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Why should American grand strategy care about the Uighurs?

Why should American grand strategy care about the Uighurs?

That was the question I posed to Rebiya Kadeer this week, who spoke to Duke and UNC students through the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. (Here is a link to an interview she gave while here on campus. See the bottom of this post for video of her lecture.) Her answer was simple and persuasive: A China that can abuse Uighurs with impunity is likely to threaten global stability in myriad ways, whereas a China that has learned to respect the rights of Uighurs (and other ethnic groups within the Chinese polity) is likely to be a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

It was a reasonable answer, backed up by her compelling personal testimony. At one time, she was one of the wealthiest women in China and a rising voice inside the Chinese Communist Party. She used her position of influence to speak up on behalf of the Uighurs, an oppressed minority in western China — what the Chinese government calls Xingjian province and what the Uighurs call East Turkestan.

Like many human rights advocates, she paid a terrible price. She was thrown in jail and only released in 2005 after extraordinary pressure from international human rights groups and especially from the Bush administration. To this day, her gratitude to the Bush administration is palpable. She was one of the more remarkable people I met while serving at the White House, and I wanted my Duke students to hear her story first-hand.

I knew she was persona non grata with the Chinese government, but I was surprised at the extent to which they continue to expend effort to suppress her voice. Her talk attracted an overflow audience, including quite a large number of Chinese students.  Some were keen to disrupt the proceedings and shout her down. Ms. Kadeer told me that the Chinese embassy organizes students to harass her visits to college campuses. They are provided with the same tired talking points and gotcha questions, which she answers over and over again but to no avail. 

Q. Why does YouTube have a video of you professing loyalty to the Communist party? A. Because they coerced me into saying that while in prison. 

Q. Why do you complain about the treatment of Uighurs when they enjoy affirmative action benefits on college entrance exams? A. The extra points they are given because they take a test in a foreign language does not compensate for the systematic abuse of their right to self-determination.

Q. Why did you instigate the riots in July 2009? A. I did not instigate those riots, and I have repeatedly called for peaceful protest.

And so on. 

Some of the students professed outrage at what she said. But it was hard to determine whether the outrage was real or staged for the benefit of those who might be watching and reporting on their behavior back to the Chinese security services.

Others came to me privately and professed shame at the disrespect showed by some to Ms. Kadeer. 

I came away from the experience wondering what it said about the rise of China. In the long run, China’s strength could pose a great challenge to international stability, but in the medium run it is China’s weaknesses — and in the short run, China’s over-confidence and hyper-nationalism — that pose the biggest challenges. Beijing’s difficulty in talking about, let alone respecting, basic rights inside China is but one vivid illustration of that weakness. 

I hope the students who heard Ms. Kadeer — many of them children of great privilege and the future leaders of China — saw the same thing and redoubled their commitment to be agents for progress in the future.

[Updated on 3/5/13 to add with video of Ms. Kadeer’s lecture]