Leader of China’s Uighur Minority Builds a Stage Across the Globe
BEIJING — In what has become a familiar vocal pas de deux, Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader, stepped off a plane in Tokyo on Tuesday and immediately began accusing the Chinese government of secretly executing members of the Uighur minority and illegally detaining hundreds of others.
“I wish the killing would stop,” she said, her braided gray hair topped by a distinctive square hat. Her words, spoken in the Uighur language, were instantly picked up by international news agencies and broadcast by the Japanese media.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately fired back, condemning Japan for granting Ms. Kadeer, 62, a visa for her weeklong visit, much of which will be devoted to giving speeches on what she says is China’s suppression of the country’s Uighurs, who make up the largest ethnic group in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
To China, she is a terrorist and the unseen hand behind rioting in Xinjiang last July between Uighurs and Han Chinese that killed 197 people — most of them Han — and injured 1,600.
“Some forces in Japan have planned for Kadeer to go to Japan to engage in separatist activities aimed at China,” Ma Zhaoxu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said during a regularly scheduled news conference on Tuesday. “The Japanese side has ignored China’s staunch objections and allowed Rebiya to enter, and China expresses its strong dissatisfaction.”
Since the unrest last summer, Ms. Kadeer has become the internationally recognized face of the Uighur people, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority who have long had a contentious relationship with China’s Han majority. Wherever she goes — from Germany to New Zealand — she handily draws attention.
A year ago, however, Ms. Kadeer was hardly noticed and her cause — greater autonomy for China’s Uighurs — largely unknown beyond a small, lonely band of rights advocates. “Until this year, I think a lot of Chinese would have had trouble identifying Rebiya Kadeer,” said Michael Davis, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies China’s relationship with its national minorities.
Ms. Kadeer has China to thank for her notoriety, which seems to increase each time she leaves Washington, her home since being freed from a Chinese prison in 2005 on the condition she go into exile.
In August, Chinese officials unleashed a fierce publicity campaign against her after the Melbourne International Film Festival invited her to attend a screening of a documentary about her life. Diplomats and Chinese citizens tried, and failed, to persuade festival organizers to rescind their invitation and pull the film. Last week, she barnstormed New Zealand for a few days and then flew to Germany, where she spoke at the Frankfurt Book Fair, infuriating China, which was the guest of honor.
“It is just not right to welcome a country where executions are a daily occurrence and human rights are treated with disrespect,” she said in a speech there.
For the most part, China’s efforts to convince the world that she is a terrorist have failed. To bolster its contentions, the government released transcripts of a phone conversation in which she warned her brother to stay off the streets of Urumqi, the regional capital, on the day of an illegal rally by Uighur students. The demonstration, aimed at drawing attention to the death of two Uighurs 10 days earlier, gave way to the worst rioting in years.
Ms. Kadeer, who leads the World Uighur Congress, has denied any hand in the unrest, saying Chinese security forces provoked the murderous rampage by Uighur mobs and the retaliatory violence by Han in the days that followed.
So far, Chinese courts have handed down 12 death sentences to those convicted of taking part in the riots. She says that others have been quietly executed without trial.
China’s eight million Uighurs have long yearned for a standard-bearer like the Dalai Lama, whose beatific mien is associated with the aspirations of the Tibetan people. Although she does not have his stature, his fluency in English or his aura of holiness, Ms. Kadeer, a wealthy businesswoman before her imprisonment, has mastered public relations and the well-honed sound bite.
“The Chinese government took a grandmother with 11 children and gave her an international image,” said J. Bruce Jacobs, who teaches Asian Studies at Monash University in Australia. “I think their plan totally backfired.”
Here in China, few question the official description of Ms. Kadeer as a terrorist and find the positive attention she garners abroad confounding and hurtful. Su Hao, director of the Center for Strategic and Conflict Management at China Foreign Affairs University, blamed the foreign media, which he said had purposely played down evidence of Ms. Kadeer’s role in organizing the riots. “The West uses figures like Rebiya Kadeer to hold China back,” he said.
Dong Guanpeng, director of the Global Journalism Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, teaches Chinese officials how to grapple with local crises and says that China has to do a better job getting its message out to foreign audiences. “We’ve already proven domestically that she is the enemy of the Chinese people,” he said from Chongqing, where he was conducting a training session for local officials. “We just have to find a way to make the truth more acceptable to everyone else,” he said.
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