Rebiya Kadeer: American Grand Strategy Should Care About the Uyghurs

[ 0 ] March 12, 2013


In a public lecture on March 4, Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress and a prominent human rights advocate for the Uyghur people, came to Duke University through the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy to make the case for why American Grand Strategy should care about the Uyghurs.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — the homeland of the majority Muslim Uyghur people — is located in northwestern China and is about the size of Iran. It borders the Tibet Autonomous Region and India in the south, Mongolia to the east, Russia in the north, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to the west. At least nine different ethnicities inhabit the region —   the largest being Uyghur and Han Chinese.

Formally established as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the newly formed People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1955, this ancient land is often referred to as “East Turkestan” by Kadeer and other Uyghur organizations who are pressing for greater autonomy from China.

As Kadeer explains it, since the “autonomous” region’s establishment by the PRC, the Chinese government has “never honored any kind of autonomy arrangement.”

Further, the mostly Muslim Uyghurs have been victims of discriminatory economic policies and restrictions on religious and cultural practices, and have been denied freedom of speech.  Kadeer said Uyghurs have been unfairly imprisoned, executed without cause, and tortured by Chinese authorities.

In recent years Uyghurs have clashed, often violently, with the local Han Chinese population, who began arriving in the resource-rich region in the 1950s shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established.

Kadeer, 67, is a self-professed ‘Uyghur democracy leader’.  The mother of eleven children, and a former laundress turned millionaire, this well-known Uyghur businesswoman used her position and wealth in the 1990s to help economically disadvantaged Uyghurs, especially women and children. She educated poor children and started the “Thousand Mothers Movement” in December 1997 to empower Uyghur women to start their own businesses.

Kadeer’s efforts to improve the situation of the Uyghurs, were at first praised by the Chinese government. She was appointed a member of China’s National People’s Congress as well as the Political Consultative Congress in 1992, and a member of China’s delegation to the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.

But then, according to her biography  by the Uyghur American Association, Beijing’s attitude toward Ms. Kadeer changed when she criticized China’s treatment of her people during a National People’s Congress session in March 1997.

“In her speech, she demanded that the Chinese government honor the autonomy conferred on the Uyghur people and respect their human rights. She strongly criticized China’s harsh crackdown of the Uyghur student demonstration which had taken place a month earlier in Ghulja City.”

Kadeer was then stripped of her membership in both the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference and forbidden to travel abroad, and, in 1999, while on her way to meet with a U.S. Congressional delegation, was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for ‘stealing state secrets.’

Following pressure on China from the U.S., in March 2005 she was released early on on medical grounds into U.S. custody.

Kadeer remains ever grateful to the U.S. for that, telling the audience of Duke students, professors and members of the community early on in her opening remarks, “I would like to thank the U.S. government, and especially the (George W) Bush administration which played such an important role in securing my release from a dark Chinese prison cell into this great nation.”

Before reading from a prepared text elaborating on the human rights situation of her people and the geopolitical importance of the region, Kadeer pleaded for understanding. “Prior to my release, and decade or so earlier, there were few people who really truly understood the plight of the Uyghur people,” she said, urging that people around the world, including the Chinese people get educated about the plight of the Uyghurs, and reject attempts by governments, Chinese or otherwise, to use “highly repressive assimilations and eliminative policies.”

“Only by peaceful negotiations, only by giving much more freedoms like respect of basic rights and culture, will there be a genuine solution,” Kadeer said. “Uyghurs live almost in terror in our own homeland, and that situation is like a warzone for the Uyghur people.”

Earlier in the day Kadeer and her interpereter Alim Seytoff (President of the Uyghur American Association) sat down with ISLAMiCommentary at Duke Studios for a 30-minute interview in which she addressed how she got to be head of the World Uyghur Congress; whether she desires, for East Turkestan, total independence from China, greater autonomy, or simply greater rights and respect within the Chinese system; why the Chinese government has characterized her as a ‘separatist colluding with terrorists and Islamic extremists’; whether China is afraid of her (short answer: “Yes”); whether the U.S. is putting enough pressure on China vis a vis human rights; why Tibet gets more attention and the usefulness of  regular engagement with the Dalai Lama; and whether this lifelong mother/human rights crusader considers herself a feminist.

Rebiya Kadeer, speaking at Duke University, March 4, 2013

Rebiya Kadeer, speaking at Duke University, March 4, 2013

Here is Kadeer’s extensive prepared text below, which her interpereter read aloud at the lecture: (*Also Read Duke Political Science Professor Peter Feaver’s blog post in Foreign Policy for more on the lecture and Q & A, including why some Chinese students at Duke were outraged by what she had to say)

“In the past twenty years the Uyghur issue has become increasingly internationalized. More and more in bilateral discussions with Chinese officials, attentive governments have raised the array of political, economic and cultural human rights issues that Uyghurs face on a daily basis. This has in no small part been a result of efforts of rights activists and the mobilization of the Uyghurs in exile. Another reason for the growing relevance of the Uyghur issue is the unavoidable interconnectedness of strategic interests that are part and parcel of a globalizing world. With China’s rise toward global political influence and its development of deeper economic ties with the outside world, conditions inside the country and China’s overseas ambitions are now a concern for the international community.

The United States, in both the former Bush Administration and current Obama Administration, has been a leader among democratic states in raising the Uyghur issue with China. The Bush Administration was particularly supportive of Uyghur aspirations towards human rights, freedom and democracy. State Department officials and reports have consistently highlighted alarm over the suppression of freedom of speech, deprivation of religious freedom and discriminatory economic practices that target Uyghurs, by the Chinese government. The United States is also host to an active Uyghur Diaspora that has the opportunity to educate the world about the plight of the Uyghur people. Uyghurs deeply appreciate this support, but the time also has come for the U.S. administration to step up its commitment on human rights. The United States should do this not only to continue its moral leadership of the international community of nations, but also because it is strongly in its own long-term interest to do so – to promote Uyghur rights.

From the outset of his administration, President Obama took a stance toward foreign relations that has promoted the U.S. as a multi-lateral interlocutor in seeking solutions to global issues. After years of mistrust, the U.S. made a bold rapprochement with Muslims in President Obama’s Cairo speech delivered in June 2009. The speech gave hope to millions of oppressed peoples, especially Muslims, across the globe that the United States would stand firm against the repression of Muslims by authoritarian regimes. In his speech, President Obama referred to the silence over the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and Darfur as “a stain on our collective consciences.”

President Obama’s rapprochement with Muslims could take on no better form than to speak out and act on behalf of the Uyghur people. The non-refoulement of Uyghurs in Guantánamo to China enhanced U.S. credibility among not only Uyghurs, but also Turkic peoples and the wider Muslim world. The saying goes that actions speak louder than words, and in this case the demonstrated protection of Uyghurs from China by the U.S. government was a shining example of American concern for all religious and ethnic groups in the world. Uyghur refugees across Asia, including countries where U.S. influence can be leveraged, have been forcibly returned to China to uncertain fates, under the pressure of the Chinese government. This has happened mostly notably in Cambodia, Malaysia and Kazakhstan and given the right diplomatic pressure should never occur again.

Stability in China and the Central Asian region are principal goals of the United States. The resolution of Uyghur issues in East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) and the establishment of a democratic China are key in realizing these aims.

China gave our people promises, such as self-determination; however, in the sixty years since 1949, we have lost the right to speak freely, the rights to preserve our culture, and the right to practice our religion. We have lost the right to prosper as a people, the right to gain an education in our own language. The Chinese government demolished our ancient cities, in particular the ancient city of Kashgar, which was a  hub of Uyghur culture and cradle of Uyghur civilization. In fact, one massacre after another defines the Chinese communists’ rule in East Turkestan. In 1990 in Baren, in 1997 in Ghulja and in 2009 in Urumchi, Chinese security forces gunned down Uyghurs who showed the slightest dissent against their hard line policies.

China experiences thousands of instances of unrest annually that shows no sign of diminishing as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to economically marginalize the rural population and especially Uyghurs and other non-Han Chinese populations with whose welfare it is charged. Simply put, the marginalized of China do not have a voice in the CCP’s vision for China. In East Turkestan a top down and non-negotiable process ,from central government to local government, determines the direction of economic development.  The Uyghur people are not consulted on the future direction of their communities and their region, and they are not benefiting from these economic policies of China.  Consequentially, policies do not reflect a balance of interests and lead to disenfranchisement of the Uyghur people. These are not the kind of conditions that engender a stable China, as the Chinese government often claims,  that guarantees a long-term future for U.S. economic interests.

The United States has made great sacrifices in its work toward the stability in  Central Asia, and the U.S. provides a positive and democratic role model not only for China but  alsofor Central Asian nations grappling with political stability. Uyghurs are highly pro-American and modern Muslims. They are natural allies of America in a region where anti-Americanism is strong, such as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to some extent in China. China has made known its interest in Central Asia through its establishment and dominance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). China specifically spearheaded the creation of the SCO to contain the Uyghurs not only in East Turkestan, but also in the entire Central Asia region, where there are an estimated 2 million Uyghur people living.

China’s policies in Central Asia are an outward prUyojection of its fears regarding internal security, because its strategic and energy objectives are based on stability in East Turkestan. Since the founding of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Chinese leaders have feared that these states, whose people are culturally and linguistically related to Uyghurs, would sympathize with the Uyghur situation and support their cause. The Chinese government views the more than 2 million Uyghurs living in those countries as a threat, worrying that this population might aid Uyghurs in East Turkestan who resist Chinese control of what they consider their traditional homeland.

China has also used the SCO to promote an anti-American agenda and encouraged non-democratic solutions to regional problems. China’s undemocratic political system and repression of Uyghurs and other peoples in China provides a negative role model for the maturing Central Asian states. China has launched several joint military exercises with SCO member states over the past years, including in East Turkestan in order to intimidate the Uyghur population.  Although the stated purposes of those exercises have been improving cooperation among member states primarily in fight against terrorism, the real objective has been to intimidate the Uyghur population in East Turkestan and to warn the democratic forces in Central Asia not to challenge the authoritarian regimes of the region. The legitimacy of the Chinese government’s approach to governance should rest further than its role today as the world’s creditor.

Indeed, China may be stepping up its engagement in the Central Asian region through a pivot to its west, today, as the Obama Administration pivots American foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific region. Policy analysts in China have proposed a change of focus in China’s strategic and economic interests, called “Marching West.” This is a very new policy recommended by some of the Chinese policymakers. “Marching West” is basically toward Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet Central Asian states. While the suggested pivot has not yet been elevated to an established government strategy, a pivot to China’s west would be able to exploit the vacuum of the United States’ disengagement from Afghanistan and up inflows of much needed natural resources to eastern China, as well as offer strategic possibilities.

China is already using the natural resources of East Turkestan and its strategic location as a gateway to Central Asia, South Asia, Middle East and even Eurasia to build an infrastructure to direct Central Asian natural resources to its ever demanding markets on the eastern seaboard. The CCP is attempting to connect China with the Eurasian landmass, using East Turkestan as a conduit, with pipelines, as well as highways and railroads. Much of this roadmap for Chinese expansion has been built on the regional stability established by the U.S., that the United States has worked hard to achieve and it also undermines America’s regional objectives to build a prosperous relationship with states in Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.

By prioritizing and including the Uyghur issue as part of the American Grand Strategy, the U.S. will increase its reputation in the Turkic world and in Central Asia where Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks and Turkmen and Azerbaijanis have close ethnic affinity with the Uyghurs. With firm support for Uyghurs and the establishment of solidarity with Turkic peoples, the U.S. will be able to limit, to some extent, the Chinese penetration into Central Asia and beyond through its influence over the SCO. Importantly, by championing the Uyghur cause, the United States offers an alternative vision of regional politics to the Chinese model, which is based on repression and opportunity for only the well connected.

Uyghurs, today, are starved of a voice in determining their own political future. Like Americans, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, even Han Chinese, and the other groups in China want to freely express their opinions to build a healthy democratic society. Such a China would not carry the fear of today’s authoritarianism, but would offer a peaceful rise to the world stage. De-emphasizing the Uyghur issue will not free the Uyghur people from Chinese government repression and build stability in Central Asia, so it is vital that President Obama and Secretary Kerry meet with Uyghur leaders to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to creatively resolve Uyghur concerns at a senior level.

I hope that U.S. officials and politicians realize the strategic and geo-political importance of the Uyghurs, in the long term, and adopt policies accordingly. In order to elevate the Uyghur issue, I also recommend that the U.S. government incorporate the Uyghur issue and human rights violations against the Uyghur people as a core element of its bi-lateral relations with China, seek the establishment of a consulate in Urumchi, the regional capital of East Turkestan to monitor the highly repressive, highly intensified repression by the Chinese government closely and also appoint a Special Coordinator for Uyghur issues at the State Department. Lastly, Congressional support for a Uyghur Policy Act, similar to the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, would be an immeasurable gesture of solidarity for the Uyghur plight during our darkest history. Thank you!”




Kadeer’s visit was organized by the interdisciplinary American Grand Strategy program at Duke, and co-sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, the Duke Islamic Studies Center, the Duke Human Rights Center, the Duke Program for Asia Security Studies, the Carolina Asia Center, the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, The Alexander Hamilton Society, and the Kenan Institute for Ethics.


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