TOPICS > Politics

Exile Brings Voice to Uighur Movement

BY Lea Winerman  July 27, 2009 at 5:10 PM EDT

Rebiya Kadeer; Getty Images

In a matter of weeks, the profile of Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, has been raised from relative obscurity into a target of Chinese government attacks and a global voice for Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group of about nine million people.

Speaking in her native Uighur tongue, she gave her group’s version of events at a recent reporters’ roundtable in Washington, D.C., the events of July 5 when Chinese government forces tried to disperse Uighur rioters in Xinjiang province. Kadeer says her account came from people in Xinjiang at the time of the unrest.

Demonstrations had reportedly begun peacefully to demand action for two Muslim Uighurs killed in June during a fight with Han Chinese coworkers at a factory in southern China. It later became violent, exposing long-standing tensions between the two ethnic groups.

According to Kadeer, her contacts told her that Chinese authorities waited until night, darkened the streetlights and fired shots into the crowd of Uighur demonstrators. The government blocked Internet and cell phone capabilities across the provincial capital of Urumqi, slowing communication, she said.

“After the forces began to beat these Uighurs, provoking them with dogs and other things, more and more people began to protest against the brutality,” she added.

Listen to her description, told through a translator, here:

But the Chinese government has a different take on how events unfolded, saying the June 26 fight at the factory was an ordinary public dispute and was handled properly. “The World Uyghur Congress, an overseas East Turkestan organization, used that incident to vilify China’s ethnic and religious policies in an attempt to create publicity and stir up trouble,” the government said.

Read the Chinese government’s full statement here.

Kadeer is president of both the World Uyghur Congress, an international network of exiled Uighur groups, and the D.C.-based Uyghur American Association. She moved to the United Statesin 2005 after being imprisoned in China for six years on charges of leaking state secrets.

One exile’s account of events in a remote part of China would generally not hold sway in the international media, but the circumstances surrounding the July 5 events and the Chinese government naming her organization as the cause has brought Kadeer’s view to the forefront of the discussion.

“The Uighurs have never had a spokesperson,” said Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. “She has done more for the movement than any one person ever has.”

But Chinese authorities say her role lacks substance. “We believe it is the Chinese government and the local government in Xinjiang autonomous region that are the legitimate representatives of the Uighur people,” said Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong. “We believe that Rebiya Kadeer is an ethnic separatist who is bent on separating Xinjiang autonomous region from China and we hope that the American people see her true nature.”

Wang said Kadeer’s involvement in events in Xinjiang — coordinated from her Washington offices — led Chinese authorities, citing records of subversive phone conversations and meetings, to finger Kadeer as the one responsible for inciting the unrest. Kadeer denies the government’s allegations that she played a role in organizing any violent events.

Gladney says the fact that the government specifically condemned Kadeer as the mastermind points to her prominence within the Uighur movement. “This is the first time they’ve ever done something like this,” he said of the effort to single out a specific instigator.

The Chinese government put the July 5 death toll at 192 and said about a third were Uighurs. Authorities said police were attempting to break up the protests, which sprang from the killing of the two Uighur factory workers, when the demonstrators began rampaging through the capital, attacking members of the Han Chinese majority. But while the central government has a robust media mechanism that is charged with delivering the state’s message, the Uighurs generally lack a platform to tell their side of the story both in and outside China.

At 62, Kadeer has been a prominent Uighur leader for years. After establishing a chain of businesses that ranged from restaurants to trade companies, the former laundress ranked among the wealthiest people in China.

“People adored and respected her for her achievement … when all she had to start with was washing peoples’ clothing,” said her daughter, Kekenus Sidik, 19, a Georgetown University student. “I believe she could’ve just as easily continued in such a way and perhaps today we would all be vacationing on some island. But she did not.”

At the peak of her commercial success, Kadeer was appointed to a position in China’s national consultative bodies. But as she continued to work to further the Uighur cause, her relationship with the government soured, leading to the confiscation of her properties, imprisonment and subsequent exile to the United States. Her family also is active in the Uighur movement; some of her 11 children work with her in Washington and two of her sons are currently imprisoned in China for their activities with the movement.

For her part, Kadeer said her background strengthens her bond with the people she works to help: “All the Uighurs are the same, they all suffered, one way or the other.”

“Uighurs need an eloquent spokesperson,” said Gardner Bovingdon, an Indiana University political scientist who specializes on Xinjiang province. Kadeer “is unusually capable of delivering a powerful message about political developments there in a way that is immediate and moving and … she has the capacity to make people feel the situation has become unbearable and we need to take action.”

While her personal connection to the Uighur plight solidifies her status as a spokesperson, her personal ties to the storyline have also called into question the reliability of some of her statements.

For example, questions about her credibility arose last week following an Al Jazeera television interview in which she held up a photograph that she purported to show cordons of Chinese security forces on the streets of Urumqi facing down Uighur demonstrators on July 5. It was later found that the photo was of an unrelated incident that had taken place weeks earlier in Hubei province.

“It was an honest mistake,” Kadeer said through a translator at a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom event on July 15. Kadeer said the photo was chosen from hundreds she had received showing the Urumqi protests because it was a clearer image than the rest, and still illustrated the government’s treatment of the Chinese.

However, Kadeer, who often tops off her neatly pressed suits and gray, coiffed waist-length braids with the traditional Uighur three-point cap, acknowledges that details about the chain of events since July 5 is vague at best. When she spoke at the media gathering, her statements were peppered with lines such as “we’re not sure” and sentences tagged with “we cannot verify.”

When asked whether the Chinese government is concerned that by singling out Kadeer as the instigator of the uprising has in fact raised her profile and given leverage to her message, Wang claims that she has an ulterior motive. “She’s been trying to make use of the democratic institutions in this country [the United States] to catch the attention of the media,” he said.

Kadeer said it is futile for the government to attempt to silence her. “The international community should know the lies, then we can rebut the lies and change the policies,” she said.