Last Wednesday at the University of Virginia we hosted Rebiya Kadeer. Ms. Kadeer is a native Uyghur from the East Turkestan region of China, also known as the Xinjiang autonomous region.
She was a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman before speaking out against the human rights abuses of the Chinese government, which resulted in her arrest and imprisonment for nearly six years—two of which were in solitary confinement. She negotiated her transfer to the United States and has since been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Through translator and confidant Alim Seytoff, Ms. Kadeer described systematic human rights abuses against the Uyghur people to around 60 students, staff, and community members. She said that East Turkestan “is a police state” with tanks, armored cars, and heavily armed soldiers patrolling at all hours. Ms. Kadeer also explained that China tests many of its nuclear and chemical weapons above ground in East Turkestan, leaving many Uyghur deformed and diseased.
Ms. Kadeer was a polarizing figure on the school grounds. Several UVA students from her region of China attended the event and were very excited to see her. They took pictures afterwards and talked with her at length.
But several UVA students from other regions of China also attended the event and attempted to discredit Ms. Kadeer. They asked questions implying that she was linked to terrorist groups and drilled her on the historical precedence of the land. One student in particular made a prolonged statement about terrorism before Mr. Seytoff interrupted and diffused the situation. The room was tense for much of the question and answer portion.
During her speech Ms. Kadeer and Mr. Seytoff explained that the Chinese government uses terrorism as a justification for its human rights abuses in the region. Chinese propaganda promotes the idea that the Uyghur harbor terrorists from the Middle East, but Ms. Kadeer believes that the Chinese government is exploiting her Muslim faith and its association with terrorism.
She told us that before 9/11, the Chinese narrative against East Turkestan was similar to its narrative against Tibet, but afterwards, the narrative was aimed more specifically at religion, language, and ethnicity. We asked her what it feels like to be called a terrorist and she answered that it happens everywhere she goes. It seems like she has become numb to the term.
At dinner she told us she cannot fault the Chinese students who do not believe her story because they are essentially brainwashed by the Chinese government’s propaganda. Although the FBI has been involved, the Chinese embassy continues to harass Ms. Kadeer in the United States. Chinese agents follow her around and take pictures, and on two occasions, cars rented by the Chinese Embassy have crashed into her car.
While Ms. Kadeer’s struggle is very similar to that of the Dalai Lama, her story is not well known. I encourage you all to visit her website, uyghuramerican.org, to read the documents and reports that Ms. Kadeer and the Uyghur American Association have released to dispute Chinese propaganda. I would also recommend you read the book about her life story entitled, Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace With China.
Co-Authored by Sam Teixeira and Grace Charlton