Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


China Pins Violence On Uighur Activist In D.C.

When violence erupted in western China on Sunday, the Chinese government blamed someone who wasn't even there.

As an anchor on state-controlled China Central Television put it: "Initial investigations show the violence was masterminded by the separatist World Uighur Congress, led by Rebiya Kadeer."

Before Beijing branded Kadeer a public enemy, she was a business tycoon in western China. After criticizing the government's treatment of the ethnic Uighur minority, Kadeer spent more than five years in prison.


Beijing released Kadeer from prison early, in 2005. At 62, the diminutive mother of 11 shows no sign of letting up. In recent days, Kadeer has been in constant media interviews, advocating for the rights of Uighurs — just as she used to back home in China.

Kadeer now operates out of a tiny office in Washington, D.C., just across from the White House. With a handful of staff, she says she fights for the freedom of her fellow Uighurs — thousands of miles away in China's sprawling northwest.

Kadeer says the Chinese government is flooding her homeland with ethnic Han Chinese, who are taking the best jobs and overwhelming Uighur culture.

"This is the Chinese intention-- to destroy Uighur culture," she says. "And in addition to destroying the Uighur culture, they are now killing Uighurs."

'A Reaction Of The People'


Uighurs are a Turkic minority who live in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. A Uighur demonstration in Urumqi, the regional capital, turned into a riot last weekend. The government says more than 150 people were killed.

Chinese officials say Kadeer wants to split Xinjiang from China. State television says she ordered the uprising and encouraged violence using code words.

Kadeer says she did call for global protests after Han Chinese killed Uighurs late last month in a factory on the coast. But she says the recent demonstrations in Urumqi were homegrown.

"I think it was spontaneous — a reaction of the people," Kadeer says. "Maybe my voice also gave some impetus."

She insists she's never encouraged violence. "I know very well this is not the right way, and it will give Chinese authorities a very good excuse to crack down," she says.

'She Became A Threat'

Kadeer is not a lifelong rabble-rouser. In fact, she was once among China's best-known businesswomen. She began as a laundress, then made money trading in everything from hats to sunflower seeds. She made her reputation — and fortune — importing steel from Kazakhstan and trading goods throughout Central Asia.

The government saw Kadeer as living proof Uighurs could prosper — even become millionaires — under Chinese rule. The regime even gave her a seat on one of its highest consultative bodies.

"Because of my popularity among my people, Chinese government tried to promote me and use me and draw me to their side," she says.

Kadeer says that all changed a dozen years ago. In 1997, police cracked down on a Uighur demonstration in the town of Yining that left 10 dead. Kadeer said she criticized the violence in a speech before top officials in Beijing.

"The Chinese leaders said, 'You did a good job,' and then, immediately after I landed in Urumqi, I was stripped of all my official positions," she says.

From there, as China Central Television reported, "In March 2000, Rebiya Kadeer was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Xinjiang Intermediate Court for providing national intelligence to overseas organizations."

Actually, she was caught trying to give Chinese newspaper clippings to visiting U.S. congressional staff. But Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities and a professor at Pomona College in Southern California, says Kadeer's real crime was probably being too outspoken and pushing the boundaries of China's authoritarian system.

"I think in some ways because of her increasing public position and her wealth, she became a threat," Gladney says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit