A Conversation with Rebiya Kadeer


In a public lecture on March 4, Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress and a prominent human rights advocate for the Uyghur people, came to Duke University through the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy to make the case for why American Grand Strategy should care about the Uyghurs.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — the homeland of the majority Muslim Uyghur people — is located in northwestern China and is about the size of Iran. It borders the Tibet Autonomous Region and India in the south, Mongolia to the east, Russia in the north, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to the west. At least nine different ethnicities inhabit the region —   the largest being Uyghur and Han Chinese.

Formally established as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the newly formed People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1955, this ancient land is often referred to as “East Turkestan” by Kadeer and other Uyghur organizations who are pressing for greater autonomy from China.

As Kadeer explains it, since the “autonomous” region’s establishment by the PRC, the Chinese government has “never honored any kind of autonomy arrangement.”

Further, the mostly Muslim Uyghurs have been victims of discriminatory economic policies and restrictions on religious and cultural practices, and have been denied freedom of speech.  Kadeer said Uyghurs have been unfairly imprisoned, executed without cause, and tortured by Chinese authorities.

In recent years Uyghurs have clashed, often violently, with the local Han Chinese population, who began arriving in the resource-rich region in the 1950s shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established.

Kadeer, 67, is a self-professed ‘Uyghur democracy leader’.  The mother of eleven children, and a former laundress turned millionaire, this well-known Uyghur businesswoman used her position and wealth in the 1990s to help economically disadvantaged Uyghurs, especially women and children. She educated poor children and started the “Thousand Mothers Movement” in December 1997 to empower Uyghur women to start their own businesses.

Kadeer’s efforts to improve the situation of the Uyghurs, were at first praised by the Chinese government. She was appointed a member of China’s National People’s Congress as well as the Political Consultative Congress in 1992, and a member of China’s delegation to the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

But then, according to her biography  by the Uyghur American Association, Beijing’s attitude toward Ms. Kadeer changed when she criticized China’s treatment of her people during a National People’s Congress session in March 1997.

“In her speech, she demanded that the Chinese government honor the autonomy conferred on the Uyghur people and respect their human rights. She strongly criticized China’s harsh crackdown of the Uyghur student demonstration which had taken place a month earlier in Ghulja City.”

Kadeer was then stripped of her membership in both the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference and forbidden to travel abroad, and, in 1999, while on her way to meet with a U.S. Congressional delegation, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for ‘stealing state secrets.’

Following pressure on China from the U.S., in March 2005 she was released early on on medical grounds into U.S. custody.

Kadeer remains ever grateful to the U.S. for that, telling the audience of Duke students, professors and members of the community early on in her opening remarks, “I would like to thank the U.S. government, and especially the (George W) Bush administration which played such an important role in securing my release from a dark Chinese prison cell into this great nation.”

Before reading from a prepared text elaborating on the human rights situation of her people and the geopolitical importance of the region, Kadeer pleaded for understanding. “Prior to my release, and decade or so earlier, there were few people who really truly understood the plight of the Uyghur people,” she said, urging that people around the world, including the Chinese people get educated about the plight of the Uyghurs, and reject attempts by governments, Chinese or otherwise, to use “highly repressive assimilations and eliminative policies.”

“Only by peaceful negotiations, only by giving much more freedoms like respect of basic rights and culture, will there be a genuine solution,” Kadeer said. “Uyghurs live almost in terror in our own homeland, and that situation is like a warzone for the Uyghur people.”

Earlier in the day Kadeer and her interpereter Alim Seytoff (President of the Uyghur American Association) sat down with ISLAMiCommentary at Duke Studios for a 30-minute interview in which she addressed how she got to be head of the World Uyghur Congress; whether she desires, for East Turkestan, total independence from China, greater autonomy, or simply greater rights and respect within the Chinese system; why the Chinese government has characterized her as a ‘separatist colluding with terrorists and Islamic extremists’; whether China is afraid of her (short answer: “Yes”); whether the U.S. is putting enough pressure on China vis a vis human rights; why Tibet gets more attention and the usefulness of  regular engagement with the Dalai Lama; and whether this lifelong mother/human rights crusader considers herself a feminist.

View the original article here.