Spiritual mother of Uighurs or terrorist?
Rebiya Kadeer is a petite, successful businesswoman, who now lives in exile in Virgina.
Her followers dub her "the spiritual mother of the Uighur people" and one admirer nominated her for a Nobel peace prize. The Chinese government calls her "an ironclad separatist colluding with terrorists and Islamic extremists."Skip to next paragraph
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She has rocketed to international prominence, however, on the back of accusations by Beijing that she was the "black hand" who instigated the most savage rioting to have hit China in 60 years. In last Sunday's violence in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, the Chinese government says 156 people died and more than 1,000 were injured – apparently mostly Han Chinese bystanders.
"She did as much, or more, than the Dalai Lama and his clique to sow resentment among the ethnic Uighur people and instigate their discontent and hatred towards the government," the Peoples Daily, official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, charged in a shrill editorial Tuesday.
That was a back-handed compliment. "In a sense, the Chinese have handed her a propaganda victory by suggesting that she has so much authority over Uighurs" in Xinjiang, says Gardner Bovingdon, an expert on Uigher affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Ms. Kadeer, a petite woman in her early 60s who now lives in Virginia, denies the allegations. "It is a common practice of the Chinese government to accuse me for any unrest in East Turkestan" – the name Uighur activists give Xinjiang – she said in a statement earlier this week.
Kadeer, mother to 11 children, former millionaire and ex-jailbird, has a colorful, and painful, past.
Feted, then jailed, by Chinese officials
Once she was the richest woman in Xinjiang, having amassed a fortune trading commodities with neighboring Central Asian countries and owning Urumqi's largest department store.
Officials would bring foreign visitors to meet her, as living refutation of Uighurs' complaints that Chinese policies relegated them to second-class citizenship.
She was even named to the prestigious Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a parliamentary advisory body. It was on the floor of that chamber that she changed her colors, dramatically.
In her autobiography "Dragon Fighter," Kadeer recalls how she had grown increasingly resentful of China's colonial-style treatment of her fellow Uighurs. At the 1997 meeting of the CPPCC she rose to speak. "Is it our fault that the Chinese have occupied our land? That we live under such horrible conditions?" she asked.
The speech cost her all her official positions and earned her the enmity of the Chinese government. Two years later, she was arrested on her way to meet a US congressman visiting Urumqi, charged with tax evasion and leaking state secrets. She was convicted and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.