Simon Leys, Academic Freedom, Ilham Tohti and the Gaza Strip



In a week when the celebrated debunker of Maoism and Chinese 'socialism,' Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) has died, in a month that has seen China's so-called 'soft power' exposed for what it is during the bi-annual 'mass meeting' of European sinology in Portugal, the mass media's attention has been focussed almost exclusively on the horrendous events in the Gaza Strip. And more recently, on the impact on innocent civilians of the advance of the Islamist jihadist forces of ISIS.

As China specialists, China-watchers, all we can do is to spectate like everyone and express our concern, even our armchair outrage. Or is it all ? Simon Leys at no point in his career limited himself to the observation and critique of China. As a socialist, in the Orwellian mould, and a humanist he interested himself in a panoply of questions and concerns and cultures. And the reason that his critique of the Cultural Revolution and of the regime that succeeded it rang so true was that he was interested in the Chinese people as human beings, not as constructions of our own Western exotic fantasies. For Leys, China was not an object, but an integral part of the lived history and present of our common humanity.

But we cannot all aspire to the erudite humanist heights of Pierre Ryckmans. In the professionalized, specialized, micro-disciplinary world in which we live it is the best we can do to keep up with the little territory of expertise that each of us carves out for ourselves.

And yet we do admit larger concerns, don't we, those that impinge on our professions, or rather on the idealistic image of our professions? As writers and academics we are all concerned with writerly independence, liberty of expression for journalists, and academic freedom. Whatever our area of expertise, we are all, more or less, prepared to take a stand, show solidarity when we perceive that fellow professionals are denied these precious rights.

Speaking as a member of the academic class, I have to confess however that we, as a class, are rather less apt to engage collectively; we are individualists and rarely work well in teams. And then there is our fear of making pronouncements that depart from what is expected of us in our well-defined publish-or-perish academic careers. However, there are notable exceptions such as my American colleagues (Marshall Sahlins, Perry Link and Victor Mair to name just a few) who have long stood out against what passes for China's cultural diplomacy, and which is in fact a politico-cultural tyranny. And there is my friend David Palumbo-Liu who has fearlessly spoken up over US policy concerning Gaza, and who is also a staunch defender of academic freedom.

My own particular concern over the past few months has been with the fate of Ilham Tohti, a colleague from the Central University for Nationalities (now calling itself Minzu University) in Beijing. I find abhorrent the suppression of academic freedom, of the liberty to speak out and express individual opinions on socio-political issues, wherever such suppression occurs. But in this particular instance, I have personal reasons for feeling obliged to speak out. I happen to have fostered, over a long period of time, a close working relationship between Ilham Tohti's university and my own. I know a number of courageous intellectuals there whose careers were permanently damaged by the stance they took in 1989, and by their refusal to recant. I have also advised a number of Masters and PhD students emanating from Minzu University. I feel then a particular need to express my solidarity with Ilham Tohti who now stands accused of the crime of separatism, an extremely serious allegation in the PRC.

I have asked myself over the past weeks: why don't we see more written, hear more said, about Ilham Tohti's plight? Is it because the facts are not easy to obtain, that the minority Tohti defends is too invisible or too complex to communicate to the lay reader ?

Ilham Tohti’s name may not sound ‘Chinese’, but he is a Chinese citizen, a citizen of the People's Republic of China belonging to the Uighur ethnicity. He has spoken up for his ethnic minority who suffer similar problems to those endured by the Tibetan minority. They have little agency or power over their own destinies. They are subjected to an official policy of 'Han' Chinese immigration, a watering-down of their own presence on their own land.

But whereas Tibet looms large in the Western imagination, as Oriental fantasy but also as a political cause personified by the charismatic Dalai Lama, Xinjiang remains obscure.

Xinjiang – now how is that pronounced? (How can the newscasters who still struggle to pronounce the name Beijing, possibly get their lips around such a word?) Xinjiang, New Frontier, a Chinese name for a territory inhabited by non-Chinese people. Yes, I realize what I just did. I used the term Chinese to refer to 'Han' Chinese, that is what most of the uninitiated do, what we all do in everyday conversation.  But I alsoI have a problem with the term ‘Han’, a term which is as much a half-truth, an invention as the other named ethnicities in China; products of official ethnological classification in the service of state policy. I could right a hundred pages on how to translate “Chinese” back into “Chinese”, so let me simply re-phrase what I wrote: Xinjiang, New Frontier (formerly known as Chinese Turkestan, also known as Eastern Turkestan), a Chinese-language name applied by the Chinese state to a territory within its jurisdiction inhabited by Uighurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Hui, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and 'Han' Chinese. And let us not forget the most salient point. Most inhabitants of Xinjiang are Muslim.

Even though we have over the past few weeks, months, and years, witnessed Muslims being bombed and killed throughout the Middle-East, Muslims are still associated through their faith with Islamist perpetrators of terror. Perhaps that is what has been so difficult for us to digest as we watched the bombing in the Gaza Strip: The perpetrators of the massive killing of almost 2,000 people were not Muslims. That fact has upset our dominant narrative of the Islamist scourge and the need for the international alliance against (Islamist) terror that has basically allowed the Chinese state 'carte blanche' to treat all resistance and dissent by the Muslim peoples of Xinjiang as 'terror'.

While Ilham Tohti has been held in gaol in Urumqi, around him violence affecting a similar number of people as those killed in Gaza has flared up and been quashed. The Chinese state, which has never flinched from using extreme means to quell dissent in Xinjiang, has now effectively declared war on its Muslim  population. Women wearing veils, men wearing beards are suspected of being terrorists.

The situation is Xinjiang is exacerbated by the fact that there is so little information from independent sources, and that ordinary people, as elsewhere on China's territory, have no freedom to speak out and tell us what is really happening. Thus,the Chinese state media can tell whatever stories they like without fear of contradiction.

I am not anti-China. I am not anti-Chinese, all those who have read my writings will appreciate that I am not. Nor am I anti-'Han' Chinese. I happen to think that the vast majority of China's people suffer from the same poverty, the same health and environmental issues, the same lack of autonomy and the same incapacity to control their own destinies. But at this point in time, the people of Xinjiang find themselves in a particularly invidious situation. Far from international scrutiny, “hidden away” in a part of Central Asia that is often made inaccessible to outsiders, and at a moment in history when Islam is considered a terrorist credo, who will come to their aid?

One man, one of their own, has in a quiet, diplomatic, scholarly manner attempted to draw attention to the reality and truth of the condition of the people of Xinjiang. And that man, Ilham Tohti, now faces a trial for separatism and the prospect of a life-sentence or the death penalty.

As China-watchers, journalists, and scholars, we do have a duty to speak out against this injustice. I am sure Simon Leys would have. Moreover, I am convinced he would have appreciated the courage of this man facing the might of the state. Perhaps Leys would have cited one of his favorite quotations from the Chinese historian Sima Qian  (145-90 BCE), a quotation that as writers and scholars we would do well to remember:

“Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man.”


Gregory B. Lee
Professor of Chinese and Transcultural Studies
Former 1st Vice-President, University of Lyon-Jean Moulin
Former Dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, City University of Hong Kong

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