Q&A: Rebiya Kadeer on China's Uighur Riots

On Sunday, bloody race riots erupted in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang region, where the Muslim Uighur population is the biggest ethnic group. Announcing an official death toll of 156, Chinese authorities have blamed the violence between Chinese and Uighurs on leading Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, an elfin grandmother with gray-tinged pigtails who was released from a Chinese prison in March 2005 and immediately whisked into exile. A former millionaire once praised by Beijing as a model businesswoman, Kadeer now lives near Washington D.C. and recently published Dragon Fighter, an autobiography."She is recognized as the leader of the Uighur exile community and heads the Uyghur American Association and the World Uyghur Congress; both groups receive grants from the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy funded by the U.S. Congress. In an exclusive interview Wednesday with NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu, Kadeer denied Beijing's accusations, appealed for U.S. support, and wept at the memory of horrors she witnessed in prison. Excerpts:

Chinese officials have blamed you for instigating the riots in Xinjiang by making a phone call to rally supporters there. What did you say in that phone call?
The accusations are false. On July 4 my daughters, who frequently check Web sites related to Uighur issues, told me they saw notices about potential protests on Sunday in Urumqi. As you know, my family has been a target of Chinese government persecution. Whenever something happens, authorities go after my family. My two sons are in prison. Even my grandchildren have been kicked out of school. So I was extremely concerned and called my younger brother. He was under virtual house arrest and couldn't even go out to talk with other people. I asked him, "How are my children?" I told him something was about to happen the next day. I told him to be very careful and to tell other relatives to be very careful and to not go out. It seems the Chinese government has a record of that conversation.

You mentioned your two sons in prison. What were they charged with and what are their prison terms?
In 2006 one was sentenced to seven years and the other to nine years, on charges of tax evasion and separatism, respectively.

And you were arrested in 1999 on charges of revealing state secrets. Is it true that these "secrets" included official newspapers published openly in Xinjiang?
Yes, it's true. I had state-run newspapers with articles stating the numbers of deaths, arrests, and executions of Uighurs and with printed speeches by leaders saying they needed to "strike hard" against Uighurs. I sent these ordinary newspapers to my husband [who was then overseas]. These were openly available publications.

You spent more than five years in prison. Were you tortured?
I was not physically tortured but I was psychologically tortured. Prison officials brought young Uighurs and tortured them in front of me. No human being should see that kind of torture. Two Chinese prison officials brought young Uighur women in and stripped them naked and beat them. Two younger men were brought in by guards and tortured. The brutality cannot be described. I don't want to recall it [wipes tears from her eyes]. I believe they must have died. One was bleeding heavily, especially in the front of his trousers. The guards then said to me, "Why don't you come and save these two?" They always said that to me when I wept. They did it to torture me mentally.

The riots in Urumqi appear to have been sparked by an incident at a toy factory in Guangdong province on the coast, far away from Xinjiang. A Chinese worker spread rumors that Uighur workers had raped two Chinese women; this led to a deadly attack on the Uighur workers' dorm by a Chinese mob. Two Uighurs were killed. Many Uighurs in Xinjiang were upset because Guangdong authorities failed to announce timely arrests. What was your reaction to this incident?
I was very surprised myself. The authorities didn't take action to charge or arrest people involved in the killings. I suppose when Uighurs are killed and beaten, the Chinese government may not care.

In the past you've enjoyed influence and wealth—you were the richest woman in China, to use your description. You had a business empire worth tens of millions of dollars, including a trading firm, real-estate investments, a department store, even part of a leather factory in Kazakhstan. Despite your material wealth, you came to criticize Chinese government policies. Why?
Yes, I was once very successful. But under Chinese rule, I saw everything: the poverty of the Uighur people, the religious controls, the attacks on Uighur identity, the suffering. And I saw ethnic [Han] Chinese migrants coming to Xinjiang; within three to five years they got rich. Initially I blamed the Uighurs; I believed, as the Chinese government did, that they were lazy. I was very faithful to the Chinese government and it bestowed on me many titles … But as I became wealthy, I realized it was government policy to reduce the level of education for Uighurs. As a human being with a conscience, I couldn't accept the government's policies. I was not raising the voice of the Uighur people as a Uighur, but simply as a human being who sees their suffering.

What would you like to see the U.S. government do now, in the face of this crisis in Xinjiang?
It would be great if the U.S. government could open a consulate in Urumqi. Then it could monitor events on the ground and the Chinese government couldn't just crack down. Just look at recent developments: the government is deploying a massive number of troops from other regions to Xinjiang. Without international intervention or condemnation—and because of the political brainwashing of Chinese people—it could become a really massive racial and ethnic clash.

You've called for Uighurs not to use violence. Are they listening?
My call has worked. But now the problem is that it's not just security forces but people in the streets beating Uighurs. So Uighurs are defending themselves. I believe they will not attack Chinese civilians unless they are attacked themselves.

What is the biggest misunderstanding that the West has about the Uighur people?
Our religion and faith in Islam. The government's nonstop propaganda portraying us as terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists plays a very negative role.