China's Other Genocide: the 'Mother of the Uyghurs' Speaks Out
Although we often hear of the plight of the Tibetans and the efforts of the Dalai Lama to address the human rights conditions in Tibet, the similar plight of another major ethnic group -- the Uyghurs and other indigenous minorities in the Xinjiang province in northwestern China -- has gone almost completely unnoticed.
While repression, imprisonment, and executions have lessened greatly in Tibet, this has not been the case for the Uyghurs, and persecution has actually increased dramatically since 9/11 and Bush's war on terror.
With Bush's attempt to win China's support for his al-Qaida hunting venture, China redefined the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), at the time an organization with no confirmed terrorist acts in China, as a terrorist organization. Shortly thereafter, the United States included the ETIM on its terrorist organization list, and exiled Uyghurs captured in Afghanistan have been held at Guantanamo without charges.
But more important has been the opportunities America's war on terror offered the Chinese government's to repress the Xinjiang's Muslim minorities without American and European intrusion.Yet one Uyghur voice is being heard beyond the borders of Xinjiang: Rebiya Kadeer, affectionately known as the "Mother of the Uygurs." Besides having taken on the cause of Xinjiang's minority populations, Rebiya also holds the honor of being one of China's "Public Enemies Number One."
After growing up in poverty following Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army's takeover of her land, she worked her way from a simple laundry person, hand-washing the clothes of oil refinery workers, to becoming the wealthiest woman in China. In fact, she became the seventh-wealthiest person in China and eventually a high official of the National People's Congress.
On the day she was to meet with American representatives on human rights issues, she was arrested and spent the next six years in horrid prison conditions as a political prisoner, two of those years in solitary confinement.
She has been considered for the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of times, but Chinese lobbying and trade relations threats to the Norwegian government have prevented her from receiving this prestigious award. She lives in exile in the United States and is the president of the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur-American Association.
She also just released her autobiography, Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace With China, with an Intro by the Dalai Lama. It's an extraordinary account of a courageous woman trying to live by the highest human values in one of the worst regimes of human rights violations today.
On June 1, Rebiya Kadeer gave a rare interview on WPFW Pacifica radio in Washington.The Chinese have stuck with the story that Tibet was always a part of China, which legitimized their entry into Tibet in the late 1940s; the Chinese hold the same story of East Turkestan or Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where many non-Chinese peoples, most of who are of Turkic and Central Asian origin, including the Uyghurs, live.
WPFW: What was the national status at the time of Mao's communist revolution, and how did the lands of the Uyghur come to be part of Communist China?
Rebiya Kadeer: Historically, both Tibet and East Turkestan were not part of China but they were independent. The Chinese government knows this very well. As you know, today Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are independent states in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet empire. We also belong to Central Asia and not the Eastern part of Asia.
Historically, we are part of these other countries. They are called Western Turkistan, and we are called Eastern Turkestan; but now Western Turkistan is free and independent, whereas we are still under Chinese communist rule.
WPFW: We give rather mixed messages to the world community when it comes to human rights. On the one hand we say we support human rights, and yet we look the other way when China arrested millions of Falun Gong and used their body parts for organ transplants. Over 100,000 are known to have had their organs removed. We haven't opened our mouths about that. We haven't opened our mouths about Tibet. We haven't opened our mouths about slave labor.
In fact, because China gives us over $1 billion a day and holds about $1.5 trillion of our debt in the form of T-bills, IOUs, we won't say anything even with this new administration that promises change. It's change is Kafkaesque.
Do you see any possibility of approaching the president of the United States, knowing how utterly compromised almost every member of our Congress is, and our entire political community, to see if you couldn't make your cause something that he may have enough courage to at least open his voice to address it slightly?
RK: I'm confident that the new administration, and all future administrations, will definitely focus on the human rights of Uyghurs, Tibetans and all the oppressed peoples around the world. And I understand that the current economic situation is very bad, and in light of that reality, it's hard to pressure China in terms of human rights. But I do believe things will eventually change.
WPFW: Let's speak about the distinct cultural features of the Uyghurs that are being extinguished since your land was seized by the Chinese in 1955. The Uyghur and other related tribal groups are predominantly followers of Islam. Sharing much with Mongolia, there is also a rich shamanic influence, as well. Although you are a Muslim, you mention in your book that reciting a shamanic song or prayer repeatedly while in solitary confinement for two years helped you. When we look at three of the five poisons that China repeatedly refers to, they have strong religious components: the Buddhism of Tibet, the Islam and indigenous religion of the Uyghur's and the Falun Gong. The other two are Taiwan and the pro-democracy movement. Why do you believe China views religion or spirituality as such a threat to its government and its future goals?
RK: As you know, the Chinese communist government is an atheistic government, and it denounces all religions and persecutes religious believers. For the Chinese authorities, any religion, whether that's Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or any other religion, is a threat to it. It is an unjustified rule, because the government is attempting to use communism to replace all these world religions and is using communism to brainwash the masses into absolute obedience to its rule. That's why the government is so afraid of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam and other religious beliefs, because the government knows that once other people follow a religion, other people will not follow the lies of the Chinese communist government.
And what are Uyghurs, Tibetans or Falun Gong or the Taiwanese or all other peoples? They all have their own unique belief systems. They want to follow their religious traditions and beliefs, and because of that they also demand religious freedom. That's what terrifies the Chinese authorities, because once people begin to demand religious freedom, then they will begin to demand other freedoms as well.
WPFW: Throughout the period of your life while you were a remarkably successful businesswoman, you continued to support and fund equal, social and political rights in Xinjiang. Moreover, your husband was once imprisoned for eight years as a political dissident before the two of you met. Why do you feel the Communist Party invited you to be a leading member in the government's Congress Party? And what is your view now about the way the Chinese Congress operates in suppressing non-Han Chinese groups such as the Uyghurs or the Tibetans?
RK: First of all, after China's notorious Cultural Revolution, the Chinese authorities decided to allow a few members of the Uyghurs and other minority groups to have the opportunity to become wealthy. I used that opportunity to do business and to make money. Other people were still very afraid of the Chinese government, believing that if they started doing business or carrying out other activities the government would persecute them.
As a result, I became rich in a very short period of time, and I had this tremendous respect from the Uyghur people as well. The reason why the Chinese picked me and gave me all these official titles is because the authorities have a history of using people with great influence within particular communities, such as me. So by selecting me as an official to portray to other countries' officials, the Chinese government was showing they were helping the Uyghur people by using me as an example.
But in fact that's not the case, and the Uyghur people suffer so much under Chinese rule. They just used me as a smokescreen to hide their brutality in our homeland. The Chinese government's intention was that once I had this official title I would praise the Chinese government's Sunshine Rule in our homeland.
Whenever foreign officials and delegations visited, I would tell them how happy we are under Chinese rule and how we are enjoying all the rights that we're supposed to enjoy. I just became an official mouthpiece and puppet for the Chinese regime. The Chinese authorities, of course, need Uyghurs like that to say wonderful things about the Communist Party's rule. And probably 1 percent of the Uyghurs actually serve the Chinese Communist Party.
That's what the Chinese authorities thought I would do for them, but at the end of the day I didn't tiptoe their official lines. In the past, the Chinese authorities always picked Uyghur puppets to represent the weaker people in the interest of the Chinese government, and the authorities now know it from their experience that the Uyghurs handpicked by the Beijing dictators are not loved by the Uyghurs.
WPFW: Please share the circumstances that led to your arrest while serving as a member of the Chinese Congress. You were the wealthiest woman in China. Did that help you in any way or did it hurt you? Were you able to get good lawyers or not? Then speak about some of the human rights violations you personally witnessed in prison, either to yourself or to others.
RK: First of all, once I became wealthy, I used my wealth to support and help the Uyghur people within the Chinese laws. At the time, I realized the repression of the Uyghur people: the constant crackdowns, the arrests, executions of the Uyghurs, and the Chinese government violating the autonomy laws given to us in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
I saw the suffering of our people, but I thought that if I could peacefully bring these issues to the attention of the top leaders in China that they would address them. So I was able to document the situation of the Uyghurs and even produce a report that I submitted to Chinese officials hoping that they would give attention to the issues and then change the situation.
The Chinese government always propagates that stability and the unity of nationality are priorities. I believed that was their top concern, and then I hoped by addressing the problems there would be true civility and the unity of nationalities in China. I [eventually] realized that the Chinese Communist Party was not interested in addressing the suffering and the persecution of the Uyghur people at all.
The so-called stability and unity of nationalities were all just lies and used by the authorities to crackdown on the Uyghurs. Then, I thought the best way to let the world know about the human-rights violations was to inform foreign officials, especially to the U.S., because the U.S. has always been very concerned with the human rights situation in China.
The Uyghur people always have this strong faith in the United States government, believing that it would care about their human-rights situation, their suffering and it will give them aid. So while I was on my way to meet a member of a U.S. congressional delegation, I was arrested by the Chinese authorities and later sentenced to eight years for revealing so-called state secrets.
Actually I didn't possess any kind of state secrets. I only sent some newspaper clippings to my husband. The newspapers were already publicly available and published. So I was sentenced to eight years in prison, and the first two years I was solitarily confined. During my six years of incarceration, I was prohibited to read, write, watch anything, listen to anything and even to look at other inmates. All I needed to do was just sit there grabbing my knees and only do the things I was asked or ordered to do.
The only time I wrote something was when I was ordered to sign something. Once, two Uyghur women were stripped naked in front of me by two prison guards. Then they just beat them up very badly, and they forced them to eat poker cards. Then they asked me, "Why don't you save them. Aren't you supposed to help your people?"
Another time, they tortured two young men in front of me and said the same things. "Why don't you save them.?" That's how they psychologically tortured me, and they also punished other inmates just for looking at me. Whenever I was dragged in and out of my cell, outside or to some other place, the inmates were supposed to look in a different direction and not at me. Whoever looked at me was punished.
Daily the Uyghur political prisoners are required to recite 58 times that they are criminals, and they also have to recite 58 times the accusations brought upon them by the Chinese authorities. At the same time, they have to praise the Chinese Communist Party for its rule over our homeland. Then they are allowed to eat. So if you forget one thing to say, or if you stutter, then you can't eat that morning or afternoon.
Any religious person who acknowledges God or says the word "god" is severely punished. When the person denounces God, they can eat. I actually saw one 18-year-old Uyghur female prisoner saying, "I believe in God." They chained both her hands and her feet together for two weeks.
So these are some of the tortures that I witnessed in prison, and there are many other ways the authorities torture political prisoners of course.
WPFW: Now with the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, speak about the event at Ghuljar in 1997. I recall you were arrested at least twice trying to investigate what actually happened there. Although the demonstration did not result in as large a massacre as at Tiananmen Square, the aftermath of gathering Uyghurs, mass executions and imprisonments were still large. Yet this event was virtually nonexistent in the American media, and most people have never heard of it. So briefly, what happened there and what now is considered the actual cost of human life that resulted from it?
RK: Yes. One thing I would like to say before I touch upon the Ghuljar massacre is, as soon as the Chinese authorities cracked down using tanks and killed so many Chinese students at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, a lot of Uyghur students took to the streets in our homeland. They also donated money to help those who were injured or killed. But the Chinese authorities, of course, accused these Uyghurs of separatism. But they only tried to help the Chinese students who were injured.
During the Ghuljar massacre, the Uyghurs took to the streets peacefully to demand their rights and freedoms. In order to show they were peaceful, they all raised their hands and put their hands on their necks. But the Chinese authorities instead of addressing their legitimate concerns sent in fully armed paramilitary police and also deployed so-called People's Liberation Army troops from other provinces to crackdown upon the peaceful protest.
In fact, during the crackdown the number of arrested and executed Uyghurs was actually more than the ones who took to the streets for the protest. When the Chinese soldiers opened fire, they killed not only the protestors, but also women and children who were just watching the protest. Many of them were later taken into a huge stadium and were stripped almost naked. Then they used a water hose and covered them from head to toe with water.
Now this was on Feb. 5 in Turkestan. It was almost the coldest day of that entire winter. Many of the Uyghur police who were present couldn't take this and were also taken away by military police. Later, the Chinese World Journal reported on this massacre. It said some 8,000 Uyghurs disappeared after it. But we're not sure where those 8,000 Uyghurs disappeared to.
WPFW: Well, similar to Tibet, one Chinese strategy for exterminating non-Han Chinese, such as the Uyghur and other traditional groups, is by large numbers of Han Chinese immigrating into their homelands so that the Chinese become the majority population. The most recent figures we were able to find show that the Han Chinese now outnumber the Uyghurs overall. So explain to us how this strategy is a slow means to wipeout Uyghurs and other groups, and then, what are some of the ways the Chinese are trying to eradicate them? For example, arbitrary detention, depriving employment, housing and health care, the forbidding of religious observation, the removal of the Uyghur language from the educational system, and forcing Uyghur orphans to take on Chinese names and identity. Take it from there.
RK: I am very pleased that you know so much about the situation of the Uyghur people, and the strategies the Chinese government are using to eradicate the Uyghurs. Today of course the Chinese government is doing anything in its power to destroy us as a people, by attacking our culture, by also attacking our unique ethnic identity.
For example, today the Chinese authorities are aggressively demolishing the city of Kashgar. Kashgar is the cradle of Uyghur civilization that has been in existence for thousands of years. The Uyghurs established kingdoms there in the past called Kashgarkhan, also Uyghur kings and queens and their courts were established in Kashgar, and just as late as the early 20th century the British government had a consulate there.
But now the Chinese government is destroying everything -- all the buildings built by the Uyghurs several hundred years ago. By demolishing them, the Chinese authorities are erasing Uyghur culture and our history at this very moment. And in order to aggressively pursue this kind of cultural assimilation of the Uyghur people, not only in Kashgar, for the past several decades they are destroying everything that represents the Uyghurs in the city of Turpan. It had been a center of Uyghur Buddhism in the fifth to late sixth centuries.
In other Uyghur towns and cities, they're building these Chinese pagodas and they are saying these pagodas existed several thousand years ago. They claim these are actual Chinese pagoda sites in order to justify that our region was part of China. By outnumbering us, they are basically saying it's their land. That it has always been their land, and we came from somewhere else.
So the Chinese government is completely changing the demography of the region, and also the landscape by remaking history, by building things that never existed, and by destroying the ones that actually did exist. They are arresting, imprisoning and executing those Uyghurs who demand to preserve their unique ethnic identity under all kinds of charges by conveniently labeling them as separatists, radicals and even terrorists in a lot of cases.
The Chinese government's intent is to wipeout the Uyghur culture before the international community knows the existence of such people and our predicament. By transferring millions of Chinese into our homeland, by becoming the majority, the authorities take away our houses and properties and freely distribute them to the incoming Chinese immigrants. The Chinese authorities also provide all the jobs, all the housing, everything to the Chinese immigrants. By giving them opportunities and making them happy to live in our homeland, they are stripping the Uyghur people naked.
The Uyghurs who want to stay in their homeland want to peacefully coexist with the incoming Chinese people, but the government does not give that kind of opportunity to them. When the Uyghurs demand their legitimate rights, they're immediately arrested. And so, if Uyghurs want to leave our homeland to other parts, or other countries, the Chinese authorities do not allow them to leave because they cannot get their passports.
Actually, all of their passports have been universally confiscated by the authorities. In addition to that, the Chinese government just initiated another policy that forcefully removes young, unmarried Uyghur women from 14 to 25 years old to eastern parts of China to work virtually as slaves and cheap labor in Chinese factories.
The Chinese authorities are also using nationalism to infuriate the Chinese to create this kind of hatred between the Chinese immigrants and the local Uyghurs, stating that these Uyghurs are the troublemakers. They create instability. They create problems for China, and they should be eliminated as a people.
So when you visit Chinese Web sites, you'd be shocked to learn what they write about Uyghurs. It's so easy for them to say just kill them. Wipe them all out. Genocide those people because they are troublemakers. These people are trying to break apart this great country called China.
WPFW: How large in landmass and miles compared to the United States is the Uyghur territory, and how many people live there or have lived there?
RK: The size of East Turkestan in the metric system is 1.6 million square kilometers.
WPFW: That's roughly the size of Alaska.That's very large. How many people?
RK: The Chinese statistics have put the number of Uyghurs around 9.3 million. And the total population is around 20 million-ish.
WPFW: I would also speculate that the Chinese have used nuclear bomb testing as a means to further eradicate the Uyghurs. If you look into Lop Noor in Xinjiang, it was the site for China's first nuclear bomb test, and there have been many since -- about 45 -- and the 1976 nuclear test was 320 times more powerful than the bomb on Hiroshima. The locals were not told to evacuate. The Han Chinese were protected, but the non-Han Chinese who settled there have been routinely affected. A Japanese scientist now estimates that about 200,000 Uyghurs have died from cancer and leukemia in the area due to radiation exposure. And another source states that the number of malformed fetuses are in the tens of thousands. Do you believe that the nuclear testing in this region is being intentionally designed to further challenge or extinguish the Uyghur people?
RK: We believe so because the Chinese government could have used places further away that would have had less affect on the local Uyghurs. Instead, the Chinese authorities consciously chose that place to do nuclear tests 45 times in three decades, and near three major Uyghur towns: Aqsu, Hotan and Kuqa.
WPFW: Just a final thought here. During your exile in the United States, the Chinese secret service made an attempt on your life in Virginia, and I believe the release of your autobiography has infuriated the current Chinese regime. They are still holding three of your sons in prison, and one of your daughters remains under house arrest as a kind of collateral to keep you silent.
The book is called Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China. A truly remarkable story. We thank you for all of your courageous work, and we look forward to carrying on this conversation because I'm really disappointed in the American media virtually having zero coverage of this major genocide in the world. And yet we are aware, rather impotently so, about what to do with Tibet. But we refuse to use the power that the United States government and the president have at their disposal.
We are a broken and bankrupt nation. So we have to go hat in hand to the Chinese. And the rulers in China have been wise in their manipulation by giving us their money, and then they can continue doing anything to the environment, to people and to whole cultures.
Rebiya Kadeer, thank you very much, ma'am.
RK: Thank you.