Face Of The Uighur Movement Is An Unlikely One

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Following an outburst of violence in southwestern China, the ethnic Uighurs are in the public spotlight as never before. The defining face of the Uighur movement is an unlikely one. Rebiya Kadeer made millions in business, and early on, her career was helped by the Chinese. She is wealthy, and most Uighurs are poor. And she no longer lives in China.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Clashes between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese left more than a 150 dead Sunday in northwest China. But for the Uighurs, the media attention that followed has presented an opportunity to tell their story to the world. That job has fallen to Rebiya Kadeer. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, she is a former business tycoon, one-time political prisoner and mother of 11, who works in Washington, D.C.

FRANK LANGFITT: The past few days have been a whirlwind for Rebiya Kadeer. It began Sunday with the riots in China's Xinjiang autonomous region, captured here on a Chinese cell phone.

(Soundbite of shouting)

LANGFITT: The Chinese government, through state TV, quickly assigned blame.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man: An initial investigation shows the violence was masterminded by the separatist group World Uighur Congress. The group is led by Rebiya Kadeer, a former businesswoman in China.

LANGFITT: That accusation, which Kadeer denies, thrust her into the public eye. Since Sunday, Kadeer's been on TV, radio, even the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, pressing the case of her people. I talked to her earlier this week in her tiny office across from the White House.

Ms. REBIYA KADEER (Leader, World Uighur Congress): (Through translator) In these last 20 years of 60 years of Chinese repression, Chinese authorities banned our language, repressed our religion and tried to destroy our culture and identity.

LANGFITT: The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who call Xinjiang home. Kadeer's referring to Chinese policy that most school classes be taught in Mandarin. And the government strategy of flooding Xinjiang with millions of ethnic Han Chinese.

Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) My people should have the right to determine their own future.

LANGFITT: Kadeer is the first Uighur spokesperson to win any broad recognition. One reason is her biography. She rose from a laundress in Xinjiang to become a multimillionaire trader across Central Asia. The Chinese government promoted her rags to riches story. When Bill gates traveled through western China in the mid-1990s, he asked to meet her.

Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) My relationship with the Chinese government was very good then.

LANGFITT: But she spoke out for Uighur rights and the government arrested her. She was sentenced to eight years in prison, then released early in 2005 and came to the United States. The Chinese government says since then, Kadeer has worked to split Xinjiang from China. Wang Baodong is spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Washington, says no reasonable government would put up with that.

Mr. WANG BAODONG (Spokesperson, Chinese Embassy, Washington, D.C.): We want to hope that the American public could see through the true motive behind her activities.

LANGFITT: In person, Kadeer now 62, comes off as a tough and tender grandmother. When I met her, she wore a beige pant suit and a traditional square hat called a doppa. Her graying hair was braided in pigtails that stretched down her back. When making a point, she chopped her office desk with her hand. When she spoke of the plight of fellow Uighurs, her eyes welled up.

Ms. KADEER: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: Sophie Richardson, an official with Human Rights Watch, says Kadeer is the Uighur's most effective figure right now.

Ms. SOPHIE RICHARDSON (Human Rights Watch): Anybody who has had a conversation with Rebiya Kadeer can tell you how incredibly charismatic and warm she is.

LANGFITT: But that may not be enough. Among Chinese minorities, the Uighurs has always been overshadowed by their neighbors to the south, the Tibetans. One big reason is the Uighurs have never had a leader on a scale of the Dalai Lama, the English speaking Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has galvanized support for Tibet. Kadeer admits she can't compete with the Buddhist leader.

Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) I cannot be a Dalai Lama. First of all, he's a religious leader, but I can be a Gandhi.

LANGFITT: If so, she has a long way to go. China political power around the world continues to grow, and the government shows no sign its willing to compromise with the Uighurs.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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