Q&A: China’s Uighur Protests

Just two weeks after Tibetan monks first took to the streets in protest against Chinese rule, unrest broke out among Muslim Uighurs in China's remote Xinjiang region. Details about the demonstrations remain murky, but Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, believes that at least 400 people are being held in detention. Kadeer, 61, says the outburst was triggered by a combination of factors, including the death in detention of local businessman and philanthropist Mutallip Hajim; a Chinese-imposed 10 p.m. curfew in the southern Silk Road regions of Kashgar and Khotan on March 11, one day after the monks' protests began in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and subsequent attempts to prevent Muslim Uighur women wearing head scarves that led to protests by at least 1,000 women in Khotan on March 23 and 24.

Kadeer, whose umbrella organization represents more than 1 million Uighurs in 35 countries, was detained by Beijing in 1999 on charges of leaking state secrets and freed in 2005 ahead of a visit to China by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Now based in Washington, Kadeer spoke to NEWSWEEK's Mary Hennock through an interpreter. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You say the Chinese authorities imposed a curfew starting March 11. Why do you think they did that?
Rebiya Kadeer: Because Khotan is the area where the Uighurs are the majority, and in the light of the tragic events taking place in neighboring Tibet ... the Chinese government was very worried that the Uighurs would stand up against Chinese rule. The Chinese government realized that the Uighur people will support and sympathize with the suffering of the Tibetans. After the Uighurs took to the streets, the Chinese authorities blocked all the information, cracked down and arrested many of them … We're not exactly sure how the Chinese authorities cracked down on these Uighur protesters, and we urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release these detainees and ask for the international community to intervene.

Have Uighurs been watching events on Tibet closely? How do they see them?
Since the first day of the tragic events in Tibet, the Uighur people in their hearts express their sympathy with the Tibetans and their solidarity, as well … The Uighurs in our homeland support the Tibetan people's peaceful protests for freedom and for human dignity.

The protests in Tibet were not peaceful protests, I think that's very clear. What is your attitude on that?
It is the Chinese government that has pushed the people of Tibet and the Uighurs to the point of no return. As a result, they took to the streets and protested. Some of them may not be peaceful, but it is because of the Chinese government's ongoing, long-standing, repression of the people of Tibet.

How do you see the situation in Xinjiang compared to Tibet? Do you think the Chinese government uses more repression in Xinjiang?
The repression in our homeland is to some extent even worse because, in addition to China's standing army, there is another organization there called the Xinjiang Construction and Production Corps, which is there specifically to clamp down on the Uighurs. Another thing is because Uighurs are Muslims, and China used 9/11 as a convenient cover to further justify its persecution of the Uighur people.

Do you see the Beijing Summer Olympics as a chance to pressure the Chinese government and gain international attention?
I definitely look at the Olympics as an opportunity to voice our concerns in the world, but my hope is that the international community will also pay more attention to China's widespread, egregious, systematic human-rights violations of the Uighurs. So the international community should do everything they can to save the people of Tibet and East Turkistan [China's province of Xinjiang] because they are facing a direct threat from the Chinese. And the Chinese authorities should also honor their promises to improve human rights before the Olympics.
But at the same time the Chinese authorities look at the Olympics as another great opportunity to justify and step up its persecution of the Uighur people. The Chinese authorities are claiming [its actions are] in the name of stability for the Olympics [and] are further justifying detentions and arrests ... We don't have exact numbers because of the strict control of information, but what we have been learning from our homeland is that every day people are being detained or arrested.
Last month Chinese authorities announced they'd foiled a terrorist plot in Xinjiang that involved a Uighur woman carrying liquid explosives onto a plane, and linked it to a plan to attack the Olympics.
I'm not aware of exactly what happened. We only have the claims of the Chinese authorities and no evidence, but I see it in two ways. One is that it was something placed by the Chinese authorities to blame the Uighurs. Secondly, the Chinese authorities severely tortured that young lady to confess to what they wanted her to say.

Any reason to think that?
Because the Chinese government doesn't want the international community to intervene and support all of the Uighurs: the only way they could do that is by portraying Uighurs as terrorists and creating this kind of feelings. Because China claimed Uighurs were terrorists, they always have to wave the flag of terrorism.

China and the United States both say the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. Do you consider that movement exists and does it use violence?
After my release, I learned that there was such organization from the media, but I don't know where it is, so actually I'm not aware of that organization or its activities.

What do you see as the solution in Xinjiang?
Both Tibet and Xinjiang should have the right of self-determination. The Chinese authorities should listen to the demands of the Tibetans and Uighurs and should negotiate with the leaders of both Tibetans and Uighurs for the future of these two territories.

Are you saying you believe that China should open talks with the Dalai Lama?
The Chinese leaders should open talks with the Dalai Lama. He demanded just very basic demands from the Chinese authorities, so for the Chinese leaders not to talk to him is their loss. In fact, if the Chinese authorities didn't play the delaying tactic in their dialogue with the Tibetans, there wouldn't be the situation in Tibet today. It's the same situation with the Uighurs.

In what way?
The Chinese authorities have been persecuting the Uighur people through their own handpicked puppet leaders. They have not started a dialogue process with genuine representatives of the Uighur people, so the more repression, the more problems they will have.

Do you have regular contact with the Dalai Lama and his advisers in Dharmasala?
Yes, I do have direct contact with Tibetans since the very day of the takeover of our homeland and Tibet, the Uighurs and Tibetans always have close contacts and co-operation.

Close recent contact?
Yes, of course. Tomorrow [Thursday] there will be a large-scale demonstration in Turkey [in Istanbul] because the Olympic torch will come to Turkey, so the Uighurs will stage a very huge peaceful protest there, and also in support of the Tibetans.