A Uighur Father’s Brave Fight
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The last time I saw my father was on Feb. 2, 2013. We were at the international airport in Beijing, about to board a flight to America for him to spend a year as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. I was 18, and was coming along for a few weeks to help him settle in.
We had checked in and were waiting as our passports were inspected. The guards closely examined my father’s documents, then typed information into their computers. Suddenly, security agents arrived and pulled us out of the line. We were put into a small room, without food or a bathroom. The security officers forbade my father from boarding the plane, but they let me go. I cried, but my father insisted that I go.
He told me to be strong, and never to cry in front of others. He told me never to let anybody think that I was weak, or that the Uighur people were weak.
I don’t know when, or if, I will see him again.
My father, Ilham Tohti, an economist and writer, is an outspoken advocate for our people, the Uighurs —Turkic Muslims whose home has traditionally been in present-day northwest China. He’d criticized the Chinese government on his website, which has since been shut down. He’d given interviews to Western reporters after disturbances on July 5, 2009, in which scores of people died in ethnic clashes, and thousands of Uighurs were detained, in Xinjiang Province, in China’s northwest.
Since that summer, our family was put under house arrest without explanation, questioned by the authorities, and had phone conversations bugged. When I called my father, I would hear a clicking sound on the line. My father would joke, “Your old Uncle Police is coming.” Twice, I came home from school to an unexpectedly empty house — my family had been forced to leave town for a few days. Last November, while my father and two younger brothers were en route to the airport to meet my grandmother, a security vehicle rammed into their car and an officer threatened to kill my family.
After that, my father told me, “You are still so young now I don’t want you to get involved. But just know that what I am doing is the right thing.”
Many Uighurs are angry about the large migration of Han Chinese from other parts of China into Xinjiang, and the perceived threat to our traditions, language and culture. A very small number of Uighurs have been linked to violent incidents, most recently, a bombing and knife attack at the train station in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on Wednesday.
In a visit to Xinjiang last week, China’s president, Xi Jinping, promised “decisive actions” against “terrorist attacks” by separatist groups. But the government has failed to consider the grievances expressed by people like my father — who has never advocated violence and has called only for equality and respect for the Uighur people and all peoples of China.
Three months ago, on Jan. 15, there was a knock on my door in Indiana. A friend of my father’s was outside. He told me that my father had been arrested. From my smartphone, I found out my father was in jail. I was in such shock I forgot to cry.
I couldn’t get in touch with my family for five days. When I did, my stepmother told me that my father had been arrested in front of my brothers, ages 4 and 7. No one would tell her where he was being held. It took more than a month before she received an arrest warrant. It revealed that he had been taken to a detention center in Xinjiang — thousands of miles from our home in Beijing — and charged with “separatism.”
Anyone who knows my father knows this accusation is absurd. My father loves his country, and has never advocated violence. His website published writings in Chinese, Uighur, Tibetan and English, with the aim of helping our Han Chinese neighbors better understand China’s minority nationalities. His aim was understanding, and fairness. He is the sort of person the Chinese government should want to work with, not imprison. If he is guilty of anything, it is of speaking uncomfortable truths.
When I was little, my father would pick me up from school, and we’d sing together on our way home. My brothers can’t sing with my father as I once did. They still have nightmares of watching him being dragged away while police officers tore our home apart. Other kids in the neighborhood won’t play with them anymore. When I call them from America, they ask tearfully if they’ll see me again. I don’t know what to tell them.
I’m not scared. My father is strong, brave and, above all, honest. He protected me for 18 years. Now it is time for me to tell the truth about who he is and what he stands for, and to do my best to protect him while he sits in a jail far from home.