When rioting broke out between ethnic Han Chinese and Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people, in far western China last July, the longtime regional Communist Party head, Wang Lequan, accused Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader, of instigating them from abroad. The riots, he said, “revealed Rebiya’s nature of fake human rights, fake democracy, true violence and true terrorism.”
While still living in China, Kadeer had been well known to Wang and other cadres. Before being sentenced to jail in 1999 she rose to heights of wealth and influence within the Communist system, even being appointed to official government bodies. (As a delegate to the 1996 women’s conference in Beijing, Kadeer met then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Unlike Condoleezza Rice, however, Secretary of State Clinton has not deigned to meet Kadeer.)
Kadeer and the Communists tried to use each other, she to make money and wield influence on behalf of the Uighurs, and the authorities to co-opt her. One could say that Kadeer got the better of the bargain – retaining her life and principles -- but at a great price. In this autobiography, written with Alexandra Cavelius, she tells the story of her life, from a childhood of forced relocation and poverty under Mao, through a business career which benefited from the Deng era but which she admits relied on paying bribes, to imprisonment on “state secrets” charges in the late 1990s after China intensified its harsh repression of Uighurs. Her offense was mailing news clippings from the official press to her husband, himself a former political prisoner, who lived abroad.
The Chinese Communist authorities are unwilling to acknowledge their responsibility for the instability and suffering their policies create in Xinjiang. East Turkestan, or what the Chinese refer to as the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, has provided them with a vast expanse for nuclear testing, at Lop Nor, and territory for the resettlement of millions of Han Chinese. China’s strategic anxieties about the region, which borders six countries, became more intense after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of the neighboring Central Asian republics, with their Muslim populations, which includes ethnic Uighurs. The Chinese responded to this with more population transfers, a policy to limit births and force abortions, and policies targeting language and religion. Even economic development hasn’t benefited Uighurs, who are denied work opportunities in the major state firms and face other form of discrimination.
Kadeer’s experiences, especially in prison, are a surreal journey through the communist way of thinking. During a middle-of-the-night interrogation session, her jailers tell her: “We’re making a lot of effort to reeducate you – even working with you into the night. If there were no Communist Party, then we wouldn’t be able to invest so much time in you. Maybe you would no longer even exist.” Initially resolute, she refuses to conform; but eventually she breaks down, struggling against madness in a pitch-black isolation cell. She is aware that only her fame overseas prevents her from being subjected to torture and enables her (on occasion) to receive medical treatment and visits from her children. Sometimes her children are barred from seeing her in retaliation for passing along hints that efforts on her behalf are being conducted abroad.
Such efforts led to her release and exile in 2005. But even on the eve of her departure, the authorities make yet another demand: If she speaks publicly about her experiences, and continues to work on behalf of human rights for the Uighurs, her children, still in China, will suffer. She refused--and today two of her sons are in jail.
Dragon Fighter is one of the few personal accounts of the Uighur struggle available in English. Her life has coincided with many of the major recent events affecting the Uighur people, and she mentions a circle of writers and intellectuals who have been methodically silenced or killed. We could use more accounts like this to paint a better picture of the Uighurs who, despite Kadeer’s activism, remain largely unknown and misunderstood in the West--and imperiled in their homeland.
Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace With China
By Rebiya Kadeer
Kales, 426pp., $28.95
Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.