Rebiya Kadeer -- Face of the Uighurs

Rebiya Kadeer. PHOTO COURTESY of Alliance of College Editors

The Columbia Political Review has joined with other college political publications to form the Alliance of Collegiate Editors (ACE), hoping to generate cross-campus dialogue on political issues. Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uighur rights activist currently living in exile in the U.S., has agreed to answer some of our questions. You can read Ms. Kadeer's biography, including information on her involvement in the July 2009 unrest in Urumchi, in the New York Times here. For background information on Xinjiang/East Turkmenistan, and the Uighurs, click here.

Vanderbilt Political Review: Tell us about that moment right before you publicly criticized the Chinese government in your speech before the CCP’s National People's Consultative Conference. You were an established member of society, an esteemed entrepreneur, a wife, and a mother. For many, factors like these would have silenced many out of fear of losing everything they had gained in society. But you didn't remain silent. How did your prepare yourself for something of this nature?

Rebiya Kadeer: I knew the tragic political situation of Uighurs from all walks of life really well as I had frequently visited villages, towns and cities to do business. I personally felt the injustice as a child. I grew up with a sense of fighting for justice for the oppressed. Such sense for justice and love of my people didn’t allow me to remain silent.

Sometimes you just need to take the risks in the interest of your long-suffering people, knowing that you will have to make tremendous sacrifices. That is what I did. If I remained silent, then who will speak on behalf of the oppressed Uighurs? All the sufferings of my people, my family, and my childhood prepared me to speak out and take on this important responsibility as the leader of the Uighur people.

The areas of Xinjiang and Urumchi are highlighted in red. PHOTO COURTESY of Wikimedia Commons

Columbia Political Review: Do you see yourself as a champion for something larger than the Uighur cause in China, such as an overall reform of the Chinese government, a secession of the Uighur people, a Pan-Turkic movement, or any other cause? Or have you always maintained a stance firmly on Uighur issues—and if so, why limit yourself to that when your experience has been indicative of deeper ills in the Chinese system?

RK: I am the leader of the Uighur people. In fact, I’d like to help all oppressed peoples no matter which country they belong to. At present, I’d like to focus on the Uighur struggle as they are persecuted most in China. I believe it is the moral duty of all free people in the West to support the Uighur cause and our peaceful struggle for freedom and human rights. We are not interested in Pan-Turkism or Pan-Islamism.

A Uighur protest in DC. PHOTO COURTESY of Wikimedia Commons

Penn Political Review: What is your relationship with leaders from other Muslim nations? Does this affect your relationship with the United States and other western countries?

RK: I really do not have much relationship with leaders from other Muslim nations. Most leaders of the Muslim nations believe in Chinese government’s propaganda that Uighur Muslims enjoy true religious freedom, which is certainly not true.

CPR: When you speak of supporting the rights of all oppressed peoples, no matter which country they belong to, it raised the obvious question: are there any autonomy- or secession-seeking groups in China or in the world at large with whom you have strong, official, or implicit ties?

RK: I have interaction with Tibetan, Falun Gong, and Chinese democratic groups that are promoting human rights and democracy, but not outright secession. I support all oppressed peoples who are struggling for their freedom, democracy and human rights in a nonviolent fashion.

PPR: Do you believe that China’s policy against Uighur autonomy is motivated mainly by practical concerns (for example, the economic opportunities available to them in Xinjiang) or ideology (for example, the desire for a united and centralized Chinese government and a general distrust of religious minorities)?

RK: It is both. China needs the territory, which is one-sixth of China, and the natural resources. But China sees Uighurs, the masters of East Turkestan, as an impediment to getting both. The rationale then is, China will have everything only if with no more Uighurs. Repression is justified and ongoing.

Some Chinese scholars have also suggested that to settle millions of Chinese, and especially by deploying a large number of Chinese troops, into Xinjiang in order to get rid of the Uighur population, is in China’s strategic interest of preventing American and Indian encroachment into Central Asia.

Harvard Political Review: Without using broad phrases such as "human/civil rights," what are the minimal or most crucial concessions that you believe would be acceptable from the Central Government in order to improve relations? What do you think are realistic long-term goals? What have you done towards accomplishing those goals?

RK: First, China should recognize the autonomy status of East Turkestan and implement the Real Ethnic Autonomy Laws according to China’s Constitution. If China respected the Uighur Autonomy established in 1955 and implemented the autonomy laws, then we wouldn’t have seen the political situation on the ground deteriorate to the explosive situation as it has today.

Second, China should disband the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp, or “Bingtuan” in Chinese, which is not part of the autonomy. Third, China should immediately suspend the transfer of Han population into East Turkestan. Fourth, China should abolish the so-called bilingual language policy, which is intended to remove the Uighur language from all walks of life.

Fifth, China should stop all institutionalized policies of discrimination and persecution against Uighurs. Then, relations will naturally improve on the ground. A realistic long-term goal is to have China honour the autonomy arrangement, which is in China’s interest because the agreement is already recognized under China’s Constitution. It is easy for China to implement the agreement if China has the political will.

CPR: What is your plan—that is to say, what concrete tools and outlets do you intend to use to realize change and how do you believe, if at all, the Chinese government may be forced to change its policies towards the Uighurs?

RK: First, the speed of Chinese persecution of Uighur people is much faster than our efforts to save them from such persecution. China has sped up the systematic assimilation of Uighurs by all necessary means, including the frequent execution of Uighur dissidents. That is why I have called for an international conference of Uighurs to discuss and plan new strategies to help save the Uighur people from Chinese assimilation. We will present our new plan of action in February 2011.

A Uighur protest in Berlin. PHOTO COURTESY of Wikimedia Commons

Berkeley Political Review: There has been much talk in American academia in recent years of the need for a more open and democratic China. While government officials in China have generally proven highly reluctant toward this idea, the Global Times recently quoted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as saying that "Without the political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring and the targets of its modernization drive might not be reached." How does the Uighur movement for greater autonomy and human rights fit into China's overall struggle to accommodate increased political and social change in the coming decades?

RK: In February 2007, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated on the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, that democracy was a distant goal and China must stick to socialism for another 100 years. Therefore, his current statement urging for political reform seems contradictory. This probably demonstrates the public pressure the Chinese government is currently under compared three years ago. It is our hope that China moves sooner into the direction of embracing democracy, respecting human rights and establishing the rule of law. We believe it will be much easier for the Uighur people to find a negotiated agreement on the “Question of East Turkestan” with a democratic government rather than the current authoritarian government. We strongly support the democratization of China with all groups, including Chinese democrats overseas.

If China wants to initiate political reform, then China should start respecting its own Constitution and recognize Xinjiang/East Turkestan as a genuine autonomous region. That is a starting point.

HPR: What leverage do the Uighur people have against the local and Central Government, outside of violent means? If you were given the opportunity to negotiate with the government on behalf of Uighurs, how would you convince them to make concessions? What's "in it for them"?

RK: The Uighur people are already putting enormous pressure on the Chinese government through their peaceful protests. China spends billions of dollars each year on security forces in the region in order to clamp down on Uighurs and stabilize the region. Furthermore, China spends millions of dollars to target overseas Uighur activists and their organizations. However, the political situation in East Turkestan is getting worse and not stabilized at all. China should recognize the strategic importance of East Turkestan. Without East Turkestan’s rich natural resources, the rise of China as a global power is unsustainable. The instability in East Turkestan threatens China’s ability to focus more on external affairs. Therefore, to create genuine stability in the region is in China’s best interest. To create such stability, China should implement the autonomy conferred to the Uighur people in 1955. Otherwise, repression is not going to create any peace, harmony or stability in the region as it has already proven.

CPR: Has not China in the past demonstrated that it has the infrastructure and the power, both nationally and internationally, to handle any act of dissent and to cope with the spin? Many Americans are suspicious of China’s rising power, but we are still beholden to that nation in many ways so it is hard to imagine how a human rights issue in China could practically create the pressure that would engender change in that nation from abroad. The question, in short then, is this: In no vague terms, please tell us exactly why, not in platitudes of what is right, but in pragmatic terms that a technocratic, autocratic Chinese leadership and the more tepid of Americans can understand and digest, why it is in China’s best interests to grant Uighur autonomy. As you say, “The rationale then is, China will have everything only if with no more Uighurs. Repression is justified and ongoing.” Without appealing to vague and tenuous concepts of human rights, how, and in practical terms only, how do you combat that Chinese vantage?

RK: The Chinese regime has indeed displayed an ability to repress dissent on a massive scale, and it is easy to imagine that it will be able to continue suppressing dissent for the foreseeable future in East Turkestan and throughout China. Chinese authorities consistently violate the rule of law and actively contribute to tensions between different ethnic groups in East Turkestan. Under these conditions, it is impossible to predict how long Chinese authorities will be able to suppress widespread unrest, since authorities' policies and behavior merely sweep dissent under the rug instead of addressing the issues feeding people's grievances. The resentment that will continue to exist under the surface until Chinese authorities engage in dialogue with Uighurs and other ethnic groups in East Turkestan will perpetuate lasting instability in the region.

From a purely economic standpoint, it is in the interests of the Chinese government to mitigate this instability, as it will be viewed by potential investors as a risk, and this hinders China's push to develop its western regions and increase trade ties with Central Asian and other nations. In addition, it is untenable for Chinese officials to maintain a healthy and stable society in East Turkestan when tensions between Uighurs, Chinese and other ethnic groups continue to fester, and in the absence of legal channels for complaint and redress. Granting autonomy to the region would begin to address these challenges.

South Tyrol, an autonomous province in northern Italy bordering southern Austria, is an example of successful autonomy following the implementation of an autonomy agreement between Italy and Austria in 1992. South Tyrol has undergone considerable development since that time, and is now one of Italy's most prosperous and stable regions.

HPR: It is often the case in China that the provinces’ relative degree of autonomy actually hinders the central government from imposing uniform policy or control. How does that apply in the Xinjiang context, how "autonomous" is Xinjiang (especially given its "autonomous" labelling) and how might regional autonomy in this case make achieving progress more or less difficult?

RK: Just like Tibetans, Uighurs are not Chinese. Therefore, China’s imposition of uniform policies do not necessarily work in Tibet and East Turkestan. In fact, there is no autonomy at all in both regions. Genuine high degree of autonomy will most likely prevent separatism, such as in the case of Hong Kong.

Today, Hong Kong enjoys the highest form of autonomy under the one country two systems arrangement. Hong Kong runs its own internal affairs. It has a separate flag, separate currency, separate police force, and separate identity. However, China is still controlling Hong Kong and imposing central government’s policies to a certain extent. The one country two systems is considered a great progress by both China and the international community.

CPR: Tell us a little bit about the press in Xinjiang. The Chinese policies towards press in the 2009 upheaval were slightly different from those we’ve seen in the past—why was that? And why was it that such a large issue of international importance received so little play in America that now, just over a year later, if you mention the words Uighur, Xinjiang, East Turkistan, or Urumchi to an American, they will just stare at you blankly?

RK: China learned a lesson from the March 2008 unrest in Tibet. China also learned another lesson a year later in Iran. In both cases, the lesson is that it is better to spin your own version of the truth rather than let others define it for you. In the latter case, you lose momentum and you get blamed for hiding the truth. That is why China spun the truth of the Urumchi unrest and allowed foreign reporters to visit Urumchi to confirm its own version of the truth and deceive the international community.

East Turkestan is remote and Uighur is hard to spell and pronounce for Americans. Many Americans are simply not interested in the politics of a distant country and the oppression faced by an unknown people who are hardly related to them. So it is no surprise that they forget. That is why raising awareness is so important for us at the moment.

BPR: The Uighur struggle has been largely ignored by the Western media, especially in comparison to the similar plight of your Tibetan neighbours to the South. Why do you think this is, and what are your plans, present and future, to bring increased visibility to the movement throughout the U.S. and the rest of the World?

RK: The Uighur struggle is new in the West. Unlike His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Uighur leaders were not able to flee East Turkestan. Since the Chinese occupation, China has done an excellent job of controlling the Uighur population and preventing them from leaving the country and raise international awareness. So it takes time to take root and garner interest for the Uighur situation in the West. We are hoping to raise more awareness in the U.S. and around the world by speaking at all venues, such as universities, conferences, international bodies, churches, mosques and more. We want to speak to journalists, researchers, policy-makers, officials and historians.

A bazaar in Urumqi. PHOTO COURTESY of Wikimedia Commons

CPR: On the note of American forgetfulness and obliviousness to the case of the Uighurs, I must personally note that I believe (and I could be wrong) that in the summer of 2009, just before the incident in Urumchi, I saw you at a State Department function in Washington, D.C. What is your relationship with the U.S. State Department and other U.S. officials, what support do they lend you, and has that relationship changed since last summer?

RK: American officials and representatives, including State Department officials, members of Congress, and members of the Administration, have been very supportive on Uighur issues, and have conveyed concern about Uighur issues to the Chinese government. American government officials ultimately secured my release from a Chinese prison and subsequent resettlement in the U.S. in 2005, and I remain deeply grateful to the U.S. for bringing about my personal freedom. Amnesty International and other NGOs in the U.S. and around the world also campaigned for my release. The U.S. government is also quite concerned with the situation of my family members, especially my two sons in prison. However, the Uighur movement still has a long way to go to achieve the level of recognition and awareness among the American public that exists with regard to the Tibetan and other movements.

CPR: Some of your answers to us are vague, such as your shying away from giving us any concrete idea of the tools you intend to use or the steps you intend to take in pushing your agenda. I have seen you speak once or twice at other venues, and though your style, conviction and case are admirable, it seems to me that the room was populated only by the choir to whom you preach, those already taken with the Uighur cause, and by Chinese nationalists there to wave banners and completely unmoved by your words. Will you, in the interest of reaching to a new audience and in the interest of swaying the many in America and abroad who feel a pang of sympathy when they hear of a human rights crisis, but currently have no impetus to move, consider now sharing with us more concrete goals for your movement? More specific tools that you feel can be leveraged in the struggle for rights—something more concrete and practical to many ears than the illusive concept of speaking the truth? And how do you bring in, without using the terms of appealing to their sense of right or truth or anything like that, how do you bring in and convince the vast sea of skeptics and apathetic individuals across to world to support your side? Is there any way in which you can appeal to or even change their minds, once more without using vague terms or loose concepts like right and truth, of even the most ardent Chinese nationalists?

RK: First, we want to educate the skeptics and apathetic individuals in the West regarding the tragic suffering of the Uighur people under Chinese rule. Today, more and more Westerners are interested in China. They want to know China and learn the Chinese language. They also want to know how China rules 1.3 billion people and how it treats its minorities. China wants to present a nonsexist and harmonious China. Here we step in and tell the Westerners how China ruled East Turkestan and treated Uighurs. We will expose the façade of China’s success in its authoritarian rule. In fact, many people are interested in our story. Most people we talked to in the West are always interested in what we say.

Second, we also need to educate the Chinese people. Most of them are completely unaware of the terrible treatment of Uighur people by their government. We will raise awareness by writing articles in Chinese and by engaging in dialogue with groups/individuals from all points of view. We will reach out to Chinese people and Chinese speakers through interaction and through our websites. It is not easy. It is of course not possible to convince all of them but many will be able to see our point as well.