China's Public Enemy
The alleged instigator of the Uighur riots doesn't talk like a terrorist. Demonizing her may backfire on Beijing.
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By HUGO RESTALL
Rebiya Kadeer is undergoing a Chinese version of George Orwell's "Two Minutes Hate." Separatist, extremist, terrorist-China's state-run media has pulled out the rhetorical big guns to put her beyond the pale of civilized society. By condemning her as the mastermind of last month's riots that killed 197 people in the northwest region of Xinjiang, Beijing has transformed an exiled businesswoman and dissident into public enemy No. 1 for 1.3 billion people.
Even Ms. Kadeer's family in China has joined the campaign-under duress, she says. After blaming her for the loss of innocent lives, several of her children and other relatives exhorted her in an open letter, "Don't destroy the stable and happy life in Xinjiang. Don't follow the provocation from some people in other countries." In scenes reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, the signatories have appeared on state television to publicly disavow Ms. Kadeer.
This blood-stained image is hard to reconcile with the diminutive grandmother, dressed modestly in black, who bustles about a cramped, U.S. government-funded office a block from the White House. Ms. Kadeer may be hated by many Chinese, but the president of the World Uighur Congress inspires admiration among the nine million ethnically Turkish Uighurs in Xinjiang and two million-strong diaspora. An indication of why she inspires such strong emotions comes as she responds to the first question; she speaks with a startling intensity, perching on the edge of a folding chair.
First of all, Ms. Kadeer denies she instigated the July 5 protests in her home town of Urumqi: "I did not tell them to come out on that day or that particular time to protest. It was the six decade-long repression that has driven them to protest."
Ms. Kadeer's own life is a graphic illustration of that repression's ebb and flow. In the 1980s and early '90s, she and her fellow Uighurs benefited from Deng Xiaoping's loosening of controls in all areas of life. Like business pioneers around the country, she overcame obstacles created by Chinese officialdom to build a market stall into a business empire encompassing retail, real estate and international trade.
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Just as difficult was overcoming the Uighur community's resistance to the idea of a woman taking the lead. Ms. Kadeer's nickname was djahangir, a word of Persian origin meaning one who pushes forward regardless of the consequences.
The Uighurs are a fiercely independent people who have eked out a living in the arid Central Asian lands along ancient caravan routes and converted to Islam in the 15th century. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), China's Manchu rulers managed to subjugate the Uighurs and other local tribes but had to fight off periodic revolts. After the collapse of the empire, the region briefly became the East Turkestan Republic before falling under the thumb of Mao's People's Republic. Many Uighurs still harbor dreams of eventual independence.
Once Ms. Kadeer succeeded in business, both the Communist Party and the Uighurs embraced her as a leader. In the mid-1990s she became China's fifth richest person, and the party gave her a seat in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, part of the country's rubber-stamp legislature.
But the tide was already turning against the Uighurs and other minorities. New policies and appointees from Beijing led to campaigns to assimilate the Uighurs and root out all dissent. That prompted Ms. Kadeer to make a fateful choice about where her true loyalties lay. She became increasingly outspoken about policies preventing Uighurs from sharing in the fruits of economic development. Finally, in March 1997, she gave an impassioned speech before the legislature enumerating the burdens faced by her people.
Immediately the party struck back. It took away Ms. Kadeer's positions, then destroyed her businesses. Having once held her up as a model citizen, the official media tossed her accomplishments down the memory hole. Her rise from rags to riches is now said to be the result of "economic crimes," including tax evasion and swindles. In 2000, a court sent her to prison for divulging "state secrets" for trying to send newspaper clippings to her exiled husband in the U.S. In 2005 she was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in return for a promise not to engage in politics, a promise she promptly broke.
Now Ms. Kadeer is trying to garner support for the Uighurs from that most elusive of friends, the "international community." Even as other parts of China continue to liberalize, she says, repression is intensifying in Xinjiang. She explains, for example, that there is new pressure to use Chinese rather than the Uighur language: "Even during the Mao years, he was a brutal dictator of course, but at least the Uighur people spoke their own language, and at least the Uighurs were free to live in their own courtyards." Today, the government is flooding the region with Chinese immigrants, making the Uighurs a minority in their own homeland.
Uighurs face discrimination in education, employment, religion and even the ability to move around the country or travel abroad. Farmers are losing their small plots of land and being forced into the cities. Downtown Kashgar, the Uighurs' cultural capital, is being demolished to make way for Chinese-owned real-estate developments.
But the final straw may have been a measure ostensibly designed to alleviate poverty: "Now the authorities force young, unmarried women to go to eastern China to work as cheap labor in sweatshops," Ms. Kadeer says. "And this is a really provocative policy because it is against Uighur people's culture, religion and way of life to send their unmarried daughters to far-away places they themselves have never heard of. This policy has tremendously backfired."
One such deportation (villages are required to fill a quota) provided the spark for the July 5 protests. In April, some 400 Uighur men and women were sent to work in a toy factory in the town of Shaoguan in Guangdong province. At the end of June, after a disgruntled Chinese worker circulated a rumor that the Uighurs had raped Chinese women, a mob killed at least two of the outsiders.
Video of the riot quickly circulated on the Internet within Xinjiang, along with comments by Chinese that more Uighurs should be killed, while the authorities failed to announce measures to bring those responsible to justice. The city of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, become a powder keg of discontent.
According to Chinese accounts, protests began at around 5 p.m. on July 5 in the center of Urumqi and only turned violent more than three hours later. Whether or not this shift was sparked by the police attacking protesters remains in dispute. What cannot be disputed is that Uighur rioters killed Chinese, smashed windows, and burned cars in a shocking orgy of violence.
The intensity of the anger says much about the pent-up resentment of the population, and seems to have taken the authorities by surprise: "After six decades of repression Chinese officials had become confident they had control, and they were shocked at how quickly they lost control," Ms. Kadeer says. "They realized what six decades of repression and fake autonomy could lead people to, and of course that's the failure of their policies . . ." The Party's unwillingness to accept that failure meant it needed Ms. Kadeer as a scapegoat.
The best evidence Ms. Kadeer did not instigate the riots paradoxically comes from the Chinese themselves. A documentary provided by the Foreign Ministry entitled "July 5th Riot and Rebiya Kadeer" makes it clear the Chinese were listening to Ms. Kadeer's phone conversations to China and Europe. The most damning evidence the government propagandists could come up with is that she telephoned her relatives in Xinjiang to warn them that something big was brewing.
It seems more likely the protests were organized among residents of Urumqi using cell phones and the Internet. Immediately afterward, the government shut down all telecommunications and is only now reopening the networks.
Ms. Kadeer denies having the ability to orchestrate events within Xinjiang, but she freely admits that she maintains contact with family members and friends. "Of course we have some influence, but we did not influence what took place. There is no organization there."
Two of her sons have been jailed, she says, in a bid to stop her from speaking out. "Because the Chinese government failed to silence me by imprisoning them, now they are blaming me for the protests to silence my voice in the world."
The same documentary contains a disturbing clip of Ms. Kadeer's forced confession on the eve of her release in 2005, a scene reminiscent of the war crimes confessions of American soldiers captured by the Chinese during the Korean War: "My motherland is like my parents. I was born after the Liberation, the Communist Party is an eternal benefactor. Whoever seeks to separate his country will be the enemy of his nation. . . ."
The government's insistence that any dissent is equivalent to separatism, which in turn is evidence of terrorism, explains why Uighurs have been driven to such desperation. "When Uighurs who are not happy about policies stand up to say something," Ms. Kadeer explains, "the Chinese label them as terrorists, separatists or extremists, and arrest them and in some cases execute them."
Yet she does not rule out Xinjiang remaining part of the Chinese state-so long as Uighurs have self-rule within a democratic polity.
Demonizing Ms. Kadeer as a separatist may end up backfiring on Beijing. Uighurs had failed to attract as much international support as Tibetans because they lacked a figure like the Dalai Lama to speak on their behalf. Now they have a spokeswoman who is attracting angry démarches from Chinese diplomats as she travels the world.
In the last couple weeks she has visited Tokyo and Melbourne, Australia. In Melbourne she spoke at a film festival where a documentary about her life, "The 10 Conditions of Love," was shown for the first time. After Beijing failed to convince festival organizers to withdraw the documentary, Chinese filmmakers withdrew their own movies in a move widely seen as government-orchestrated.
Ms. Kadeer is not phased by the pressure, and indeed her stubbornness is again coming to the fore. She seems to have drawn a lesson from the failure of the Dalai Lama's softly, softly approach: Beijing only respects strength. She is determined to stir the pot, not turn the other cheek, in order to force China to the negotiating table.
Asked whether Uighurs should wait for the advent of democracy in China, she answers that by that time they may have lost their cultural identity. As difficult as it may be, the onus is on her and other Uighurs abroad to pressure the Chinese government into talks on greater autonomy: "I urge peace to the Uighurs," she says, "they should remain peaceful no matter what happens, because the Chinese government will use any excuse to further crack down on them. So it is up to us, it is our responsibility to negotiate with the Chinese government to resolve the situation on the ground."
But the immediate outlook for the Uighurs looks bleak. as China's top government official, Nur Bekri, has promised to crack down with an "iron hand." Ms. Kadeer claims that 10,000 Uighurs were rounded up after the violence.
Perhaps even more frightening is the way in which the government's efforts to obscure the real roots of the riots are stirring up Chinese nationalism. The day after the Urumqi protests, a Chinese mob took to the streets looking for Uighurs. "The . . . Chinese government is indoctrinating its own people with ultranationalism," Ms. Kadeer says. "It used to be the security forces arresting and killing Uighurs. Now it is the Chinese mobs themselves [who] are after Uighurs, both in Shaoguan and Urumqi. They know they can kill Uighurs and the police will turn a blind eye and just say it is a clash between peoples."
Perhaps the worst-case scenario for China is the possibility that some other individual will emerge as the "mastermind" of the Uighur movement. As a religiously moderate and largely secular figure, Ms. Kadeer is somebody Beijing might negotiate with.
But Beijing's efforts to portray resistance in Xinjiang as another front in the war on terror could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Islamic fundamentalism takes root among the restive Uighurs and the global forces of jihad begin to target China. The need to avert that tragedy is the best argument for China to acknowledge its past mistakes in Xinjiang and end the campaign to demonize Rebiya Kadeer.
Mr. Restall is the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.