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Books: China’s Other Minority, Seen by One of Its Own

April 24, 2009

By HOWARD W. FRENCH
The New York Times
April 23, 2009

DRAGON FIGHTER
One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace With China
By Rebiya Kadeer with Alexandra Cavelius
Illustrated. 423 pages. Kales Press. $28.95.

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 déclassé. Such is the case with
China’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
country’s treatment of its two largest
minorities, the Tibetans and Uighurs, both old,
non-Han indigenous civilizations that claim
meaningful autonomy in China’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 today’s world the rights and
interests of native peoples have rightly won greater recognition.

In this memoir, "Dragon Fighter," 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 people’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 history’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: “Politicians
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.”

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
Tibet’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. Kadeer’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 People’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
author’s qualities: she is chaste, smart,
beautiful, clever, strong, indomitable, selfless,
moral, wise and fearless — 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 “after
our wedding, our first task will be to liberate the land.”

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: “Is
it our fault that the Chinese have occupied our
land? That we live under such horrible conditions?”

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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