Seven Questions with Rebiya Kadeer

The "voice of the Uighurs" speaks out against China's war and says now only the world can help them.


Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uighur from Xinjiang Province, China, is a prominent human rights activist. 

Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uighur from Xinjiang Province, China, is a prominent human rights activist. 

She once was a successful businesswoman and a member of a state council. But her vocal denunciation of violence against Uighurs and the state’s repressive policies led to a 8-year jail sentence and, ultimately, exile in the United States. She now acts as "the Uighurs’ voice," leading a representative world body and lobbying foreign governments to support them.

The Chinese government accused Kadeer of fomenting the ethnic violence that rocked Xinjiang in July and spurred a heavy-handed government crackdown. In this interview, she discusses relations in the restive region — and calls on the world to protect the Uighur minority.

Zubayra Shamseden acted as a translator for this interview, which was lightly edited for length and clarity. Excerpts: 

Foreign Policy: Were you involved in the unrest in Xinjiang? And how do you react to China’s insistence that you helped foment the riots?

Rebiya Kadeer: No. I am the voice of these people and I want peace. The [World Uighur Congress] and I have worked since June 26, with 51 organizations around the world, to protest the violence, to go to governments and parliaments and senators around the world to intervene.

I was very disappointed [by the Chinese accusation]. I’m not very happy at all, because they’re accusing me [of causing] what happened in Xinjiang, when they should be asking themselves why it took place. Why did those people take to the streets to demand justice?

And even if they [do blame] me for what happened, they should come to me and ask me, "Why did you do it?" Let’s come to a dialogue then. Because if they listened to me, I would tell the Chinese authorities: Look, this is what my people want. This is what my people wish to have from you.

Instead of blaming me for everything, [the Chinese authorities] should just stop suppressing and stop killing people. They should stop doing what they’ve been doing. They should try to listen to the people’s pleas.

With their propaganda, they’ve been able to mislead the international community, to lie. But it’s impossible for the Chinese authorities to cheat on the local people, the Uighur people. They wouldn’t believe it. They do not believe it. Even the Han Chinese, they do not believe it. The Chinese authorities clearly knew that nobody [believes] that I instigated the incident and that it happened the way it did.

They blame me for using my name, Rebiya, against them. But they use my name, Rebiya, to suppress the people. If it weren’t me, they would find somebody else to blame. In the [case] of Tibet, whatever takes place, whatever happens, it’s always the Dalai Lama. Always the Dalai Lama. For 50 years, that is what the Chinese authorities have been doing in Tibet. So it is in Xinjiang.

FP: Tell us what we don’t hear in the media. What are you most worried about?

RK: The current situation in our country is very grave.

I don’t have any proof for some of the incidences I’ve heard about. Based on unconfirmed sources, we’re hearing that the authorities are arresting people every day. Hundreds of people. On a daily basis.

After arresting the people, the Chinese authorities are — if they agree to work with the Chinese authorities, like as a spy, they will release them. But the rest of them are missing. Nobody knows where they have gone, all the disappeared.

In terms of wounded protesters, wounded Uighur people, they were taken to the second or third local hospitals. Somehow they all disappeared from the local hospital. They took them to the military hospital. And it’s just very questionable. Why did they have to transfer them to the military hospital? We suspect some were killed or put in prison. But anything could have happened.

On the streets, we hear that people have been finding bodies [in the gutters]. Also, a television station said there were bodies found in the medical university in Urumqi. There are many of these stories, but they are from unconfirmed sources. [We don’t think these were] executions by the military or the police, but Uighurs killed by Han Chinese mobs.  But we don’t know. We don’t hear about them.

FP: One of the tensions you describe is that many Uighurs — though not all — want to have peace with China. But China does not want peace with the Uighurs, so much as it wants to eradicate them.

RK: That is true. The Chinese purposefully instigated the violence in Xinjiang, as well — even when they were sending troops to stop it. They wanted the Han Chinese and the Uighurs to be violent against each other. There were Chinese security officials in ordinary, plain clothes to create Chinese mobs against the Uighurs. There was no way for the local population to know they were doing it. And you cannot find any information in China about the shootings and the killings of the Uighurs.

What the Chinese authorities say within China is that the Uighurs hate peace. But there were protests where Uighurs were holding Chinese flags, which they never do. They were trying to say: We are your citizens; we are your people. We demand change, but we demand peace.

Uighurs normally don’t hold those flags — because China invaded the region 60 years ago. China said they would give Xinjiang autonomy, but instead, it has been suppressed and they moved millions of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. The autonomous rule was never implemented. This is genocide. They want to destroy the Uighur culture — they destroyed Kashgar, which had 5,000 years of civilization, of history.

FP: What has happened to you, personally?

RK: I have become the No. 1 enemy of the Chinese authorities because I am the voice of my people. I have been punished. They destroyed my wealth, my businesses. They arrested my children and harassed my family. They forced my children onto television, to lie about my activities. They forced my children from their homes, and then demolished them. They took away our human rights. This is the last shameful thing — the Chinese authorities are forcing my family from their homes. But where will they go? Just because they are my relatives, no one will offer them a place.

Plus, at the moment, they are demolishing two of my trade centers. At the Rebiya Trade Center, 2,000 merchants work there. It is like a wholesale center for all of East Turkestan. It is the last source of income for many in the region — it is a ridiculous situation — it is their last income source. At the back of that trade center is another, named after my daughter. In that center — my children are living there now. And the authorities are demolishing it as well.

It is a revenge act [against] me.

I have five children and nine grandchildren in East Turkestan. Two of my children are in prison. The situation is very grave. I hope some country on Earth will help them and bring them out. I am amazed sometimes. Why isn’t the United Nations or the United States asking why? The authorities are openly suppressing this population. It is a genocide.

FP: Where have you taken your effort to make the plight of the Uighur public? How do you do so?

RK: The United States. It is confident in its support. [The United States] believes it has the authority to save people like mine. But if America would [have intervened] promptly, the situation would be better. Instead, what happened was that the Chinese authorities demonstrated, in China and to the world, what they can do.

Only the rest of the world can save Xinjiang now. I tried, I actually tried inside China, to resolve these issues, but it did not happen. I was imprisoned and had to leave the country. They suppress any [dissent]. Anyone who tried to raise the issue peacefully, about their basic human rights, the Chinese authorities responded with prison, or sometimes the death sentence.

[Recently, I heard] about a group, a delegation, which went to Beijing to talk with authorities about a peaceful resolution. They were arrested.

Now, I have to rally support from democratic countries. We reach out to parliaments, senates, religious organizations, mosques, and human rights organizations. Uighurs rely on the world now. That’s the only thing we have. What I do when I visit parliaments and senators and governments is ask that the Uighurs become part of their foreign-policy [agenda].

We reach out to Western governments — like the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden. We are also reaching out to the Islamic world now because [China is] restricting the Uighurs in Xinjiang from practicing their religion. The Chinese authorities have told the Islamic world that they have no problem with the exercise of religion. They say that they allow Buddhists, Christians, Muslims. But that is not true.

China is very tactical, and two-sided. To the Islamic world, they say that the Uighurs are separatists and not religious. To the Western world, they say the Uighurs are radicals. To Turkey, they say, "Rebiya works for the CIA." They are very tactical, and they have different versions of this propaganda. They want to make us lonely in the world.

FP: What is your goal? What do you think will happen in Xinjiang?

RK: What do we want? Peace.

It depends not on the Uighurs, but on the Chinese authorities. If they allow self-determination and a dialogue, then it will be resolved peacefully. The Chinese authorities should comply with the United Nations convention on self-determination in Xinjiang.

And we will see how the situation continues. We will see how the Chinese authorities deal with these thousands of innocent prisoners in jail. They must stop arresting, release the innocent, bring back the Uighurs they forcefully removed from East Turkestan. We will see also how they resolve the issues with the Uighur and Han schools.

But they know now: The Uighurs will not stop. We advocated peace, but they continued to suppress us. We here warned the Uighurs in China that they would be suppressed and killed — but they did not listen. They said, "All we have left is our soul. We have nothing but our soul."

FP: What else should we know? What else should we be thinking about?

RK: I was watching CCTV, a Chinese [state-controlled] television station. I saw a report that said "The United States came into Afghanistan with an army. We will move into Afghanistan with money." Then, there were pictures of Uighur homes burning. It did not say it — but, this is part of why they want to wipe out the Uighur people. Because only a mountain separates Afghanistan and China. A mountain and Xinjiang province and my people.

It was just a flicker — just a moment on television. I couldn’t tape it. But the State Department should watch it.

China does want, in Afghanistan, business. Gas, and infrastructure. And it does not want violence. Since 2001, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, there has been much more violence in Xinjiang because [the region is more restive] and because as soon as [U.S. President George W. Bush] moved soldiers into Afghanistan, China started to suppress. Think about why that would take place. To stop violence, and to gain business. That is why they are committing genocide, and that is why they destroyed a 5,000-year-old city.

But the genocide of the Uighurs, it’s similar to what happened with the Pharaohs [in ancient Egypt] when they were conquered and the [culture was lost]. It is similar to what happened with them.

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.
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