Stephen J. Boitano/AP
Rebiya Kadeer, center, speaks at an Uighur protest at Dupont Circle in Washington on Tuesday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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."

Until this week, Rebiya Kadeer was the rather obscure leader of the little-known "World Uyghur Congress," which groups exiles from China's restive far-western region of Xinjiang.

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.

She served only five years before she was released on health grounds and allowed to seek political asylum in the United States.

There, she immediately became active in Uighur exile politics, lobbying Congress, making speeches and organizing protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "She is good at galvanizing a roomful of people and getting them to feel a sense of urgency," says Prof. Bovingdon.

In Chinese eyes, this was a violation of her "pledge never to engage in any activities that could jeopardize national security" in return for her release, as Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang put it on Tuesday. Since her arrival in the United States, two of her sons in China have been imprisoned.

What does the World Uyghur Congress want?

The Chinese government views the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) as a separatist movement bent on independence for Xinjiang, a resource-rich and strategically important region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan among other nations. Beijing is intensely sensitive to threats to its territorial integrity both there and in Tibet.

The WUC is ambiguous about its ultimate goals, saying on its website that its main objective is "to promote the right of the Uighur people to use peaceful, non-violent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan."

As an umbrella group that pulled together a number of smaller exile Uigher organizations, ranging from outright separatists to cultural prerservation activists, the WUC "illustrated that these organizations could be brought into a broad church given a sufficiently vague platform," says Bovingdon.

This week, the Chinese authorities have made renewed efforts to portray the WUC, and its leader, as the front for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which the US State Department has classified as a terrorist organization – largely on the basis of Chinese security reports.

That "won't wash," argues Bovingdon, who says he has searched hard for links between the two organizations. "I have seen no evidence of any connection between the WUC and ETIM," he says bluntly.

Allegations that Kadeer was responsible for starting Sunday's riot, at least publicly, are based on a phone call she made to her brother in Urumqi on Sunday during which she said "something might happen in Urumqi tomorrow night," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Kadeer told a press conference in Washington that she had expected protests about the recent death of two Uighur migrant workers at the hands of a Han mob in Guangdong Province, and was merely warning her brother to stay away from them.

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