The Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, currently held in a Chinese prison, has just been awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament.
Before he was arrested in 2014, Tohti was a leading Uighur intellectual best known for founding the website Uighur Online, a Chinese website dedicated to the mutual understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
Tohti’s arrest—along with several other members of his intellectual circle—in 2014 was the final blow to any notion that the Uighurs could advocate for themselves within China. Tohti never advocated for the independence of East Turkistan (aka Xinjiang).
On the contrary, he insisted that the only solution for Uighurs is to stay within China and peacefully advocate their civil rights under the Chinese constitution. Tohti advocated the rule of law under Chinese constitution. In a way, Tohti chose to be Martin Luther King Jr. of China, not Malcolm X.
Despite being the mildest and non-violent equal rights advocator and always going by the Chinese constitution, Tohti was severely punished by the Chinese government. His arrest was intended to send a message that any kind of dissent in East Turkistan was unacceptable. Since then, the conditions of the Uighurs have only worsened.
The Uighurs are the targets of what human rights activists describe as “cultural genocide,” an attempt to destroy their language, culture, and existence as a people.
That includes pulling almost all Uighur-language works from bookshelves, forced indoctrination programs, sweeping arrests of Uighur intellectuals, and, most notoriously, the creation of detention camps to hold over a million people. Tens of thousands of children, at least, have been stripped from their imprisoned parents and are being held in Chinese state-run orphanages.