The People’s Republic of China has 56 recognized ethnicities; still, the Han majority makes up 92 percent of the population. Most of the remaining 55 groups are relatively unknown to the West. Some are even little known in China, as they are small and live on the margins of China-proper. Groups such as the ethnic Koreans and Manchu are highly integrated into the Chinese mainstream; however, the best known internationally, the Tibetans, are recognized mainly due to their protracted struggle for greater autonomy from the oppressive Han dominated national government.
In fact, the level of international awareness Tibetans receive is astonishing, considering Tibetans make up less than half of one percent of China’s population. This makes them only the ninth largest minority group. The “Tibetan Issue” is well known due to a superior global marketing campaign, which includes the venerable Dalai Lama and a host of celebrity Western activists. However, the 10 million Uighurs (also Uyghur) in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are more numerous, have struggled just as long against the Han Chinese, and their homeland is larger. Still, they have never enjoyed the same international regard. Perhaps, Turkic Muslims are not as appealing to the hearts and minds of the West as bald monks in flowing robes. Cultural biases aside, the Uighurs have failed at marketing, largely because they have no central leadership, no figurehead – until now.
Enter the Dragon Fighter: Rebiya Kadeer, the self declared “Mother Of All Uighurs”. Once, one of the wealthiest women in China, this slight mother of 11 children, divorcee, non-secondary school graduate, is one of China’s most wanted fugitives. The government has accused her of working with foreign interests to mastermind the July 5th Uighur protest that turned into a violent race riot. Over 200 people are believed to have died, most of whom were ethnic Han, who many Uighurs view as colonists.
With the forward of her book, written by her spiritual comrade in rebellion, the Dalai Lama, Dragon Fighter is the autobiography of a woman who began life in a modest family, spent much of her childhood in extreme poverty, underwent political persecution as a young woman, withstood a early abusive marriage, became a successful entrepreneur in a communist state, and then an exiled revolutionary.
The book was translated into English from Uighur, as Kadeer does not speak English. Maybe as a result, it too often reads in a poetic epical fashion, which is not uncommon in the Central Asian oral poetry tradition. It is likely not very different from the style in which Kadeer’s father told her stories of Uighur heroes as a child.
Still, to read Kadeer’s account of her life in China, one gets the idea that her entire raison d’etre was to be a revolutionary/savior – everything done in the service of her people, a saint-like figure destined for greatness. Born one year after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupied Xinjiang (East Turkestan to most Uighurs); even her parents believed she “belonged to the people”. All of this might reflect her ego more than the reality of history, but a healthy splash of arrogance might be required for anyone daring enough to stand against the People’s Republic of China.
Where Ms. Kadeer triumphs is in giving a poignant firsthand account of the struggle of the average Uighur during the radical social change that occurred in the immediate years after the PLA occupied Xinijang and during the Cultural Revolution. She brings humanity to the stories of the assassinations of Uighur leaders, the flooding of ethnic Han immigrants into Xinjiang; religious repression, and forced abortions. Many of the accounts of suffering are not significantly different from those of many memoirs written by Han Chinese concerning the same time period, but it seems far worse because of her ability to convey an idyllic, although rough, existence, torn asunder by an invading communist army composed of people she considered alien.
If one believes Kadeer was not born waxing revolution, the turning point in her life that led to her current path was not when her family was forced to move from their home in Altai, it was not when she left school and married young in order to help support her family. It was when she divorced her abusive insecure first husband and pursued her own empowerment, despite the objection of her family and the fact she had 6 children to support. This act was revolutionary for a Uighur woman in and of itself and this self-determination defined the rest of her life.
Although Kadeer’s biography often portrays her as cleaver and courageous, it might also suggest she was naïve and even reckless, something pointed out by several people she mentions in the book. In 1997, Kadeer gave a speech before the National People’s Congress in Beijing, of which she was made a member in 1992. She went off script stating, “Is it our fault that the Chinese have occupied our land? That we live under such horrible conditions?” Eventually, her boldness got her arrested in 1999, while she was on her way to meet an U.S. congressional delegation. She was charged with the multi-purpose political repression standard of “revealing state secrets”, which amounted to having the “audacity” to send newspaper clippings to her husband in the U.S. To her surprise, she was not sentenced to death after her 15 minute trial, something she attributes to foreign pressure on the Chinese government. She served 5 years of an 8 year sentence, enduring psychological, but no physical abuse, at the hands of prison officials; after which, she was exiled to the U.S., where she still resides in the Washington, D.C. area with her current husband. He is also a political dissident.
Perhaps Kadeer’s great failing, of which she is candid, is a result of her single minded pursuit of wealth through trade, retail, and real-estate. This all came at the expense of time spent with her children. She claims this was not for her personal enrichment, but for the financial security of her family and to fund the activism she had long wanted to be involved in. Still, in the end, the needs of the many, her people, outweighed the needs of the few, her family. Today her children that remain in China still suffer: the government has demolished their homes and businesses and some are imprisoned. Two of her older children have even gone on Chinese television to condemn her. Kadeer blames the Chinese government for all of this, feeling she had no choice.
Rebiya Kadeer has been many things in her public life, a thought criminal during the Cultural Revolution, an illegal smuggler in the late 1970’s, a national role model in the years of Deng Xiaoping, a high threat to national security, and now a political dissident in exile. Her name will most certainly live on in the verses of Uighur poems long after she is gone, but how history will judge her and her movement has not yet been written.
One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace With China
By Rebiya Kadeer with Alexandra Cavelius
423 pgs. Kales Press. $28.95.
-You can see the C-SPAN book reading video, here. An event which I was able to ask questions of Ms. Kadeer directly.