Q&A with Uighur spiritual leader Rebiya Kadeer

The Monitor spoke with the exiled mother figure for China's Uighurs about the deadly riots, independence, and China's use of the label of 'terrorist.'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur political activist, blamed by China for violent unrest in its western Xinjiang region. She is asking for outside intervention to create a dialogue with Chinese authorities.

Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur businesswoman accused by China of "masterminding" last week's deadly riots in Xinjiang Province, says she has had no contact with "any violent groups in Xinjiang." She hopes President Obama will urge Chinese leaders not to execute protesters, and called Sunday for a US consulate in Xinjiang.

In a wide-ranging phone interview, the mother figure of some 20 million Uighurs says China's official depiction of the ethnic group as terrorists after 9/11 is worse than its policies to restrict language and religion. She says Chinese leaders' call for harsh measures, including execution of protesters, will have "dangerous consequences for China and for the Uighur people." [Editor's note: We overestimated the number of Uighurs worldwide. The World Uyghur Congress estimates there are more than 20 million Uighurs. China's 2000 census reported 8 million in Xinjiang Province.]

On July 5, a peaceful protest in Urumqi over the killing of two Uighurs in Guangdong turned violent, becoming the worst ethnic riot in China in decades. The official death toll is 184.

Ms. Kadeer, speaking from Virginia, her residence after release from a Chinese prison in 2005, also addressed the alleged evidence that she orchestrated the violence. Beijing officials point to phone intercepts of Kadeer to Urumqi ahead of the protests saying "something big is going to happen." Kadeer says that she did "place a call" to her family. "It was a call to my family members there, after my daughter here [in Washington] saw announcements of the protest on web sites. My family has been targeted in China. I called my brother and said if something big happens do not go out. [I said] tell the relatives not to take part."

Kadeer spoke with the Monitor Saturday:

Q: Were you surprised at the fury and chaos on July 5?

A: I was quite surprised by the loss of so many lives. Initially the protest was peaceful. You could even see Uighurs in the crowd holding Chinese flags. There were women and children, and that seemed at first like a good thing. But the Uighurs were provoked by Chinese security forces – dogs, armored cars. What has not been noted are the plain clothes police who went in and provoked the Uighurs. My view is that the Chinese wanted a riot in order to justify a larger crackdown; its an attempt to create solidarity between the Han and the government at a time when there is insecurity. Provoking the crowd justifies that this was a Uighur mob.

Q: Some reports indicate that during the riots there were Han citizens helping and protecting Uighurs, and vice versa.

A: I am extremely grateful for both Han and Uighurs that protected each other in the riots. That should be the true relationship we should have with each other. But this Chinese government has created such a tragic situation, that it is not happening, generally, as it could.

Q: Several years ago, China tore down the bazaar around the old mosque in Kashgar, angering Uighurs. This year, the entire old city is being razed.

A: I believe the Chinese government is attempting to completely destroy the Uighur identity and culture. Wiping out the ancient city of Kashgar is part of that. Kashgar is the cradle of Uighur civilization, and represents the heart of the Uighur people. Razing it is like trying to bury the Uighurs.

Only when the international community begins to raise the issue is there a chance of this act being stopped. Only if the world pays the same attention to Uighurs as to Tibet and Darfur, is there a chance for this to change.

Q: Uighur grievances include restrictions on religion, the study of history, forced abortions, and other policies. If Beijing ever asked you what is the first policy you wish changed, what would you say?

A: The worst is China's use of the global war on terror to hold us as a people to three alleged crimes: terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. To pin that on the entire population in the media and the minds of Chinese is worse than restrictions on language, on religion, on the ongoing forced transfer of young Uighur women to work in factory sweatshops.

It is worse than the Mao Zedong years. Under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, Uighurs were badly treated. But we could speak our language, study our history. We had our land. At that time, Chinese authorities were not sending great numbers of Han to populate Xinjiang as you see today.

Q: Do you think President Obama should speak to the issue – or is this too problematic for overall US-China relations?

A: It would be important for the Obama administration to voice strong concern and send a message to the Chinese government. US involvement in this could help prevent a worsening crackdown. I urge him to ask the Chinese government to release all arrested Uighurs, and other political prisoners. I hope President Obama will call on the Chinese government not use heavy measures, especially executions.

Q: Chinese president Hu Jintao and Xinjiang party leaders call for harsh measures, including executions. What would be the effect?

A: If executions are used, the consequences will be extremely dangerous. It is not in the interest of the Chinese government and the Uighur people. To prevent such an outcome, Obama, the Europeans, and the European parliament should speak.

It is hard to imagine what will happen if China goes ahead with executions. The protest itself shows that Uighurs, who knew the consequences of going on the street, went ahead anyway. Men and women were arrested. Uighur mothers are looking for husbands. Families are looking for sons and daughters. So many have simply disappeared. The Uighur people are trying to stand up.

Q: Like the Dalai Lama in Tibet, you publicly advocate peace and non-violence. Yet Chinese authorities, as with the Dalai Lama, say you are actually directing and masterminding violence behind the scenes.

A: I am not the mastermind. The Chinese government's intent is to divert attention from their own problems, and demonize me by claiming I was the instigator. The Chinese government sees me as a threat. I've been speaking against injustice.

Q: Are you in touch with any Uighur groups that advocate violence?

A: I have no connection whatsoever with any violent groups. I am against all violence.

Q: Do you believe that the region China calls Xinjiang should be called East Turkestan?

A: Yes, it should be called East Turkestan. That is its historical name. Xinjing means 'new territories' and that is an insult to the people who have always lived there. Even the Chinese call it the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. The Uighurs were there.

Q: Under the Chinese constitution, and even in the name of the province, Xinjiang is described as autonomous, as is Tibet. Is Urumqi governed by rules of autonomy?

A: China has never implemented the autonomy conferred upon us by the Chinese constitution. If it had, we would not have had a riot last Sunday.

The Chinese should allow self-rule allowing us to manage our own affairs. With genuine autonomy, there should be democracy.

Q: Do you want independence?

A: Every Uighur wants to see that.

Q: So when Beijing authorities call you a separatist, they are correct?

A: I'm not a separatist. But because of China's policies, the Uighurs are feeling driven to separate. For six decades, Uighurs have enjoyed no peace, freedom, or rights.

Q: Some critics say Uighur-Han relations were on the mend, prior to the Sunday riots.

A: Relations have always been unpleasant. Moreso after 9/11, after we became "terrorists." Things haven't improved. Chinese mobs attack and kill Uighurs in other regions of China with impunity. If you go to Chinese websites, you will see virtually no Han saying we should live in peace; the majority of postings call for the destruction of the Uighur.

Q: Last year in China brought a grassroots call for democracy and other human rights norms, by those associated with the Charter 08 document. What is your view?

A: I have respect for those people who defend Charter 08 and support their peaceful efforts. Charter 08 calls for a genuine federal state, and Uighurs would be granted a federal solution. Its call for democracy would aid the idea of more freedom.

Q: Tibetans and Uighurs are often linked in their calls for more freedom and protection of distinct identity. But are there important differences between the two?

A: Between the Uighurs and Tibetans, our suffering, our plight, is similar. But after 9/11 the Chinese began the use of propaganda against us in a way that has intensified our problems.

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