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.
The American government rescued Rebiya Kadeer from the Chinese jail. I am alive and I am in the U.S. and I became a voice of my people. This is the first help by the U.S. government. Secondly, it allowed us to continue our Uyghur democratic and freedom movements peacefully and sponsored us financially so that we can lead the people.
It formed Radio Free Asia for us, as we did not have a free voice. Everybody in the world has voices, but the Uyghurs’ voice was gone. Uyghurs were living without knowing what was going on in the outside world. After the Radio Free Asia program aired, although many Uyghurs were being incarcerated for listening to the radio, Uyghurs understood that there is a different political system in the world, the Western democracy and freedom.
Subsequently, after this tremendous help by the U.S. government, American Congressmen and Senators, such as Mr. Tom Lantos, Mr. Hans [Hogrefe], Mr. Frank Wolf, Mr. [Christopher] Smith, Mr. [Bill] Delahunt, etc., many Congressmen and Senators released press statements each and every time when the Chinese government cracked down on the Uyghurs and executed them and made them carry out severe sentences. A few times, these Americans introduced resolutions about the Uyghurs.
This is all the help that is being extended to the Uyghurs. For example, no matter if it was the [U.S.] State Department or the American Congress China specialists, they always reminded the Chinese government in their annual country report. Each year they brought up the issues that Uyghurs are facing. Following the U.S. actions, the European Parliament and the United Nations started to address Uyghur issues in their reports as well, although they had not brought up the Uyghur issues with China in the past. Currently, the Uyghurs are attending the human rights sessions and speaking in front of the [UN] General Assembly, and they are addressing the Uyghur issues.
Eventually, the United Nations started to get involved with our cause. Last time when China cracked down against the Uyghurs, 140 members of the European Parliament signed a statement condemning the Chinese government’s brutal actions against the Uyghurs. When the Chinese government branded the World Uyghur Congress as terrorists and separatists, the European Parliament released statements and said that Rebiya Kadeer is not that kind of person and that they supported their peaceful movements.
At the same time, when they had dialogues with the Chinese government, they brought up the Uyghur issue with them. The Chinese government also realized that the Uyghur movement is becoming an international issue. Uyghurs also understood that the international community is being involved in their democratic movements and started to learn how to address their cause.
Wait, I want to say one more thing, hold on. Wait. I want to say something here at the end. First of all, I want to thank Mr. President Bush. Many places I have been questioned about President Bush. But in my heart, Mr. President Bush, his wife and his family have the most important position when it comes to the Uyghur people’s global recognition. Therefore, 20 million Uyghur people are grateful for President Bush and his era.
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.