This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was recently sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism.
The former economics professor, who resided in Beijing for most of his career, is internationally known for his countless articles promoting stronger interethnic dialogue between Uighurs and China’s majority Han population. Through writing and peaceful advocacy, Tohti tried to lessen the friction between Uighurs and the Han community while advocating for Uighur rights.
Cynically, Chinese authorities treated his dedication to broader understanding among Chinese ethnic groups as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Tohti’s supporters consider him a peaceful yet passionate advocate for human rights. Instead he has been treated as just another Islamic extremist from Xinjiang.
In recent years, minority groups all over China have grown progressively more restive, with peaceful demonstrations increasing alongside violent terrorism. Separatists in the western regions have launched attacks against government buildings and innocent bystanders, while others have engaged in civil disobedience—including hundreds of self-immolations.
These are not arbitrary actions. Uighurs and Tibetans, among other underrepresented ethnic groups in China, have long felt oppressed by Communist Party policies. The government’s initial response has been to crack down on these “separatist forces” with an iron fist as a means to maintain social order and a semblance of unity.
Yet this response has only led to deeper resentment, prompting the government to explore alternative measures.
Although the government has not completely abandoned the “iron fist” policy, as the story of Ilham Tohti reveals, the Communist Party has devised a number of other strategies to address ethnic unrest. Many of these fall into the category of “soft power.” Nowadays the Chinese leadership is vigorously pursuing both approaches, deploying a carrot or a stick depending on the circumstances.
Tibet is populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Tibetans, while Uighurs constitute a plurality in Xinjiang. Han Chinese have increasingly settled in both regions—especially in Xinjiang, where their numbers nearly match those of the Uighurs, which has led to clashes.