In Xinjiang, the Chinese army is anxiously guarding a tense calm between Han Chinese and islamic Uighurs. Ilham Tohti, Uighur professor in Beijing, is 'very pessimistic'.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis (2010)

in Beijing, China

"I always repeat my mistakes," says Ilham Tohti (1969), laughing out loud. His laugh fills the apartment. “I just get very passionate talking about Xinjiang and the Uighurs. I mean: they're my people!"

Tohti is a professor at China Nationalities University in Beijing. He is well known for criticizing the way the Chinese government treats the Uighurs and wants the laws protecting ethnic minorities in China to be followed.

That's basically the mistake Tohti keeps making: being a critic. It earned him home detention at least a dozen times by now. In 2009 he was locked up in prison for three weeks. Every time someone knocks on his front door, he is ready for the police to be on the other side - ready to pick him up once more.

Soldiers on guard at a mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

One of his mistakes, according to the authorities: organizing a series of lectures on Central Asia at his university. "I counted Xinjiang as part of Central Asia in those lectures," he says. "I absolutely consider Xinjiang to be Chinese territory, but ethnically the Uighur people are simply closer to the peoples of Central Asia than they are to Han Chinese. So I discussed the common culture and shared history of the peoples of Central Asia, but the university has banned the lectures."

Then, another mistake: he passed around four hundred copies of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to his students: half of them in Chinese, the other half in the Uighur language.

Tohti is not promoting independence for Xinjiang. "What I want is for the Uighurs to unite and fight for their rights. Right now, the Chinese government is favoring Han culture and language over the indigenous Uighur culture and language of Xinjiang. The formal name of the region has the word 'autonomous' in it. It's time we got the respect that should be given to an autonomous people, with an own language and history."

Han Chinese in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Beijing is actively promoting the relocation of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. They already occupy the most prominent posts in the government and economy of the region. Tohti: "Xinjiang has, just like the rest of China, experienced a lot of economic growth. But it all goes to the Han. The Uighurs don't get their share."

In 2010, Uighurs formed 59 percent of the total population of 21 million in Xinjiang. Their frustrations led to violent ethnic riots in July 2009. The official death toll of these riots stands at 197, mostly Han.

Beijing first tried injecting even more money into the huge region to quell any future unrest.

Uighur residents in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Tohti doesn't believe this will lead to anything good. "When Han Chinese talk about Xinjiang, they're only thinking of the oil and gas in the ground. They treat the region as their personal property. Meanwhile, the Uighurs get no say whatsoever on what should happen in their homeland. Any time a problem arises, Beijing puts out the fire one way or the other. But never by providing Uighurs with a permanent perspective on better lives."

"There is no trust left between Han and Uighurs. A peace that's being enforced by the presence of a heavily armored military does not last. I'm very pessimistic about the future of Xinjiang."