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Morphine, not medicine

Frank Sieren / cmkSeptember 27, 2014

After the sentencing of Ilham Tohti, a moderate government critic, to life in prison, the conflicts in western China's restive Xinjiang province are likely to get worse, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Ilham Tohti
Image: picture-allianceAP Photo/Andy Wong

With this week's sentencing of Ilham Tohti, an academic who has been campaigning for the rights of the Muslim Uighur minority in China's restive Xinjiang province - but explicitly not for the western region's independence - the Chinese justice system made the wrong decision at the wrong time.

Tohti, 44, ran the website Uighur Online, on which he has been accused of inciting his Uighur compatriots to violence. These claims have not been substantiated by the evidence. The economics professor last taught at Beijing's Minzu University and, according to the charges against him, also organized and led separatist groups.

As "proof," the Chinese authorities produced writings published by Tohti on his website, along with teaching material with which he, according to state news agency Xinhua, "bewitched and compelled" young students to work for his website. He is also said to have "built up a criminal syndicate." Seven students were arrested along with Tohti as part of his "separatist group."

In a trial that lasted just two days, the highest court in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang , sentenced Tohti to life imprisonment. Apart from the fact that the trial was not transparent even by Chinese standards, this case again makes it clear that China is still far from a stable and comprehensive rule of law.

Radicalization fears

The possible consequences of this decision - whether dictated by Beijing or not - must not be underestimated. The ruling will drive liberal Uighurs underground and radicalize them. The conflict in the country's far west will not ease any time soon. The Xinjiang Communist Party's dealings with Tohti are further proof that its strategy is deterrence, at any cost - even if it means ratcheting up the pressure. Any type of platform, any kind of role model for the Uighurs, is immediately stifled. This is the lesson that the hardliners in the Chinese government have learned from the success of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. But they're acting like a doctor who has injected morphine, only to believe the illusion that the patient has been cured.

Frank Sieren
DW columnist Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

More than ever, Uighurs are feeling discriminated against by Beijing and fear that their culture is being increasingly stifled by the Han Chinese, who are moving to the region from the east. It's hard to say exactly how many of the Uighurs are secretly in solidarity with the terrorists, who want to use ever increasing attacks to force the government in Beijing to relent.

Since the 2009 uprising, battle lines have hardened. A car bomb that exploded in October 2013 at Beijing's Tiananmen Square has been attributed to the Uighurs. Bloody attacks have been directed not only against Chinese institutions, but also more unpredictable targets - in recent months, a train station in Kunming and a market in Urumqi.

Potential gateway for international terrorism

Beijing is preparing itself for attacks that are more frequent and "professional." Xinjiang province, which shares a border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, has become a potential gateway for international terror. Recently, the terrorist organization "Islamic State" ("IS") singled out China as one of Islam's greatest enemies.

Beijing should do everything possible to ensure that the number of supporters of "IS" and other foreign terrorist groups in Xinjiang remains as small as possible. But much of what has happened in recent months appears to be counterproductive to this goal. The local population in Xinjiang has been called on to report suspicious neighbors with long beards to the authorities, while Muslim officials were prohibited from fasting during Ramadan.

No wonder that activists are now comparing Tohti to South African leader Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime before becoming president in 1994. However, the Communist Party has also taken steps in the right direction: a new project will provide financial support to Han Chinese and Uighurs who share a house or marry. These are measures that will actually strengthen mutual understanding - unless roommates or spouses find themselves at odds over Tohti's sentence.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for the last 20 years.