The Chinese government says the mastermind behind the violent clashes between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese in China’s Xinjiang region is a diminutive grandmother with long, salt-and-pepper braids living in exile in a suburb of the US capital.
Once one of the richest women in Xinjiang and held up as an exemplar of China’s purported multi-ethnic harmony, Rebiya Kadeer now heads two prominent Uighur exile groups, speaking out against Beijing’s oppression of the Turkic-speaking minority. Beijing has accused Kadeer of organizing the protests that have left at least 156 dead and more than 1,000 injured, accusations she has denied.
Kadeer’s persecution by the Chinese and her stature as a public face of the Uighur people have earned her comparisons to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
Before her exile, Kadeer, 62, rose from poverty to become a successful entrepreneur, running trading companies and department stores. Beijing named her in China’s official delegation to the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing and to the country’s legislature.
By 1997 she had formed an organization to aid Uighur women and had opened a Uighur language school, an action tinged with enough separatism to earn her scrutiny from Chinese security agencies. In August 1999 Kadeer was detained in Urumqi as she headed to meet US congressional staff members. She was charged with passing state secrets to foreigners and sentenced to eight years in prison.
The US government and human rights groups across the world pressed for her release. In 2005, the Chinese government released her from jail and put her on a plane to northern Virginia.