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Ilham Tohti, an Uighur scholar known as an advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people, was sentenced to life in prison last week by a court in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in northwestern China, on charges of preaching separatism. It was an unusually severe punishment to hand down to a moderate, peaceful intellectual. It reflects Chinese authorities’ hard line on ethnic minorities who increasingly express frustration with majority Han Chinese rule.

The Chinese leaders should realize that such an approach will not succeed in containing the resistance of Uighur people. Unless Beijing drastically expands the autonomy of minority regions and takes steps to develop their economies, the country will continue to suffer from social instability as demonstrated in the recent series of terrorist attacks by separatists.

There is deep-rooted resentment among Uighur people that the Communist Party-led government dominated by Han Chinese does not respect their traditions and religion and is economically exploiting them.

Ilham, a former economics professor at Minzu University of China, Beijing, has called for more autonomy and equal rights for the ethnic minority in Xinjiang. From the Chinese capital, he launched the website Uighur Online in 2006 to disseminate information on the situation in Xinjiang and discuss ethnic minority issues. He also offered interviews to foreign media.

It was earlier believed that his activities were tolerated by the Chinese government — until police arrested and detained him in January. On Sept. 23 the district court in Urumqi found him guilty of “organizing a group to promote separatism” and serving as its head. It also accused him of criticizing China’s policies toward ethnic minorities and religion and of “colluding with foreign groups to internationalize domestic issues.”

The ruling makes it clear the Chinese leadership is ready to punish not only those engaged in unlawful activities such as terrorist attacks but also people who criticize government policies toward ethnic minorities and call for improvements. Despite President Xi Jinping’s regimentation as exemplified by recent busts of corrupt officials, suppression of pro-democracy activities, tighter control of Internet media and violent attacks attributed to Uighur people are on the increase.

A vehicle crash in Tiananmen Square in October 2013 killed five people. Indiscriminate attacks with knives in Kunming, Yunnan, in March killed 31 people and injured 141 others. An explosion in an Urumqi market in May killed at least 31 people and injured 94 others.

In July a riot took place in Kashgar, Xinjiang, resulting in the deaths of 96 people — the first large riot in the region since the one in Urumqi in July 2009 saw 197 people killed.

Two days before the ruling against Ilham, a series of explosions in Luntai County of southeastern Xinjiang killed 50 people, including 40 assailants, and injured 54 others.

It is understandable that the Chinese leadership would spare no effort to crack down on violent extremists, given that more than 300 people have died in Xinjiang-related violence over the past year. But it should strive for serious dialogue with moderate intellectuals — such as Ilham — from ethnic minorities to find ways to constructively respond to the grievances and dissatisfaction of minority people.

Ilham has not called for Xinjiang’s separation from China and has had no hand in violence. Unless the Chinese leadership demonstrates a credible conciliatory attitude in the ethnic minority problem, minority people’s resistance will only deepen, further destabilizing Chinese society.

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