evidence about alleged Uyghur terrorism instead of resorting to Cultural Revolution-style rhetoric, intimidation and demonization of Uyghur people." His firm belief that tension is going to only rise higher and higher as long as Beijing retains its ongoing heavy-handed repressive policies against the Uyghur people.

Consequently, Professor Tohti's sincere and constructive criticism didn't sit well with China's current leaders. They believed that they could continue to propagate their recurring, hypocritical domestic and global narrative on the Uyghur people and East Turkestan only by permanently silencing him. What better way to silence Professor Tohti than discrediting his words and deeds, holding him incommunicado indefinitely, subjecting him to a mockery of justice, locking him up as long as possible and throwing away the key. China's rulers think that while the international community condemns the terrible treatment of Professor Tohti and Western governments express deep concerns for now, the reality is that they will forget about this courageous Uyghur critic as time lapses and more important global issues grab their attention. By that time, Mr Tohti will be far from their minds, but he will still be caged in a dark and hopeless dungeon in China. Chinese leaders believe time is on their side in the case of Professor Tohti.

However, one lesson authoritarian governments rarely learn is that they give birth to the very people who will eventually reform or revolutionize the political system simply because of the sheer brutality and uncompromising idiocy of such regimes. Through mistreatment and imprisonment, these authoritarian governments will make people like Professor Tohti larger than life and inspire others to follow his footsteps to stand up to their inherently unjust rule. If Professor Tohti dies in Chinese prison, Beijing will make a historic martyr of him. If he is released sometime in the distant future, then he will most likely become a more confident and courageous spokesperson for the long-suffering Uyghur people. Whether Professor Tohti eventually dies in prison or is released, he is already a transformational figure, a shining light in the darkest corner of the world.