Politics & Policy

Beijing & I

The Chinese government says I am a terrorist.

I am a terrorist. I would argue that I’m not, but because the Chinese government says I am a terrorist, it must be true. It will be interesting to see whether President Hu Jintao repeats this accusation against me–and by extension, tars all Uyghur people with the same brush–when he speaks at the United Nations on Thursday.

The Chinese government tries so hard to convince the world of its own infallibility that it must be terrifying when people dare to pull back the veil. And to that extent, if I terrify the Chinese government, then yes, I am a terrorist, and long may it last. I’m by no means the first–they’ve even called the Dalai Lama a terrorist–and I’m sure I won’t be the last.

The Chinese authorities sent me to prison for eight years in 1999 because I’d sent newspaper articles to my husband in America about the plight of the Uyghur people. They accused me of “leaking state secrets to foreign organizations.” I’d used my status as a successful businesswoman–once lauded by the same people who later imprisoned me–to work for the protection of Uyghurs’ human rights. The Chinese government was so terrified I might say something that impugned their infallibility, they arrested me just as I was about to meet a U.S. congressional research committee in my hometown of Urumchi.

The U.S. government was instrumental in securing my early release from prison in March of this year–a fact that has forever indebted me and my family to the American officials and the people from all over the world who worked on my behalf. Most of all, my early release allowed the Uyghur people to hope that they haven’t been overlooked or forgotten by those who believe in human rights and democracy for all.

When I was released, I was warned not to speak on behalf of the Uyghur people when I came to America, or my children and by business would be “finished.” I think they were trying to scare me, and to give credit where credit is due, they did. True to their word, they consequently ransacked my office and dragged away two former colleagues who are still in detention. They accused me of owing millions in debts and taxes, and threatened to break every one of my son’s ribs if he didn’t sign a statement saying this was “true.” Who wouldn’t be scared by that?

I’m sure this has been said before, but there is a distinction between terror and horror. Terror is felt when we anticipate an horrific event; horror is felt when it actually happens. I am keenly aware of this difference: I have lived with a sense of terror for the fate of Uyghurs for the past few decades; and I have watched in horror as my worst fears have come true.

I have been terrified for young Uyghur mothers who become pregnant when the Chinese government say they shouldn’t; and I have been horrified when their pregnancies have been forcibly terminated. I have been terrified for the Uyghurs’ ancient culture; and watched horrified as the Chinese authorities have stooped to burning Uyghur books. I have been terrified for those Uyghurs who have stood up and objected; and been horrified when they have been executed as “terrorists.” And yes, I have been horrified by the treatment of my friends and family.

And what of the Chinese government? I think the Chinese government is terrified of the day when their corruption, their brutality, their wanton destruction of the environment and neglect of the physical and spiritual health of the people will no longer be tolerated. The Chinese government has every reason to be terrified–it is a terrifying prospect for us all.

And so what can be done to avoid the horror? It will probably seem naïve to suggest that the most important step the Chinese government could take is to start telling the truth, and not “the truth with Chinese characteristics,” to coin a phrase. The constant denial of any wrongdoing serves no one: It is common knowledge from Beijing to Geneva to Washington, D.C., that the human rights of people living under Chinese administration are poor to say the least; for Beijing to say otherwise is to dig an ever-deeper moat around itself and to delay the time when human rights will genuinely be protected.

President Hu Jintao must set an urgent example to his administration, and speak the truth on Thursday. Such a top-down approach is far less terrifying than the prospect of more than a billion angry souls demanding the truth.

Rebiya Kadeer is a businesswoman and human-rights advocate from the Muslim Uighur region in China.


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