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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

If You Want To Alter History...Silence The Historians!

Banned Books Week

tohti Tunyaz
Tohti Tunyaz was an up and coming young man. I say he was because at the moment he has had his career put on hold by the Peoples Republic of China.

You see Tohti is a spy. Or so they say.

Tohti is an Uygur and an historian and he has currently 3 years into an eleven year sentence in an Urumqi Xinjiang jail for "stealing state secrets for foreign persons"

The Man

Tohti Tunyaz (pen-name: Tohti Muzart) is an ethnic Uighur historian and writer.

Tohti graduated from the history department of the Central Institute of Nationalities, Beijing, in 1984 and was assigned to work for the China National Standing Committee. During this time he reportedly formed a close relationship with former Xinjiang governors Seyfundin Eziz and Ismail Emet, and was involved in the translation of some of Eziz's works.

Tohti began studying for his PhD at Tokyo University's School of Humanities in Japan in 1995, specializing in Uighur history and ethnic relations. He has reportedly published several papers on Uighur history in Japan, and has published a book in Beijing.

Tohti is married with two children who remain in Japan


The Arrest

Tohti re-entered China for the purposes of research for his doctoral thesis He was arrested in Urumqi, Xinjiang on February 6, 1998 where he had gone to collect research material. He had reportedly been watched by security police for some time prior to his arrest, and he is claimed to have been arrested with allegedly sensitive material in his possession

Some reports claim that the content of this material related to ethnic relations published for classified circles only, others that it was material published for the general public.

Tohti Tunyaz is said to have been formally charged with 'inciting national disunity' and 'stealing state secrets for foreign persons' charges that were upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Court Decision and Response

Tohti was convicted in March 1999 by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court, and his conviction and 11-year sentence in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Prison No. 3 was confirmed on appeal in March 2000.

The courts decisions was based on the supposition that the Tohti intended to publish a book in Japanese for the purpose of instigating national disunity, and made copies of confidential documents at Urumqi in order to leak them to foreigners. Also it was alleged that he published a book in Japan in 1998 entitled The Inside Story of the Silk Road which incited national disunity and saparatism.

According to the court's decision, which was reportedly read by supporters in Urumqi in August 1999, neither the book nor its manuscript was submitted to the court as a proof.

As far as is known Tohti's colleages claim that he wrote no such book in Japan. As to leaking confidential documents supporters state that it would appear that the only proven "crime" is that of obtaining and copying part of a 50-year-old document for his research with the help of an official librarian, which the authorities claimed was "theft of classified information" and "inciting national disunity"

It is further claimed by supporters that the "foreigners" who was alleged to have received the documents were never identified at the trial. Consequently, his supporters argue, the decision was based on a misrepresentation of the facts concerning Tohti's scholarly activities. His real and only intention, they say, was to collect source materials in order to complete his doctoral thesis dealing with the modern history of the Uygur people.

"It can't be," they said, recalling that Tohti was well-known for being critical of the Uighur independence movement.

Tohti's wife has stated

"If my husband were a real believer in independence from China for his home region, he would be ready to risk his life," said Tohti's wife Rabiya, 37, who lives in Japan with their son and a 4-year-old daughter. "But the Chinese court's charges are unjust and intolerable. I should have appealed to the public earlier." referring to her having kept quiet at the time of his arrest. ." Kyodo News 22/9/2002


In December 2001, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an official opinion declaring Mr. Tohti to be arbitrarily detained. It further concluded that the Chinese court's sentence was in violation of Tohti's freedom of thought and speech by extended interpretation of "state secrets" and that it violates Article 16 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and stipulations in the International Covenants on Human Rights.

The committee's official opinion that Tohti was arbitrarily detained is nonbinding because China did not ratify the treaties

Tohti has received wide support from Academic circles in Japan and in August, 1999 Professor Sato and a colleague, Professor Kishimoto Mio, visited Urmuchi in order to see him. Two other Professors (Kishimoto and Yamaguchi) visited Urmuchi together with Tohti's son in 2000 and were afforded a short meeting with him.


The Japanese government has little to say on the case taking the line that it is an internal affair of the Chinese, in fairness to them, however, Tohti was at the time of his arrest a Chinese citizen.

"The Japanese government has no say in (China's) domestic affairs," said an official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry's China and Mongolia Division in charge of human rights. "The issue of ethnic minorities is a raw nerve in China. Doing nothing could be useful for (Tohti)."

Analysis and Conclusion

My first reaction to learning of the background of this story was to jump up and down ranting that the Chinese once again have committed a gross violation of human rights.

But as I thought about this and other high profile cases such as that of Rebiya Kadir the more I had to take a step back and consider the whole thing more deeply. Not only about these particular cases but the whole strategy of dealing with the Chinese over such matters.

Firstly, we have to admit that a nation state has the "right" to treat it's citizens in accordance with the laws of the land. In doing so, by and large, it's actions should not normally be the concern of others.

If I can draw an analogy here, what one family deems to be the correct way to raise children may differ from how other families view raising children. This is certainly just as true within a culture and definately true between cultures. Being different is not wrong per se.

A family also is not obliged to justify every decision it makes as to how it raises those children.

Again there is a line in the sand and obviously this line, if overstepped, can justifiably draw outside criticism and intervention.

What we have in the Tohti case is a court exercising authority vested in it under the constitution of the People's Republic of China. Like most such cases in China there is very little transparency. Without being a Constitutional lawyer one would think that this is because the constitution does not require such openness and transparancy.

So, essentially we have a case where due course of law has been followed in the Chinese context. Essentially then we have very little recourse and the Chinese can effectively say "mind your own business"

What the problem with the Tohti case and all the others involving the Uygurs, Tibetans et al is not that the result is wrong but that it is not seen to be right. Therein lies a very major difference.

What we are prone to do is "humanise" the process. In other words put a name to a case.

We then run off and sayfree Tohti Tunyaz Why do we automatically do this? Because some friends and relative say he is not a spy and because it is China?

But the esssence of the problem is that Tohti Tunyaz may very well be a spy and by humanising the case we allow the Chinese to scoff at our stupidity and ignore us further.

In the words of the Japanese government spokesman by humanising a case we may very well be detrimental to the person if that person is innocent.

We therfore should not out of hand be demanding the release of Tohti because we believe he is innocent but instead we should be asking for proof that he is guilty. Again a very subtle difference.

Back to our analogy, if the children of family are in danger then authorities should act. It is to them that we should go when seeking intercession. In the case of China the "authorities" are the U.N. and our individual Governments.

Amnesty International et al will not get one person released from a Chinese prison and may in fact be responsible for that person serving a full term where otherwise he may not have. The Chinese will not want to lose face as an early release may evidence that they have cowed to international pressure.

What I am saying then is that we can not tell the Chinese what to do, we can only show them why it is in their interests to act in a certain way.

In the family analogy a Child Protection Unit Officer will say to a parent "alter your ways or we will take decisive action"

We should not be lobbying China or criticising China we should be lobbying and criticising our governments for not showing China why it would be in their interests to act in a certain manner and for not sending in the "Child Protection Unit".

Do we send in the "Child Protection Unit"? Obviously not, China has the Olympics don't they?

Look at todays headlines alone Ford Plans $1 billion Plant in China and Australia China Free Trade Talks. Every day you will see hundreds of such examples.

We not only do not send in "The Protection Unit" but we are crawling over ourselves to aid and abet them in their abuses.


China has well and truly entered the big world. The are subject now as never before to the inter-dependencies arising from globalisation and their ever increasing need for foreign trade and investment.

Do our governments say " Hey China we are not going to invest one more dollar in you or buy any more of your goods or sell you anymore of our raw materials until you become far more transparent? No we do not.

Save your breath berating the Chinese. Any nation that can and does regularly shoot it's people in back of the neck or throw them in jail arbitrarily is not going to have any concerns over a few emails or news articles.

Berate your governments, flood them with emails.

It is funny but elected democratic governments can be fairly attuned to Public Opinion.

Tell them it is time to send in the Child Protection Unit!

P.S. May I just say that I mentioned Amnesty International only because of their high profile and that they have my full respect in what they do best, that is, alerting us to these sorts of problems.

As for Tohti I will not say that he is innocent or guilty (1997/1998 were difficult times for the Uygur and many Uygur did things outside of their character as a result) and I will not be signing any petition to the Chinese Government. I will however be sending some emails to the Australian Government (I am Australian by the way) asking them to consider penalties unless the Chinese become far more transparent. I would not hold my breath on either result.