‘Their Only Option Is Independence’

Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer describes how Hong Kong is an inspiration to her people.


The worst-case scenario for Beijing is that protests demanding more autonomy for Hong Kong spread to other parts of China. According to Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the movement for Uighur rights, the ideals of the Hong Kong movement are already influencing the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. "Because of the brutality and wrongfulness of the Chinese government, the Uighur people have concluded that their only option is independence," she said in a Sept. 30 interview with Foreign Policy. The protests in Hong Kong "are very inspiring" to Xinjiang, she said. Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group who make up roughly 43 percent of the population in Xinjiang, think that "if Hong Kong wins, it will benefit Uighurs as well, and then the Uighurs can strengthen their own movement."

Since Sept. 26, tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have taken to the streets, demanding, among other things, the right to more fully elect their chief executive. The numbers of protesters appear to be growing daily, with the highest numbers on Oct. 1 — an important holiday celebrating the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic China — and some protest leaders have called for Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying to step down. Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, has since been governed under the principle of "one country, two systems." Beijing controls Hong Kong’s foreign policy and defense, but citizens in Hong Kong enjoy far more freedom of speech and assembly than their compatriots on the mainland. By contrast, the Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Tibet are autonomous only in name — residents there on balance enjoy fewer rights than elsewhere on the mainland. Parts of Tibet and Xinjiang appear to be de facto police states. "We are struggling to preserve our identity," Kadeer said. "It’s a life or death struggle between the Chinese and the Uighurs." 

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), the exile organization headed by Kadeer (and which uses an alternate spelling of Uighur in its name), has not yet called for Xinjiang to declare independence from China. "The WUC will continue its dialogue with China because if we push for independence, it is a given that there will be bloodshed," she said. "In that case, both Uighurs and Chinese alike will be the victims." (Kadeer, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, doesn’t speak English; the interview was conducted through two Uighur translators, who are both involved in the international Uighur movement.) 

The WUC is the most prominent Uighur-exile organization, though it’s difficult to say what level of support it enjoys among the exile community, which Kadeer estimates to be about 2 million, or in Xinjiang itself, which is under a de facto news blackout. "She certainly doesn’t have the authority that the Dalai Lama has," said Dru Gladney, a Xinjiang specialist at Pomona College in California, referring to the Tibetan spiritual leader who has been far more successful than Kadeer in internationalizing his people’s plight.

It’s nearly impossible to report independently from Xinjiang. Australian journalist Stephen McDonell, who traveled there recently, told the New York Times that "at any one time, dozens of people were following" him and his crew in order to prevent him from being able to conduct interviews independently.  

"The people of Hong Kong — they struggle in a very peaceful way," Kadeer said. But because of the international attention, "the Chinese government couldn’t oppress them with brute force," she said. Hong Kong enjoys a robust local press corps; hundreds if not thousands of Western journalists are stationed there. By contrast, there are no journalists from major Western news outlets stationed in Xinjiang. On Sept. 21, riots broke out in Luntai, a county in central Xinjiang. State media originally claimed two people died, but on Sept. 25, they updated the number to 50 killed and 54 injured by suicide bombs. The situation in Xinjiang has steadily worsened since Uighurs rioted in July 2009 in the regional capital Urumqi, leading to the death of probably hundreds. Before, Kadeer said, there were at least show trials and a veneer of justice. Now, she speaks of "ongoing slaughter" and "extrajudicial killings."

Kadeer’s claims and the claims of the local governments about violence in Xinjiang are impossible to verify. "I saw what happened in Hong Kong and Taiwan," she said, referring to protests in Taipei this spring, and "I wished" that Xinjiang could also have Western journalists reporting there. "Our people can’t do what the Hong Kong people are doing because they’re getting killed by the Chinese government," and there are no outsiders to observe it.

The situation in Hong Kong has worried some observers on the mainland. "In today’s China, engaging in an election system of one man, one vote is bound to quickly lead to turmoil, unrest, and even a situation of civil war," the deputy director of China’s National People’s Congress Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee, Li Shenming, wrote in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, according to Reuters. Tibetans inside China are also watching the situation closely, said Bhuchung K. Tsering, a Washington, D.C.-based Tibetan writer and activist. And many Tibetans in exile "sympathize with the Hong Kong demonstrators and their quest for democratic rights," said Tsering.  

However, the protests in Hong Kong could be contained through dialogue between the territory and the mainland. As for Xinjiang, Kadeer worries the situation could devolve into a civil war. She called on the United States to "push the Chinese government into conducting dialogue," and reminded the United States of the security implications for instability in Xinjiang. "Because of the Chinese government’s heavy-handed policies and the world’s non-intervention, Uighurs are dispersing and ending up in unexpected places, like Afghanistan," she said. (Uighurs have fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan.) "People are getting ready to do anything. They are getting radicalized, and more likely to participate in terrorist-like activities. We have never witnessed this in the past. They are seeking any possible venues." A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment specifically for this article, and instead referred to late September remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said: "The United States will always speak out in support of universal rights." 

Kadeer emphasized that she desired dialogue with the mainland to find a peaceful resolution. But she also cautioned that her views are more conservative than those of many Uighurs. "The Chinese government left no other option," she said. "The Uighurs have lost their belief in autonomy. The Uighurs came to the conclusion that their only option is independence." People in Xinjiang are "watching and observing very closely" what’s happening in Hong Kong, Kadeer said. "It’s very inspiring."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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