McClatchy Washington Bureau
Posted on Wed, Dec. 24, 2008
Exiled Muslim tycoon pays price for criticizing China
Tim Johnson | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Some of China's favorite adjectives for Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled leader of China's ethnic Uighur minority, are "terrorist" and "separatist monster."
The name-calling only seems to fire up Kadeer, who sometimes works these days from a small office about a block from the White House. She sees her job as being a thorn in China's side on behalf of her ethnic Muslim brethren in China's resource-rich far west.
Kadeer is little known to the outside world. Yet she's a rallying figure for one of China's largest minority groups, an accidental critic of China's policies toward its ethnic minorities whom Beijing once celebrated as one of China's richest tycoons. Advocating on behalf of Muslim minorities led to her imprisonment and eventual expulsion from China in 2005, and she went into exile in the United States.
Her outspokenness has exacted an extraordinary personal toll.
Before she was freed from prison, Chinese security officials warned her never to speak out against China from exile or her adult children, who remained behind, would pay the price.
She spoke out anyway. Then one day in 2006, her phone rang in suburban Washington. It was her daughter Rushangul calling on a mobile phone from western China, where several security agents were beating two of her sons, one of them severely. The agents instructed the daughter to tell her mother that she was to blame for what was happening.
"She was screaming, jumping and telling her mother that police were beating Ablikim," said Alim Seytoff, a family friend who's the director of the Uighur Human Rights Project.
In an interview with McClatchy on Dec. 16, Kadeer herself simply recalled: "I was extremely frantic at the situation."
The two sons have since received seven- and nine-year prison terms on tax evasion and "splittism" charges. Kadeer's business empire is ruined.
Such personal travails have brought about empathy for her.
President George W. Bush met with her last year and described the imprisonment of her sons as "retaliation for her human rights activities." She finds doors open on Capitol Hill to talk about the plight of the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers), a Turkic-speaking Muslim group that predominates in the Xinjiang autonomous region in China's west.
Beijing, for its part, accuses Kadeer of trying to break China apart along ethnic lines.
"I'm often amazed at how much the Chinese government tries to discredit her," said Sean R. Roberts, an anthropologist who's a Uighur specialist at George Washington University here. "She doesn't have as much name recognition as the Dalai Lama, but the Chinese government tends to treat her in the same vein."
Unlike the Dalai Lama, who's a global icon as well as a spiritual leader for Tibetans, another minority group that complains of Chinese repression, Kadeer plays no religious role for Uighurs.
As Muslims in a post-Sept. 11 world, the Uighurs have found difficulty elevating their cause internationally. Desperation among the young is growing. Some have turned to violence.
On Dec. 17, China sentenced two Uighur men to death after convicting them of plowing a truck into a group of jogging security agents, killing 15 people, just before the Beijing Olympic Games started last summer.
Many Uighurs chafe at the strict controls that China imposes on their religious activities, including the wearing of head scarves and the naming of religious leaders. Uighurs also are vexed at an influx of majority Han Chinese into their home region.
"The Chinese are very successful at two things: bringing in Han Chinese population to outnumber the locals and deploying a very firm security mechanism — both the Public Security Bureau and the People's Armed Police — that has pretty much a blank check in dealing with the minorities," said John J. Tkacik, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington research center.
Wearing her hair long and braided in two pigtails, with a traditional square velvet cap on her head, Kadeer explained how her business career once seemed charmed.
She operated restaurants and a major department store in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, and made a fortune trading in wood, steel, cotton and foodstuffs with Central Asian nations.
"In the mid-1990s, I was one of the seven wealthiest businesspeople in China," she said through a translator. She was known as the "millionairess."
Even as she grew rich, turning to philanthropy for Uighur causes, Kadeer said, she began to seethe at the treatment of other Uighurs.
"The Chinese government allowed me and a few other Uighurs to get rich to show how great their policies were," Kadeer said. "I realized I could make money but my people were condemned to poverty."
By 1997, she could take it no longer, and her public criticism resulted in her house arrest.
Two years later, she was sentenced for "leaking state secrets" after sending newspaper clippings to her husband, who was living in exile in the United States. She remained in prison until 2005, when China released her on medical parole on the condition that she leave the country.
Now, Kadeer accuses China of purposefully driving Uighurs to desperation, trying to incite unrest to justify a greater crackdown and tighter control of Xinjiang, where about 9.5 million Uighurs live. Kadeer said she was hopeful that the incoming Obama administration would inject human rights issues more prominently into its dealings with China.
"It's really up to the U.S. administration to put more pressure on China with regard to our situation," she said.
Some 1,000 Uighur exiles live in the United States, often with ambivalent feelings about American policies. While the Bush administration has voiced strong support for Kadeer, it also bent to Chinese demands that Washington list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant Muslim separatist group, as a terrorist organization in exchange for increased cooperation in the war on terrorism. Washington also kept 17 Uighurs in military detention without charges at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for seven years.
Kadeer discusses such issues calmly but turns steely when an interview touches on the suffering of her jailed sons.
"When I hear reports of my imprisoned sons, I get very, very angry, too," she said.
Her fellow activists commiserate, sensitive to the personal toll that her battle has taken.
"Sometimes I wonder how she can go to sleep at night," said Nury Turkel, a past president of the Uighur American Association, an exile advocacy group.