When a court in Urumqi, capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang region, sentenced Ilham Tohti to life in prison on charges of advocating Xinjiang’s independence from China Tuesday, the result of the trial surprised no one: Tohti, a former economics professor detained in January, is simply the latest outspoken critic of Beijing’s ethnic policies to be punished. But the severity of his sentence -- Liu Xiabo, the outspoken dissident whose subsequent Nobel Peace Prize enraged and embarrassed Beijing, received only 11 years -- sent a chilling message to advocates of ethnic reconciliation in China: Moderates are now fair game.

Tohti, who taught economics at Beijing’s Minzu University, first gained attention through a website, launched in 2006 and since deleted, that attempted to bridge the cultural divide between his Uighur ethnicity and China’s majority Han population. In recent years, he emerged as a critic of Beijing’s repression of Uighur language and culture, but pointedly never advocated for the Xinjiang region’s split from China. In a 2011 essay recently translated by China Change, Tohti wrote he “strongly believed [his] efforts and inquiries” to encourage harmony in Xinjiang “will become part of China’s progress.”

Promoting good relations between China’s 56 official ethnic groups is a stated goal of the Chinese Communist Party, which in recent years has touted its support for a “harmonious society.” But tensions in Xinjiang, a region comprising a sixth of China’s land mass and most of the country’s Uighur population, have worsened in recent years. Riots in Urumqi, the regional capital, killed more than 200 in 2009, prompting Beijing to shut off Internet access throughout Xinjiang. Last October, four Uighurs drove a car through a crowd of pedestrians in Tiananmen Square, China’s most important public space, killing five and injuring dozens. And last March, 10 masked Uighurs armed with swords and knives killed 30 passengers in the railway station of Kunming, a provincial capital in southwest China.

In response to the violence, Beijing has continued to tighten control over Xinjiang’s Uighurs, a Central Asian people who speak a Turkic language and practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. Authorities forbade Muslim worshippers from fasting during Ramadan this year, and have offered cash to Uighur men willing to marry Han women.

Until his detention in January, Tohti represented something of a dying breed: A prominent Uighur critic of the Communist Party who flatly rejected calls for independence. But ironically, it was Tohti’s very moderation that may have led to his severe sentence, said Wang Lixiong, a prominent Han Chinese intellectual.

The Chinese government “does not want moderate Uighurs. Because the only conclusion is that if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them?” Wang said in an interview with the New York Review of Books’ Ian Johnson.

“So they wanted to get rid of him and then they could say to the West that there are no moderates and that they’re fighting terrorism.”