Rebiya Kadeer, once a Uyghur businesswoman with friends in the Chinese Communist Party, is now one of the most outspoken critics of China’s policy towards Xinjiang, or New Frontier Province, a region formerly known as “East Turkestan,” which like Tibet enjoyed brief periods of independence from Beijing in the early 20th century. Imprisoned from 2000-2006 due to her political activism, she was released after the intervention of the U.S. government in 2006. That year, Kadeer was nominated for a Noble Peace Prize and was included in the 2012 edition of world’s 500 Most Influential Muslims in 2012. The Diplomat’s Joseph Hammond recently spoke with her.
The past few months have seen Uighurs rioting against the Chinese government across what China considers Xinjiang but, to the region’s native Turkic peoples, is known as “East Turkestan.”
The bloody clashes in recent months are a direct result of the Chinese regime’s intensely repressive policies towards the Uyghur people, and at the same time reflects a Uighur Awakening. In June alone, there were seven incidents of unrest. The Chinese government has repeatedly tried to portray Uyghur’s peaceful discontent with China’s repressive policies as terrorism, but there is absolutely no organized terrorist threat in East Turkestan. I wholeheartedly deplore terrorism of all kinds, and strongly urge the international community to repudiate China’s outrageous claims of a Uyghur terrorist threat.
Uyghurs are left hopeless and struggling in the face of Chinese policies characterized by forced assimilation, cultural genocide and religious repression. Instead of addressing the Uyghurs’ calls to end the repressive policies and grant Uyghurs their basic human rights, the Chinese government simply continues to harshly crack down on dissent, using resistance in any form as a pretext to crack down further. If China is unwilling to change its repressive policies in East Turkestan, I am fearful that the bloody incidents that have plagued the region in recent months will continue, and even get worse.
The people of East Turkestan are no longer asleep. Wang Lequan, Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary until 2010, has portrayed the conflict between the Chinese government and the Uyghur people as a life-and-death struggle. There is a realization that Uyghurs are faced with potential extermination. Repressive policies have penetrated every level of society and daily Uyghur life. Recently, restrictions on the Uyghur’s daily religious belief and practice have become so obvious that you can see official signs in front of libraries, gas stations, schools and even hospitals that declare “No men with facial hair or women wearing headscarves are allowed to enter.” In addition, government employees, students and educators are prohibited from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The Chinese government sends official instructions to school principals and government institutions requiring them to make sure their staff eat on Ramadan, and even monitors compliance through local police forces. It’s shameful such discrimination still exists. Since 9/11, the Chinese government has also tried to tie Uyghurs to global terrorism, since Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims. Is peaceful resistance to oppressive rule considered terrorism? I consider the peaceful struggle for fundamental human rights, like freedom of speech, religious belief, and due process to be anything but terrorism.
The Bush Administration was friendly to the spread of democracy and to the Uyghur cause. Has that relationship changed under the Obama Administration?
The U.S. government played very important role in my release from Chinese prison. During the Bush administration I was received twice by President Bush – once in Prague and once at the White House. During his presidency, the Uyghur issue became an international issue. During the Obama administration, while our friends in the government have continued to support us, I have not once met with President Obama. On July 5, 2009, the Chinese government brutally suppressed a peaceful demonstration by Uyghurs in Urumqi. During and in the aftermath of the unrest hundreds of people were killed, tens of thousands have been arrested, and thousands of Uyghurs are still missing. The Obama Administration failed to issue a strong condemnation, unlike Turkey. This has emboldened this Chinese government to continue its ongoing crackdown in East Turkestan against the Uyghur people. The Chinese government has deployed tens of thousands of additional military troops in East Turkestan, using military means that they were hesitant to use before.
China remains an important trading partner of the U.S and a rising power. Given those challenges how would you suggest the Obama Administration tackle the Uyghur issue?
I realize those challenges, but the U.S. government needs to continue to press the Chinese government to stop its repression of Uyghurs in East Turkestan. We would like to see the Uyghur issue included as a discussion topic in high-level U.S.-China negotiations. We are grateful for the State Department for its recent statements following the bloody incidents in April in Kashgar and at the end of June in Lukchun, Turfan.
Another important friend of the Uyghur cause has been Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan, who took an outspoken stand in 2009. Has Turkish support for the Uyghur cause been maintained in recent years?
Following the July 5, 2009 unrest in Urumqi, the capital city of East Turkestan, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayp Erdogan openly and strongly criticized the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uyghurs and called Chinese policy toward our people genocide. How else can you describe the situation? The incident began as a peaceful Uyghur protest and turned bloody because of the Chinese police force’s heavy-handed treatment of the peaceful protestors. As a result, hundreds of Uyghurs, as well as Han, were killed. Following the unrest, Chinese forces started a massive crackdown on Uyghurs. Thousands of Uyghurs were arrested and detained, and dozens were sentenced to death and executed. There have been hundreds of cases of disappearances documented by Human Rights Watch and other such organizations. The situation has since not improved. Uyghur farmers’ land is still being seized by force by the Chinese government to make way for the increasing number of Han settlers. Our Uyghur sons and daughters are still being forced, against their will, to move to China to be exploited as cheap labor. In other words, the Uyghur people and I appreciate Erdogan’s strong condemnation of the Chinese Government’s crackdown on the Uyghurs, but I feel that there is more to be done.
Thus, when Erdogan visited it was a historic moment for Uyghurs. They were glued to their televisions as if it was the Olympics. Sadly, a lot of Muslim countries, including the Central Asian republics, Pakistan, and Malaysia, still forcefully deport Uyghur activists to China, where they face likely execution. Hundreds of Uyghur political activists were granted political asylum in the U.S. and other Western countries. Turkey is the only Muslim country that has not deported any Uyghur political activist to China.
Your autobiography Dragon Fighter suggests your father miraculously found gold on the day you were born. Such miraculous events are difficult to believe. Why did you include that story in your book ?
That story came from an informal discussion of my life I had with my translator. The book was written at a difficult moment in my life as I had just come out of prison. It was too soon to talk about prison in depth so I talked about other things. When I saw that part in the proof of the book it was too late to correct it. There are also some other small errors in the book, mainly dates. No book written by a person can be perfect, but I wrote the book to show the Uyghur struggle from the perspective of one person.
During a visit to Japan you were taken to the Yasakuni Shrine, a site many in China linked with World War II Class-A war criminals. Why did you make this visit?
I was taken there by my hosts in Japan. I considered the visit a cultural one, not a political act. I did it to show respect for my hosts and for the history of the site which stretches back to the age of the Samurai long before World War II. For the people of Japan it is simply a historical place.
If you had to do it over again would you have perhaps done the visit differently?
One visit is enough, the visit was just part of our tour. But let me take a moment to make a comparison. There is a place called Ulanbai in Urumqi, where Wang Zheng, the Communist Chinese General, who murdered 200,000 Uighurs in cold blood between 1949-1955, is buried. Every April, the Chinese government forces local Uyghurs to visit this cemetery.
We hear most about the Uyghurs, but there are other minorities who have lived in the region for centuries. How are relations between Uyghurs and those groups?
These Kyrgyz, Kazaks, Tajiks and other groups who live amongst us are our brothers and sisters. Historically, at the time of the Chinese invasion in 1949, the population was 84 percent Uyghur and 2 percent Chinese. The rest were members of these ethnic groups. Historically, China treated them like the Uyghurs but, since the independence of the other Central Asian states, China has changed its approach toward these groups so as not to offend its new neighbors. Today, I should point out we also coordinate our struggle with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, Inner Mongolian groups, and other organizations. While reform is possible, China knows that the independence of any one of these regions – Tibet, Inner Mongolia, or East Turkestan – would mean an end to one-party rule. If any one of our regions becomes independent the others will as well.