A Woman vs. a Superpower: Muslim Human Rights Activist Takes on China

Der Spiegel

Copyright Der SPiegel
Rebiya Kadeer is fighting to bring the Chinese leadership before an international human rights tribunal. She accuses the regime of repressing the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in northwest China.
Ablikim walks through the city of his childhood, looking for a place where he can feel safe talking about his mother. Ablikim is the son of Rebiya Kadeer, China’s most famous dissident.
Rebiya Kadeer
It’s already late in the afternoon and the cold air is beginning to drift down from the nearby mountains. At first Ablikim decides on a snack bar, then a museum. He feels watched wherever he goes.
Earlier in the day, he had called a friend to ask him to translate. He used his mobile phone, but the friend declined, fearing that the police would be listening in on the conversation. “They’ll arrest my parents and harass my sister,” said the friend, “no one will help us.”
Most Uighurs are “chicken-hearted,” says Ablikim.
He finally decides on a restaurant that belongs to his family. It isn’t open yet, and the heat is off and only a few lights are on. A cut of raw meat glistens in a glass display case. The walls are paneled halfway up, and the room looks like someone’s halfhearted attempt to transform a bleak East bloc cafeteria into something cozy and inviting.
Ablikim eats nothing. It’s Ramadan, he says. As he orders a cup of tea, a man walks in: gray suit, dark blue turtleneck sweater, about 50 years old.
The man looks around the room. All the tables are empty. Then he sits down, two tables away.
Ablikim pushes his chair closer to the table. “Secret police,” he whispers.
The man has turned his back on Ablikim. He looks as if he were studying the menu. It’s completely quiet.
The police recently established a special unit, says Ablikim. It’s called “Office 307.” By this point he is speaking so quietly that he’s almost inaudible. The only purpose of “Office 307,” says Ablikim, is to monitor his family.
Ablikim wears his black hair short. He is clean-shaven and is wearing olive-green trousers and an American fleece jacket, probably the only one in all of Urumchi (Urumqi). Following him can’t be terribly difficult. When he stands up, the man in the turtleneck sweater also gets up from his table. He walks out onto the street, takes a few steps and turns around a few times. Then he waits.
Ablikim hails a cab. He wants to show me the prison where his mother was held.
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The cab traverses Urumchi’s outlying districts on a three-lane highway, passing a scene of run-down prefab-concrete apartment buildings and windowless, abandoned houses and factories. Handicapped people sell laundry detergent and grapes by the roadside. Two and a half million people live in Urumchi — Chinese and Uighurs — and all road signs are in Arabic and Chinese. Kazakhstan is only a few hours by car, Mongolia lies to the east and Beijing is 2,400 kilometers (1,492 miles) away. The temperature in winter drops to below -40∞C (-40∞F).
A dark blue VW Santana with tinted windows follows the taxi at a distance.
Ablikim tells the driver to turn onto a path, then to turn around and return to the road on the same path. But the VW continues to bump along behind the cab.
That evening, the police pick up Ablikim for questioning. They interrogate him for five hours, and then they let him go.
A mother’s mission
Fourteen-thousand kilometers (8,701 miles) away, on the other side of the earth, Rebiya Kadeer sits in a small ground-floor apartment in Vienna, Virginia. It’s a warm, late-summer morning in the eastern United States, and the patio door is open. Kadeer, Ablikim’s mother, wears a black suit and a white scarf. Her voice sounds a little hoarse. The Koran sits on a bookshelf, flanked by videocassettes like “Gladiator” and “Titanic.”
She plans to drive to Washington this morning to meet with Tom Lantos, a powerful Democratic congressman from California. Lantos, the chairman of the Human Rights Caucus, helped secure Kadeer’s release from prison. Now she wants him to help her protect Ablikim and her other children.
A photo of a man wearing a white shirt hangs in Lantos’ office. He stands, his arms outstretched, facing a tank on Tiananmen Square. But today Lantos doesn’t have time to meet with Kadeer, and so she meets with Hans Hogrefe, his office manager, instead. He looks pale. He probably doesn’t get outside much; after all, there are so many ethnic groups in the world who are being persecuted. Hogrefe has reserved 20 minutes of his day for Kadeer.
“Has anything changed in the current situation?” he asks.
Until now, Kadeer says, there had been only accusations and charges. “But now they are simply taking people off the street and locking them up.”
Hogrefe says he admires her attitude, and then he stands up again. “Our door is always open to you,” he says.
“Hans is a good man,” Kadeer says outside, beaming.
She arrived in the US capital six months ago. When she was released in March, after five and a half years in prison, Chinese officials made Kadeer an offer: If she would agree to stop agitating against the government, she could become one of the richest women in China.
And if she refused?
If she refused, she would have to live with the fact that she would be leaving her businesses and her family behind in Urumchi.
Rebiya boarded the next plane to the United States, leaving four of her sons and one daughter behind in Urumchi. The Chinese government confiscated the children’s passports, turning them into hostages of their policies. Kadeer knows that she may never see her children again, but she is convinced that she had no other choice. Her imprisonment has turned her into a symbolic figure.
She wants to help the persecuted Uighurs, and she wants to haul the Chinese government before an international human rights tribunal. She is one woman against China, a mother of 11 children against one of the most powerful countries on earth.
Her family is fighting a regime that persecutes, tortures and kills its opponents. More people are executed in China each year than in all other countries combined.
Is she afraid for her children?
Kadeer says she is concerned but not afraid. She knows what the situation is like in her homeland because her fourth-eldest son Alim fills her in every evening on the phone.
She sits in a Greek restaurant in Vienna, a few blocks from her new home. She wants to talk about what the Chinese have done to her family.
Kadeer was one-year-old when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. He said that he wanted China’s various ethnic groups to join him in creating a new country.
At the time, Rebiya’s parents ran a small farm, and they also owned a hair salon, a restaurant and a Turkish bath house. By communist standards, they were part of the bourgeoisie. Besides, they were Uighurs, members of an ethnic minority related to the Turks. The Uighurs are mainly Muslims, a people for whom Allah carries more weight than Mao, and a people who can look back on thousands of years of history. They didn’t want a new country. Instead, they dreamed of having their own country one day: East Turkestan.
A camel rests on a barren hill in China’s Xinjiang Province.
When the communists established the Uighur province of Xinjiang in 1955 — an entity covering an area of 1.6 million square kilometers (about 618,000 square miles) and rich in oil and natural gas, iron ore and uranium — they seized her parents’ property and forced the family to move from Altai in the north, where Rebiya was born, to the Tarim basin bordering the desert in the south.
She says she was 14 when a man asked for her hand in marriage. He was the deputy director of a small bank and 12 years her senior. He promised to take care of her. Rebiya accepted his proposal.
They married a year later, and at 17 Rebiya bore her first child. During a hospital stay, she shared a room with a woman who complained about her Uighur husband, a man, she claimed, who never thought of her, only of his people, and was in prison as a result.
Kadeer, impressed by the unknown husband’s self-sacrifice, offered to help the woman.
A political marriage made in heaven
She pauses at this point in her story to order another cup of tea and slice of strawberry cake. She says: “I want to tell you a story that sounds like a fairy tale.” It’s a story that will explain everything — her fight, her resolve and her confidence.
It’s the story of her life.
Her first marriage failed when she was 28. It was 1976, she had openly criticized the government in Beijing, and her husband could no longer stand the resulting pressure.
After her divorce, she wrote a list of ten conditions that her future husband would have to fulfill. Most of all, it had to be love at first sight — for both partners. He had to have been in prison for defending his convictions, and he could not have betrayed anyone while in prison. He also had to be willing to fight for the liberation of his country.
She received a visit from a friend a short time later. He told her that he knew of a man who could fulfill her requirements. “But he is poor,” the friend said. “He cannot feed your children. Do you stand by your conditions?”
“Where is he?” Rebiya asked.
She flew to Artux, a small city in the western part of the province. There she discovered that the man lived in a village, and so she continued her journey by donkey. When she finally stood facing the man, she fell in love at first sight. “My name is Rebiya Kadeer,” she said. “I am 29 years old. I have come here to marry you. Nine of my ten conditions are fulfilled. Only one remains open: Do you love me?”
The stranger asked her to tell her story. He had recently been released from prison and was suspicious of this woman. When she had finished, he asked her whether she was an agent of the Chinese government.
Rebiya slapped him and rode away.
She laughs when she tells this story.
Six months later, the friend brought her a book: 260 poems about Kadeer, written by the stranger she had slapped. It was the same man who had been married to Rebiya’s roommate in the hospital — the couple had since separated. The poet and the rebel were married in 1977.
Kadeer opened a laundry business in Urumchi, sold fruit, vegetables and leather goods, and even conducted business across the border in Kazakhstan. She knew that financial means were necessary to survive a fight. She opened a department store and a second one a short time later, renting store space to merchants. That was how she became wealthy.
She soon made her way to the top of the local chamber of commerce, first in Urumchi and then in Xinjiang Province.
By 1992, Rebiya Kadeer had become such a respected businesswoman in China that she was elected to the National People’s Congress.
Taking on the regime
In 1997, she felt so strong that she decided to challenge the regime. She planned to give a speech before the People’s Congress, an opportunity for which she had been waiting for years.
Map: Xiajiang Province
She submitted a copy of her speech to party leaders and told them that she wanted to talk about all the things the Chinese have done for the Uighurs. The party functionaries were relieved. They told her that she would speak at the beginning of the party congress, just after the president and party chairman and the chairman of the Politburo.
A day before the congress, Kadeer secretly met with the two interpreters who would be translating her speech into Chinese and showed them the real text of her speech. The two interpreters were afraid. “I am a woman,” she told them, “and you are men. You won’t have any difficulties. After all, you’re just translating what I say.”
Chinese policies in Xinjiang are false and unjust, she said before the congress, in the Great Hall of the People, with 4,800 delegates listening attentively. The Chinese government, she continued, must respect the Uighurs’ religious freedom, put an end to its arbitrary arrests and stop executing political prisoners. She demanded respect for the Uighurs’ history, literature and language. That day, Kadeer wore a white fur jacket and a “doppa,” the Uighurs’ traditional head dress. A few delegates were in tears by the time she returned to her seat.
The speech was a declaration of war.
Kadeer has kept a photo that was taken just after her speech. It depicts Jiang Zemin, the then-president and head of the Communist Party, shaking her hand and smiling. Zemin is surrounded by China’s power elite, including Prime Minister Li Peng and the defense minister — a small, delicate woman in a white fur jacket, surrounded by an army of predators, of old men wearing dark suits and horn-rimmed glasses.
They appear to be congratulating Kadeer, but what they are really doing is forming a barrier between her and the delegates and their questions.
Hu Jintao, then the fifth-ranking member of the ruling hierarchy and now China’s president, is visible in the background. “A very good speech,” Hu told her. “But you must discuss your problems with us. We can solve all problems.”
“The normal procedure is to approach them after giving a speech,” says Kadeer, “but they came to me, and it was because I was right.”
Four weeks later, she was banned from the People’s Congress and her passport was revoked.
In August 1999, just before she was scheduled to meet with a delegation from the US Congress at a hotel in Urumchi, the police arrested her.
A judge sentenced her to eight years in prison for “dissemination of state secrets.” Her crime? Attempting to send magazines to her husband, who had since fled into exile in the US, magazines that were widely available in China.
When her case was tried, there was no audience and she had no legal representation. “We will crush you like a snake,” the chief of police told her.
“And I will emerge from prison like an eagle,” Kadeer replied.
Books were banned in prison, and she was not allowed to receive visitors for two years. She talked to herself, recited verses of the Koran and made plans. Sometimes she screamed.
Persecuting the family
Ablikim, her fifth-eldest son, was arrested on the same day as his mother and was sentenced, without trial, to two years in a prison camp. There he was forced to work 20-hour days, and on several occasions he witnessed guards beating other prisoners with a baseball bat. He knew that prisoners in China are tortured with electroshocks, and that one of the preferred methods to torture a man is to insert horsehairs into his penis.
Kadeer’s sons have been managing the two department stores since she moved to Washington. The businesses are in a section of the city where only Uighurs live, on a street where merchants pushing two-wheeled carts sell dates and pomegranates, dog pelts and dried snakes — which are considered an aphrodisiac.
The family had to take out a loan of 9 million Yuan to build the department stores. When the police searched the business this spring and confiscated the family’s business records, the balance of the loan suddenly turned into 15 million Yuan.
Without her political activities, Kadeer’s life story would have been one of the many success stories in a new China. But she refused to play by the rules of the game.
The Uighurs in Xinjiang admire Kadeer, calling her “mother of the Uighurs,” but they don’t support her — at least not openly.
In late August, when Kadeer had just returned to the US from a visit to Germany, the head of the Communist Party in Xinjiang gave a press conference in which he accused her of having met with terrorists in the European country, and claimed she planned to sabotage festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. In response, Rebiya’s son Alim called the party leader a liar in an interview with Radio Free Asia.
On the evening after the interview, the police paid a visit to Alim, just as he was on the phone with his mother in Washington. Alim put down the receiver but didn’t hang up, so that she could hear everything.
They demanded that he sign a document stating that Rebiya Kadeer owed taxes to the Chinese state. When he refused, they threatened to punish him. “You’ll see what we do with you,” they said.
Alim and Ablikim would prefer to leave China. They could try to make their way to Taiwan, but Rebiya doesn’t want her children to flee the country. She still hopes for a legal solution. But it’s not entirely clear that she has anything to offer the government in Beijing.
Her problem is that she makes life more difficult for her sons with each new public appearance. But she believes that her children can only live safely in Urumchi if the world knows more about them.
While she describes her vision, her husband, the poet, sits outside on the patio of their small apartment in Virginia and smokes thin Chinese cigarettes. His handshake is soft and he wears his white hair combed back. He says that he aged ten years during his five years in prison. He and his wife still agree on their goals, but they argue over how to achieve them.
For years, he was the more unyielding of the two, and this made him influential. But their roles have been reversed ever since Kadeer was released. When she travels, he stays at home writing a history of the Uighur people, a book he wants published when the Uighurs gain their independence. But he has yet to find a publisher.
When Chinese President Hu Jintao announced his intention to visit Washington earlier this year, Kadeer saw her chance to remind him of the suffering of her people. Hu had planned to meet with President George W. Bush in early September to discuss North Korea and China’s booming export economy. Kadeer, for her part, planned to assemble a group of Chinese political exiles to stage a demonstration against Hu, the world’s third most powerful man, directly across from the White House.
Kadeer had planned to give a speech, a speech about America. But then Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and Hu cancelled his visit to the US capital.
Kadeer followed Hu to New York, where he was scheduled to visit the United Nations a few days later. She and a group of Tibetan exiles and members of the persecuted Falun Gong sect held a demonstration in front of the UN headquarters.
The protestors waved American flags and the colors of East Turkestan, and Kadeer held up a sign that read “Freedom for East Turkestan.”
She isn’t sure whether Hu noticed.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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