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Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s Other Minority, Seen by One of Its Own
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: April 22, 2009
One Womanâ€šÃ„Ã´s Epic Struggle for Peace With China
It is the awkward fate of China, more than any other country, to be arriving late to any number of parties where most other revelers are either long gone or leaving, having declared the celebrations dâˆšÂ©classâˆšÂ©. Such is the case with Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s booming smokestack economy and with its ardent new fling with the automobile, with its desire for a deep-water navy built around aircraft carriers, and with its ambition for a space program that will land on the Moon.
China is also just beginning to grapple with the creation of what most in the developed world would recognize as a modern legal system and acceptable standards for human rights, and it is in much the same position with its cobbling efforts to reinvent the welfare state.
Most anachronistic of all, though, is the countryâ€šÃ„Ã´s treatment of its two largest minorities, the Tibetans and Uighurs, both old, non-Han indigenous civilizations that claim meaningful autonomy in Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s vast, resource-rich and sparsely populated west. Our Western legacy of land expropriation and slaughter of native peoples by European settlers and imperial armies may give us little to cluck about, but in todayâ€šÃ„Ã´s world the rights and interests of native peoples have rightly won greater recognition.
In this memoir, â€šÃ„ÃºDragon Fighter,â€šÃ„Ã¹ part defiant political tell-all, part engrossing personal saga, Rebiya Kadeer paints a vivid picture of her life as a mother of 11 and a businesswoman who spent nearly six years in prison on her way to becoming the Uighur peopleâ€šÃ„Ã´s most prominent dissident.
Since its Communist revolution of 1949 China has employed a brimming catalog of tactics to bring its western region to heel. These include invasion; disappearing of political leaders; gerrymandering to disperse minorities across new, eccentrically redrawn provinces, flooding the cities with subsidized Han immigration; limits on worship, government control of clergy, desecration of temples and harsh repression.
Even Westerners who pay relatively little attention to China will be at least vaguely familiar with the plight of Tibetans, whose religious leader, the Dalai Lama, has been lionized by the Nobel committee and received at the White House.
Such is not the case with the Uighur, a central Asian people who are distant relatives of the Turks and native to what China calls the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, or the New Frontier, an area three and half times as large as California, whose indigenous people look all but set to join the ranks of historyâ€šÃ„Ã´s great, overrun losers.
One thing the Uighur, spelled Uyghur in this book, have never had is a leader with great recognition outside China, like the Dalai Lama, who has contributed a brief introduction for this memoir of Ms. Kadeer. She writes: â€šÃ„ÃºPoliticians and human rights organizations from all over the world were active on behalf of Tibet. The conditions in the Uyghur nation were much the same. But interest from abroad in the two, though literally we were next-door neighbors sharing a common border and both under Chinese occupation, could not have been more dissimilar.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Nor, she might have added, scarcely could the plight of these two neighboring peoples, both of which have long maintained cultural and often political autonomy on the periphery of imperial China, be more fundamentally similar. That the Uighur have never enjoyed anything like the global sympathy extended to Tibetans stands out as a historical oddity that may have something to do with their predominantly Muslim culture, which evokes little of the warm feeling engendered by Tibetâ€šÃ„Ã´s red-robed, incense-burning, sutra-chanting Buddhists.
In the end, though, even this may not matter. Ms. Kadeer writes perceptively about the many humiliations imposed by Beijing on the Uighurs, including routine business harassment and forced abortions, massacres and barriers to trade and contact with other central Asian neighbors. Beijing makes it hard for the Uighurs to believe in anything but ultimate submission to the grand, centrally conceived plans of a powerful China.
On one level Ms. Kadeerâ€šÃ„Ã´s book is a routine account of recent Chinese history. Much more interesting is its core autobiographical story: the remarkable rise from modest roots to a life as, the author claims, the wealthiest woman in China and a politically prominent member of the National Peopleâ€šÃ„Ã´s Congress.
Here, though, the book is marred by language that betrays limited modesty and perhaps even limited self-knowledge. We are constantly reminded of the authorâ€šÃ„Ã´s qualities: she is chaste, smart, beautiful, clever, strong, indomitable, selfless, moral, wise and fearless â€šÃ„Ã® especially fearless.
By the end of the book, however, the last of these claims will leave few readers in doubt. Through sheer force of personality Ms. Kadeer overcomes a bad marriage to an abusive husband, then seeks out and marries a former political prisoner and poet, telling him flatly that â€šÃ„Ãºafter our wedding, our first task will be to liberate the land.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Years, several children and many arduous commercial voyages across China later, having built a fortune (and a big reputation) in department stores and real estate, while she and her second husband dreamed of liberating the land, Ms. Kadeer begins to attract the wooing calls of the party. Her big moment comes in a speech before the Congress in Beijing, in which she boldly switches the approved text to ask: â€šÃ„ÃºIs it our fault that the Chinese have occupied our land? That we live under such horrible conditions?â€šÃ„Ã¹
If not the first time she had spoken truth to power, it was certainly the beginning of the end. Soon afterward Ms. Kadeer was arrested on her way to a meeting with a member of the United States Congress. She was tried, imprisoned for nearly six years and exiled to the United States.
This remarkable life is now added to the saga of the Uighur people, a people without leaders.
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