RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
I'm Steve Inskeep. When violence erupted in western China on Sunday, the Chinese government blamed someone who wasn't even there. Here's how an anchor on state-controlled China Central Television put it.
Unidentified Woman (Anchor Person): Initial investigations show the violence was masterminded by the separatist World Uighur Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer.
INSKEEP: Before Beijing branded Rebiya Kadeer a public enemy she was a business tycoon in western China. After criticizing the government's treatment of its Uighur minority Kadeer spent more than five years in prison. She now works in Washington, D.C., where NPR's Frank Langfitt talked with her yesterday.
FRANK LANGFITT: Rebiya Kadeer operates out of a tiny office just across from the White House. With a handful of staff she says she fights for the freedom of her fellow Uighurs thousands of miles away in China's sprawling northwest. Kadeer says the Chinese government is flooding her homeland in ethnic Hahn Chinese, who are taking the best jobs and overwhelming Uighur culture.
Ms. REBIYA KADEER: (Through translator) This is the Chinese intention, to destroy Uighur culture. And in addition to destroying the Uighur culture they are now killing Uighurs.
LANGFITT: Uighurs are a Turkic minority who live in China's Xinjiang autonomous region. A Uighur demonstration in Urumqi, the regional capital, turned into a riot last weekend. The government says more than 150 people were killed.
Chinese officials say Kadeer wants to split Xinjiang from China. State television says she ordered the uprising and encouraged violence using code words.
Unidentified Woman (Anchor Person): Rebiya Kadeer has recently been instigating unrest via the Internet, calling on the Uighurs to be braver and to do something big.
LANGFITT: Kadeer says she did call for global protests after Hahn Chinese killed Uighurs late last month in a factory on the coast. But she says the recent demonstrations in Urumqi were homegrown.
Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) I think it was spontaneous, a reaction of the people. Maybe my voice also gave some impudence.
LANGFITT: And she insists she's never encouraged violence.
Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) I know very well this is not the right way and it will give Chinese authorities a very good excuse to crackdown.
LANGFITT: Rebiya Kadeer is not a lifelong rabble rouser. In fact, she was once among China's best known business woman. She began as a laundress, then made money trading everything from hats to sunflower seeds. She made a reputation and fortune importing steel from Kazakhstan and trading goods throughout central Asia. The government saw Kadeer as living proof Uighurs could prosper, even become millionaires, under Chinese rule. The regime even gave her a seat on one of its highest consultative bodies.
Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) Because of my popularity among my people, Chinese government tried to promote me and use me and draw me to their side.
LANGFITT: Kadeer says that all changed a dozen years ago. In 1997, police cracked down on a Uighur demonstration in the town of Yining that left 10 dead. Kadeer says she criticized the violence in a speech before top officials in Beijing.
Ms. KADEER: (Through translator) The Chinese leaders said you did a good job. And then immediately after I landed in Urumqi I was stripped of all my official positions.
LANGFITT: A reporter for China Central Television picks up the story from there.
Unidentified Man: In March 2000, Rebiya Kadeer was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Xinjiang intermediate court for providing national intelligence to overseas organizations.
LANGFITT: Actually, she was caught trying to give Chinese newspaper clippings to visiting U.S. congressional staff. But Dru Gladney says Kadeer's real crime was probably being too outspoken and pushing the boundaries of China's authoritarian system. Gladney's an expert on Chinese minorities and a professor at Pomona College in southern California.
Professor DRU GLADNEY (Pomona College): Well, I think in some ways because of her increasing public position and her wealth she became a threat.
LANGFITT: Beijing released Kadeer from prison early in 2005. And again she's become a thorn in the government's side. At 62, the diminutive mother of 11 shows no sign of letting up. In recent days Kadeer has been in constant media interviews advocating for the rights of Uighurs, just as she used to back home in China.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.