In which your humble correspondent breaks bread with the Uighur democracy movement in Arlington, Virginia.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
One day, the Communist Party chief of the vast Chinese region of Xinjiang visits a rural area on a publicity tour. A little girl comes up to him and says, "Mr. Secretary, there’s this beautiful Uighur baby — you should hug her." As soon as he does, the baby starts crying and spits on his face! "What’s her name?" the party chief bellows. "Rebiya," the little girl says. And so he shouts and drops the baby!
I heard this joke from Nury Turkel, a lawyer and activist for the independence movement of China’s beleaguered Uighur minority — a Turkic-language-speaking, Islam-practicing people, numbering around 20 million — at a dinner party in an Arlington, Virginia, apartment building on Nov. 11. Two weeks prior, a Uighur had crashed a car into the heart of Beijing, killing five and injuring dozens. An attack like that is extremely rare in China, and it reportedly led to scaled-up scrutiny of Uighurs throughout the country. On Nov. 16, Xinjiang authorities said assailants armed with knives and axes attacked a police station in a remote part of the region, leaving 11 dead, though details are murky. Ethnic tensions remain high, and more bloodshed will likely follow.
The joke, which Turkel told to me with good cheer and decent timing, surrounded by Uighur luminaries from around the world, may not have been funny, but the symbolism was clear. The Rebiya, of course, is Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the leader of the Uighur independence, or democracy, movement. Like with Tibetan activists abroad, China views members of the Uighur movement as "terrorists" trying to "illegally split" the country, and it has made clear it will brook no dissent in Xinjiang. All Kadeer and the Uighur movement can do, the joke implies, is spit in the face of the Chinese. And we all know what happens when you drop a baby.
The dinner party, in celebration of the 80th and 69th anniversaries of the founding of two short-lived East Turkestan republics, had that same spit-in-the-eye sense of fatalism. In 1950, one year after reunifying China, the Communist Party conquered the roughly 640,000 square mile swath of land that East Turkestan was part of, calling it Xinjiang, which means "New Frontier." China has ruled the territory since then; today, no country recognizes the Uighur homeland. Although China claims some Uighurs in Xinjiang work with the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which it calls a terrorist organization, it is unknown whether there is an active freedom-fighting movement operating within Xinjiang, and the U.S. State Department does not include ETIM on its list of terrorist organizations. I’m no oddsmaker, but East Turkestan’s independence seems only slightly more likely than Dennis Rodman being named ambassador to North Korea.
Turkel, a former president of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association (UAA), an advocacy group, and Alim Seytoff, the current president, addressed, on some level, the quixotic nature of their goal. The UAA held an event commemorating the East Turkestan anniversaries on Capitol Hill on Nov. 12. They invited members of Congress, "but because of the shutdown none of them will come," Seytoff said, ignoring — out of politeness, political savvy, obliviousness, or a combination of the three — the fact that the government shutdown had already ended. The real reason is likely a combination of the near-total lack of interest Americans have in the Uighur cause and Beijing’s well-documented policy of punishing politicians who meet with people — like Uighur activists — it considers enemies of the state.
Turkel fled China roughly a decade ago and began speaking out against official repression. "They wouldn’t let my parents leave China and come to my wedding," he said. "That really pissed me off." Over the last few years, Xinjiang has been in a bad way. Ethnic riots in July 2009 in the region’s capital, Urumqi, left nearly 200 dead, and July 2013 saw dozens others killed in attacks that Beijing blamed on "Islamic terrorists." Using these attacks in part as justification, local authorities have severely limited the right to speak out or assemble. Like with Tibet, Xinjiang is officially an "autonomous region," but it is firmly in Beijing’s palm. Another famous joke, Turkel recounted that night, goes like this: "When the Chinese select the chairman of the region, they put all of the Uighurs into a box. Whoever has the softest head — one you can really push your finger into — they pick."
The dinner was held in a conference room on the first floor of an Arlington apartment building not far from the freeway, an apartment building that Yelp reviewers have described as "cheap" and "clean as f***." Apart from a conference table, the room had a little kitchen area and comfortable couches, where the women and children sat.
Besides myself, the other guests were all Uighurs, many of whom grew up in mainland China. One, who was last in Beijing in 1997, said, "It’s a nice city; I just don’t like the god-damn government." I asked a businessman whether he had been back to Xinjiang lately. "No." he responded. "I was back in East Turkestan. ‘Xinjiang’ is the word I hate more than any other. I was back in East Turkestan." Besides coming from Turkey and across the United States, many of the Uighurs had flown in from Germany, where the WUC was founded and where many of them live.
As we ate home-cooked Uighur lamb dumplings and flat noodles, Turkel introduced me to the roughly 15 men sitting around a table. "This guy runs the Uighur show in Japan," he said, pointing to a gruff man in a suit jacket. "And this older gentleman — before Kadeer, this guy’s father, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, was the face of the Uighur movement." Alptekin was a top official in East Turkestan in the 1930s and a celebrity among the Uighurs in Turkey, where many of them settled after 1949. "It’s a Googleable name," Turkel told me. It was a casual gathering, though as the night progressed, several men stood up and gave speeches. Throughout the evening, the ground shook a few times, as a man lifting weights in an adjacent gym threw his barbells on the floor.
The son of the former face of the Uighur movement is Erkin Alptekin, a former WUC president and a Germany-based former journalist for the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty. The WUC’s website says Alptekin has attended "more t
han 6,000 international conference[s]" over the last 35 years. "Can you believe it? This guy is 74 and he was out drinking with me until 2 a.m. in Dupont Circle!" Turkel said.
"I’m a good Muslim, but I love beer and vodka," Alptekin responded good-naturedly.
Alptekin moved around the table, smiling and shaking hands. One of the men poured cups of whiskey under the table by his legs and surreptitiously — but with a wink — distributed them. The conversation was in Uighur, so when Alptekin stood up to speak I could not understand what provoked the belly laughs and good-natured ribbing. "I’m so tired of speeches," Alptekin said, plopping down next to me with an exaggerated sigh. Then he grew philosophical. "My own personal opinion: Things are going to get worse." The Chinese, he said, try to call this radical Islam or terrorism, but it’s not: It’s an independence movement that has lasted for several hundred years.
I only knew one of the men at the table — a friend of a good friend from China — and after listening to several speeches that I did not understand, and several gulps of whiskey, I went to go talk to him. But he doesn’t speak much English, and I felt communicating with him in Mandarin would be in poor taste. So I smiled at him, and he smiled sadly at me, and pulled out his accordion. "We eat, we talk, we drink — water or tea, not vodka, like me," Alptekin said with an exaggerated wink, as my friend stared into the distance beyond the gym wall and started playing a mournful song on the accordion. "And that’s how we free East Turkestan."