By Atharva Pandit:
It was around 9:00 pm on December 8, 2008, when the police knocked on the doors of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo and activist Zhang Zuhua. Two hours later, the two Chinese intellectuals were detained and their homes searched, the result of which was their arrests and the confiscation of their computers and working material. Zuhua was let off the next day, but Liu remained arrested. The arrest wasn’t unprecedented either, for Liu, a 2010 Nobel laureate for peace- which he dedicated to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre- was under the surveillance of the Chinese authorities for a long time now, and his internet and telephone lines remained cut ever since 2004. All this was due to his activism and vocal and written criticism of the Communist government which, it seemed, had not really mended some of its ways as concerned with handling of criticism after Mao. Liu was arrested without any explanation as such, except the vague “inciting subversion of state power,” to which he pleaded not guilty on December 23rd, 2009, more than a year after his arrest.
His trial went on for about three hours, and in those three hours, the defense was not allowed to present any evidence. Two days later, on December 25th, 2009, the verdict finally arrived: Liu was to serve eleven years in prison and two years’ denial of any political right. One felt as if he was reading a History textbook describing the Soviet Era mock trials when he read of this unfolding drama. A year later, when Liu received the Nobel Prize for Peace, an empty chair was reserved for him at the ceremony in Oslo- an empty chair which represented silence and repression in modern China.
Today, we are reminded of that brutal repression again, with the arrest of Tie Liu and the trial of Ilham Tohti. Tie is an 81 year old writer, who was arrested by the Chinese authorities on September 15th, for his essays criticizing the Communist party and for publishing memoirs written by those which are imprisoned by them. His arrest might have been prompted by the publication of his critical essay on Liu Yunshan, who happens to be the Director of Propaganda Department, Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. His wife stated that for Tie, his arrest came as a surprise, since he was under the impression that considering his old age, the authorities would leave him alone, especially since Tie had been subjected to labor camps in the past, during the period of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But evidently, the Chinese authorities present no such illusion: young or old, criticism is not to be tolerated.
Meanwhile Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur from China, whose trial started two days after the arrest of Tie, is a better-known intellectual, writer and economist, who used to teach at Minzu University in Beijing. In a parallel to Liu’s case, Tohti’s apartment was raided on January 15th of this year and he was detained while his papers were confiscated. His wife arrived at home to discover officers from the Chinese police rummaging through his home, searching for material which would prove the charges which they were going to paste upon him: those of “separatism” and “violation of law”.
But all Tohti had done was to voice out the opinions of his community- ignored and embattled as it remains under the Party’s policies- through his various articles, and providing them with a platform by launching the website Uyghur Online. This, however, was not the first time the activist and prominent Economist has been a target of the authorities- he has long been harassed for his speaking out against the government for their ignorance, and sometimes even exploitation of the Uyghur tribes’ rights.
Uyghur is a tribe consisting of majority Central Asians, settled in the Autonomous Region of China but spread out in the neighboring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia as well. They form China’s largest ethnic group, with a population of over 8.4 million. They were converted from Buddhism to Islam during the 900’s, and staged several protests and uprisings against the Chinese dominance and even went on to establish an Eastern Turkestan Republic in 1933. But these uprisings and revolts were crushed by the Soviet Union and the tribe found itself included in the Chinese territory after the Chinese Civil War.
The major concern for the Uyghur community is China’s repression of religious freedom and the economic policies of the Chinese government which encourages the influx of Han Chinese in the Uyghur territory, thus minimizing job opportunities. In recent years, the community has intensified their fight for independence by resorting to violent attacks in the metros and on the streets of Beijing and other cities, as news reports of knife-wielding “terrorists” stabbing passengers have graced newspaper headlines the world over. The Chinese authorities, in their turn, resort to wide-scale suppression, as an estimated 400 intellectuals, including the prominent journalists Gheyret Niyaz and Gulmire Imin, have been harassed and jailed after the riots in Urumchi on 5th July, 2009 when the Chinese government had attacked a peaceful rally held by Uyghur protesters, in which about 800 from the ethnic community were speculatively killed.
As a student Tohti mastered in Economics, and in 1994, began teaching developmental economics at Minzu University’s Institute of Economic Research. Seven years later, in 2001, he was an exchange student researching economic development and security in Pakistan. In 2014, he was awarded with that year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Accused of a serious charge of separatism, if proven guilty, Tohti would be either punished to a life in jail or even a death sentence.
Tohti and Tie’s cases are not isolated- they form the part of a campaign by the Chinese authorities to suppress the freedom of speech and expression of every journalist, writer, academic, public intellectual, even a Nobel laureate and his wife who are found practicing it. When the members of PEN America paid a visit to China, they were advised- sometimes even threatened- by the Chinese authorities against visiting writers and academics in China. The dictatorial one-party system, which many of the jailed intellectuals have been protesting against, has laid out several laws so as to restrict the freedom of its people- the latest of which includes a restriction on foreign entertainment being viewed by a majority of the Chinese online. From April next year, any foreign drama series or a movie would need the approval of concerned authorities before being put up online. This is nothing but invisible form of censorship and a nod towards dictatorial instincts- if China needs any more nods, that is.
“Son, be good and stay at home, never provoke the Communist Party,” warned the father of another jailed (but now exiled in Berlin) Chinese writer, Liao Yiwu, while on his death bed. Yiwu obviously did not follow it, nor did hundreds of other journalists, writers and intellectuals trying to present the truth to the World, and they ended up facing the wrath of a government which has, in the past couple of years, increasingly- and alarmingly- shown totalitarian tendencies (not unlike Putin’s Russia). But so long as China has these courageous intellectuals and the bearers of truth like Tohti and Lui, Tie and Yiwu, the fight will continue. The Chinese government hasn’t let up, but miraculously enough, neither have the intellectuals.