Nationalia: Some Uyghur organizations and activists claim that the Chinese government is endangering the very survival of the Uyghur people, including its unique language and its ancient culture —both linked to a much wider geographic area that includes a set of Turkic-speaking, Muslim peoples— through a process of marginalization and assimilation. To what extent is that true?
Rebiya Kadeer: The actual situation might be worse than you heard. Firstly, restriction on our language is taking place in every school. From elementary school to universities, Uyghurs have no chance to learn in their own language. Secondly, the majority of Uyghurs are restricted from their religious activities. People are forced to sing the Red Song and praise the Communist Party. Third, in order to accelerate assimilation, more than 100,000 girls aged 14-25 have been transferred to factories in the Eastern part of China.
Uyghurs practiced Shamanism, Manichaenism and Buddhism in their long history, and embraced Islam in the 10th century. So these religions have affected our culture. Even now, we can see their reflections in our traditions and cultural features. Take our music, dance, arts, traditional sports, architectures as examples, we can find different cultural elements relating to different religions. Wall paintings in ancient Turpan, which belongs to Buddhist culture, are evidences of long and rich cultural heritage.
But many cultural heritages in East Turkestan have been demolished by the Chinese government. Many cultural architecture in Aksu and Hoten have been razed, as well as the old city in Kashgar. Our music and dance have been diffused. Cultural assimilation and ethnic hazards in the society have risen. Many historical books that can reveal our true history have been banned. Instead, they have published a distorted history about East Turkestan.
Uyghurs used to get together with their neighbours, and care about each other. But the Chinese government’s cultural diffusion policy has affected their lifestyle. Even people who have been trying to preserve their cultural identity and cultural heritage have been accused of involvement in separatism and extremism and sentenced to longtime imprisonments.
N: The WUC was established in 2004, meaning to act as a united voice of the Uyghur people to promote its right to freely and democratically decide the future of East Turkestan, or Xinjiang Uyghur as it is officially known in China. Nevertheless, East Turkestan is no longer a place where Uyghurs make up the absolute majority of the population, if official censuses are to be believed. Even if by mid-20th century they accounted for 75% of East Turkestan's population, in 2010 the share of Uyghurs had dropped to 46% while that of Han Chinese had increased to 40%, and other groups accounted for the remainder 14%. Does this affect, or even hinder, the exercise of Uyghur self-determination?
«The Chinese government is pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing and of cultural genocide against the Uyghur people in East Turkestan»R. K.: The World Uyghur Congress and other East Turkestan organizations will continue their struggle to reach their ultimate goal which is to achieve the right of self-determination for the Uyghur people.
Due to the Chinese government’s population transfer policy in the past several decades, the demography in East Turkestan has already changed, and the number of Han migrants in Turkestan has increased from 6% in 1949 to more than 40% in 2010.
In order to further repress the Uyghur people, the Chinese government has intensified a strike-hard campaign in the region. According to some information, Chinese security forces have used heavy weaponry to suppress protests during the campaign. Uyghurs have increasingly realized that their survival is under threat. In the past, Uyghurs asked for human rights, genuine autonomy and peace from the Chinese government. But now I think they believe that the only way of their survival is to get rid of the Chinese government. The Chinese government is pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing and of cultural genocide against the Uyghur people in East Turkestan. The Chinese government has been pushing Uyghurs to make a choice.
The World Uyghur Congress wants to see all of these problems to be solved in a peaceful way. We will also continue to strive for our right of self-determination.
N: The People's Republic of China is in fact a complex chessboard of different territories where, on the one hand, democratic shortcomings are being denounced and, on the other, it is claimed that the right of self-determination of several peoples is not being met. Among them, not only East Turkestan can be mentioned, but also Tibet, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia and, in another respect, Taiwan. Chinese democracy advocates, such as Charter 08 signatories, have in the past envisaged the establishment of a democratic, federal Republic of China as a way to settle those issues. Does WUC think this could be a good system for East Turkestan's self-government, or rather nothing short of independence could be accepted?
«Beijing has now been trying to take democracy away from Hong Kong, to destroy it in Taiwan. It looks as if it was trying to apply there as well the same policies it implemented in East Turkestan»R. K.: Of course, it would be good if Uyghurs had the right to self -determination, and lived in democracy. All issues might be solved peacefully if this came true. But the Chinese government will not allow it to happen. The Chinese government has now been trying to take democracy away from Hong Kong, to destroy it in Taiwan. It looks as if the Chinese government was trying to apply there as well the same policies it implemented in East Turkestan. So we have been always advocating that Uyghurs, Tibetans, the people in Hong Kong and Taiwan should come together. We should call the international community to involve justifiably in our issues. If the international community, the democratic countries and the United Nations allow the Chinese government to do what they want to do with us, it may have negative consequences to peace in the world.
N: Indeed, until —and if— time comes for political change in China, you have said that your short-term goal is to make the world recognize that millions of Uyghurs are suffering in their own land under the Chinese dictatorial regime. But compared to a similar plight by the Tibetans, the Uyghur cause has not achieved that much visibility worldwide. What is the cause for this, according to your 12-year-long international political activity in exile?
R. K.: As we all know, it is not likely to happen that the Chinese Communist Party will be overthrown in a short time. Uyghurs can not wait until this dictatorial regime collapses.
There are some historical backgrounds that explain why Uyghur issues have not achieved much visibility worldwide.
In 1949, our leaders were invited by Chinese and Soviet governments to take part in peace talks in Beijing. Unfortunately, all Uyghur leaders died in a plane crash on their way to Beijing. Later it turned out that all of them had been killed. After the killing of their leaders, most Uyghur intellectuals and other people who were involved in the East Turkestan Republic got arrested or killed in a mass rally. The Chinese government eventually took control of East Turkestan with support from the Soviet Union. Thousands of Uyghurs fled to Central Asia, and some of them even fled to Turkey through Kashmir and Pakistan. Most of the people that experienced that long journey have already died, but some of them are still alive. These people did not get enough support from the international community, and were not able to make their voice heard.
Meanwhile, people in East Turkestan were not able to launch any political activity to achieve what they wanted, due to strict government control and Bingtuan, which is a paramilitary entity which has been playing a very important role in brutally suppressing Uyghur peaceful protests.
His Holiness Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders, along with tens of thousands of their fellow Tibetans, managed to escape Tibet and took refugee in India, where the were welcomed by the government and the people of India. Tibetans under the guidance of His Holiness Dalai Lama immediately launched an international campaign to promote the Tibetan cause and to educate the international community about the Tibet issue and the Tibetan people, which has been continuing for almost 60 years. Through these campaigns and support of many governments and international human rights organizations, the Tibetan issue became to be well known at the international level, and gained international recognition.
In contrast, Uyghur activities under the leadership of Isa Yusuf Alptekin in Turkey and Yusuf Bey Muhlis in Central Asia have been very limited, due to Chinese and Soviet pressure on these countries, and a lack of human and financial resources. Isa Yusuf Alptekin, who was a leader of the Uyghur national movement in Turkey, was able to promote the Uyghur cause quite successfully in Turkey, but he was unable to promote his cause beyond Turkish borders because of Chinese pressure.
«Our people have strong cultural bases that make us resistant to be assimilated»After 2004, some Uyghurs began to settle down in Western countries, and they were able to make their voices heard there. I was released from a Chinese prison and brought to the United States on March 17, 2005. Our movement began almost 40 years later than Tibet’s. The Chinese government intensified pressure on East Turkestan from that time. But luckily, our people have strong cultural bases that make us resistant to be assimilated. I think that is why the Chinese government thinks that Uyghurs are a threat to them.
N: When seeking to explain the main reasons why China is so reluctant to agree to any measure of autonomy to East Turkestan, academics and commentators usually mention a mix of economic arguments, ideological differences, Chinese nationalism, geopolitical interest —your land being a natural corridor towards oil- and gas-rich Central Asia— and ethnolinguistic rifts. According to you, what is Beijing's main motivation?
«History has shown us that Chinese nationalists are not much inclusive toward those people who possess another rich culture, who are not willing to be assimilated»R. K.: Besides what you mentioned, there are also other reasons. As far as we know, the Chinese government promised our leaders some rights, which to some extent could be some sort of self-determination. History has shown us that Chinese nationalists are not much inclusive toward those people who possess another rich culture, who are not willing to be assimilated, and who are different from the Han Chinese. I think Uyghurs and Tibetans are such people that are marginalized by the Han Chinese, especially the Uyghurs who are suffering more.
The Soviet Union granted Central Asian countries to have the right to be independent. But the Chinese government has been implementing repressive policies, which are intended to assimilate the Uyghur people. They could be thinking that the Uyghurs will be assimilated in 20 years’ time, as some Han Chinese nationalists have been predicted. But Uyghurs have resisted Chinese assimilation campaigns in the last 70 years.
«Our land has a very important geopolitical position. The Chinese government will not give up, and will not give us the right to be independent»Moreover, East Turkestan is bordered by eight countries. Our land has a very important geopolitical position. The Chinese government will not give up, and will not give us the right to be independent. Now, the Chinese government has already begun to step into Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Chinese government is trying to broaden its way to connect with those countries. They already sent military units there, and invested huge amounts of money. The Chinese government is also trying to transfer Han Chinese workers to Central Asian countries, which eventually will expand to Arab countries. If you look at those countries that are cooperating with China, they do not support the Uyghur movement, and they do not care about us. That means a green light to the Chinese government to implement its repressing policy vigorously. The Chinese government is making propaganda in China, portraying Uyghurs as terrorists, as poor and illiterate people. This Chinese propaganda has already created hatred among Han Chinese against Uyghur people. Thus, they think that Uyghurs deserve to be killed and suppressed.
In some African countries, China is using the same strategy it initially used to occupy East Turkestan. The Chinese government is always aiming at the countries that have rich natural resources. If anyone wants to see the true face of China, they have to look at Uyghurs and Tibetans.
N: Do you expect any change in the United States’ approach to the Uyghur question under president Donald Trump?
R. K.: The Uyghur issue was part of the US-China dialogue on human rights. During the Bush administration, I was received by president [George W.] Bush at the White House, and high level US officials expressed their concern about the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities, and they called on the Chinese to respect the human rights of the Uyghur people. US leaders, including president Bush, warned China not to use the international war on terror to suppress peaceful Uyghur dissent. Ms Hillary Clinton also expressed concerned on Chinese government’s human rights violations against the Uyghur people. But in the past eight years, Uyghurs have experienced unprecedented suppression. The Chinese government violated both their laws and international agreements. I hope that the new US administration will take more seriously the issue of repressed people like Uyghurs, which are being repressed by dictatorial governments.
N: The World Uyghur Congress has in the past praised Turkey for positively contributing to the Uyghur struggle in terms of disseminating your cause as an oppressed people, exerting diplomatic pressure on China, or welcoming Uyghur refugees. But when one considers Turkey’s record in its treatment of other minority peoples such as the Kurds, the Assyrians or the Armenians, that is paradoxical to say the least. Is pan-Turkic solidarity really that important for Ankara? What are the underpinnings for that?
R. K.: I don’t think it is pan-Turkism as you claimed. Actually it is us, democratic countries, human right groups and nearly 100,000 Uyghurs in Turkey who brought some pressure to the Turkish government’s policy on the issue.
Turkey has accepted more than 2 million Arab refugees. Turkey is accepting refugees from many regions, not only from East Turkestan. Maybe, there is an ethnic relationship that is playing a positive role toward Uyghurs, as Turkish people regard themselves as come from Middle Asia. But I believe that the Turkish government is more concerned about its national interests than about Turkic solidarity. I hope the Turkish government gave the same rights to every nationality. The minority people you mentioned have their people in the Turkish Parliament.
Uyghurs are hard-working people. They make business, open restaurants wherever they go. They do not rely on government aid, they will make contributions to the country they live in. If you see Uyghurs in Western countries, the crime rate among Uyghurs is almost zero. This may be another reason why the Turkish government accepted Uyghur refugees. Of course, I could not say that there is no emotional intimacy regarding ethnic relationship. We have the same culture and the same ethnic origin. It is very normal that two ethnic groups share the same feelings. But I do not think this is pan-Turkic solidarity, as you said. Actually, the Turkish government is helping all refugees and people in difficulties. Uyghur refugees are still less than refugees from other countries. In addition, refugees from Syria are enjoying more advantageous policies than Uyghurs. I do not support the rise of pan-Turkism. The Turkish government has not allowed me to enter Turkey. If the Turkish government supported pan-Turkic solidarity, they would allow me to enter.
N: The Chinese government typically justifies military and police operations in East Turkestan as a part of its own fight against terrorism. Beijing links that to the presence of violent Islamist and secessionist groups —of which not much is really known— such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, formerly ETIM), some members of which are known to be fighting in the Syrian Civil War. Uyghur and human rights groups, however, argue that counter-terrorism measures are simply a pretext to suppress the Uyghur national movement. To what extent is there a real problem of Islamist extremism, and to what extent it is being used by Beijing to further its own interests?
R. K.: The Chinese government tried for many years to associate the Uyghur movement with Islamic extremism. There are more than 20,000 Uyghurs who have fled to other countries. Most of them do not speak other languages, have low education levels and financial difficulties. Some of them might be allured to choose the wrong way. Some of them became the victims of human trafficking, and sent to the battlefield for someone’s interests. About this issue, I have addressed my opinion in this article: http://www.iuhrdf.org/ug/?p=7797. You may reference it.
* Songs praising Chinese communism are generically known as “Red Songs”. (Editor’s note)
* The Republic of East Turkestan was a Soviet-backed, de facto state which existed in parts of East Turkestan from 1944 to 1949. (Editor’s note)