Interviewed April 2010
Rebiya Kadeer is a human rights defender, a former prisoner of conscience, and a leader of the Uyghur people. The Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which most Uyghurs call by its former name, East Turkistan.
Born into a poor family, Kadeer became the owner of a small business and eventually one of the richest people in China. She was appointed to a number of prominent positions by the Beijing government and thought that as an insider she could safely call the government’s attention to human rights violations against her fellow Uyghurs. But she was soon removed from these positions and was arrested and imprisoned in 1999 after attempting to meet with a visiting U.S. delegation from the Library of Congress.
When she refused to renounce her human rights advocacy, the government began arresting her children, several of whom are still in detention.
Released in 2005 on the eve of a visit to China by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Kadeer now lives in the United States. She serves as president of the Uyghur-American Association and the World Uyghur Congress and continues to speak out for freedom and democracy.
First of all, let me introduce myself, my people, the Uyghur people’s homeland and what kind of a land it is. The ethnicity my people and I belong to is called Uyghur. My homeland is called East Turkistan. It belongs to Central Asia. Central Asia used to be called East Turkistan and West Turkistan. Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were occupied by Russia. And in 1949, the Chinese government invaded and occupied my homeland. Our East Turkistan was invaded by China one year prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
Ever since then, we have been living under the Chinese occupation. As for size, our country is one-sixth of China. Uyghurs claim its population as 20 million, and the Chinese government recognizes it as 9 million 600 thousand.
The Chinese government granted us an autonomy status as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region after the occupation. Granted us with many good policies and regulations, as we are the original people of the region. Claimed that they will develop our land and grant us the right to self-determination. Back then, the Chinese population was only two percent, other minorities were twelve percent, and Uyghurs were eighty-six percent.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government did not follow the law given to us by them. For the past 60 years, the Uyghurs did not experience any kind of human rights, such as freedom or democracy. Uyghurs did not have a day of peace. Thus I grew up without peace. I grew up with many questions like, Why do my people face suppression? Why do they treat my people with cruelty? Why do my people face economic discrimination, educational discrimination, cultural discrimination, religious discrimination by the Chinese government?
Ever since then, I have been living with these questions. My friends, my classmates, and my neighbors were destroyed. I lost the chance to attend the university. Still, I thought I would become rich and I would help my people financially. And I made lots of money. But after I became rich, I realized that I could not help and save my people with money.
In a dictator-ruled country with no democracy and no freedom, if one is under political pressure, there is no way one can be successful in helping people. Therefore, I started to approach the Chinese government nicely and got involved with their policies. I thought, as long as I adjust myself to the Chinese policies and laws, the Chinese government will address my peaceful requests and will grant my people peace. If Uyghurs gain peace then all the other immigrants that moved to East Turkistan will also gain peace. With that hope in mind, I got involved with the Chinese policies.
After I got involved, I did so many good things. I was a council member of the Chinese National People's Political Consultative Conference and a council member of the Autonomous Region People’s Political Consultative Conference, vice president of the Autonomous Region’s Trade and Industrial Association, president of the Autonomous Region’s Business Council, and president of the Women Business Owners Association. Many privileges were given to me.
I was one of the seven richest people in China. Financially, I made a huge improvement. But the Chinese government did not give me what I wanted from them. Since the Chinese government did not give us peace, I decided to bring up the Uyghur cause to the international level. I wanted to bring the Uyghur cause to the attention of the democratic Western countries, and I wanted to be the voice of my people. The Chinese government decided to incarcerate me because I chose this route.
The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, after a decades-long civil war between communist and nationalist forces. The communist victory drove the nationalist government to the island of Taiwan. While tensions have eased in recent years, both the nationalist and communist forces still claim to rule all of China. China ranks as the world’s third largest country by area, and the largest by population, with over 1.3 billion people.
Since 1949, China has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong led the country until his death in 1976. Mao’s era was marked by dramatic swings in policy, massive crackdowns on perceived opponents of the regime, and harsh repression. Since 1976, the Chinese government has broken with Marxist economic orthodoxy by instituting limited market-based reforms, but the party has retained its monopoly on political power.
Freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion are severely restricted, and the people of China are denied the right to change their government. The courts are controlled by the Communist Party and do not provide due process of law. Government control extends into every aspect of people’s lives, most notably in the one-child policy in which unauthorized pregnancies often result in forced abortion and sterilization. While technology has spread quickly in recent years, Freedom House ranks China as one of the three most repressive governments in the world in terms of Internet freedom.
While the rapid expansion of the private sector has dramatically changed the Chinese economy, fundamental principles of free market systems are lacking, including property rights and independent labor unions. Official corruption remains a major obstacle to developing a fully free economy.
In 1989, 100,000 people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest human rights violations and demand democratic reforms. The protest lasted several weeks and inspired similar nonviolent demonstrations in other cities throughout China. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army converged on the area with troops, tanks, and other advanced military weapons. Estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to several thousand. The army used similar tactics to suppress demonstrations in other cities and subsequently rounded up and imprisoned many thousands of protestors. The government vigorously defended these actions and instituted a campaign to purge those who had sympathized with protestors from the party and the government.
Although the Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to hopes for a speedy transition to democracy, courageous Chinese citizens have continued to risk imprisonment and worse to demand freedom. These human rights activists have included students, workers, lawyers, artists, and writers; Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims who demand respect for their cultures, traditions, and religious practices; members of the spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong; Catholics who insist that their church is headed by the Pope rather than by government-appointed religious officials; and members of the “house church” movement, representing millions of Protestant Christians who are forced to worship in secret because their churches are not authorized by the government. China’s many prisoners of conscience include members of each of these groups.
In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. His wife was arrested in order to prevent her from attending the award ceremony, and the government employed a range of coercive techniques to prevent other human rights activists from attending. China’s leading human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in early 2009 and is presumed to be in government custody.
The most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House gave China scores of 6 for civil liberties and 7 for political rights, where 1 is the highest and 7 the lowest possible score. Freedom House categorizes China as a “Not Free” country.