Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Uighurs must fight for rights within China

August 15, 2009

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor
The Australian
August 13, 2009

IT may turn out to be seven days that shook the
world, or at least seven days that shook Chinese politics, perhaps permanently.

The week-long visit to Australia by Rebiya
Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, a
visit that ends as she flies out of Sydney today,
could change the course of Chinese politics.

If Kadeer learns the right lessons from her
remarkably successful visit she is poised to
become one of the most influential figures in
global politics. If the Chinese government learns
the right lessons from her visit, it could start
to improve the situation in Xinjiang.

Kadeer is the most popular leader from the
Xinjiang province of western China. She was once
the richest woman in China and a member of the
Chinese People's Congress. Now she is the leader
of the Uighur nationalist movement.

She needs to see her immensely successful visit
to Australia as a template for how she should
campaign throughout the West. The most important
lesson she must learn from her time here is that
she and the Uighur movement must definitively
abandon any quest for a separate state.

I had a long conversation with Kadeer in
Melbourne and the formulation she uses is that
the Uighur movement is not asking for
independence or for autonomy but for
self-determination. She is utterly committed to
non-violence, rejects terrorism in any of its
guises and is plainly not guilty of almost
everything of which the Chinese government accuses her.

The World Uighur Congress, she told me, will make
up its mind whether to campaign for independence
or merely autonomy depending on how Beijing
responds to it and to the Uighur population
generally during the next several months. This is
an understandable formulation because it puts the
onus on Beijing to improve the lamentable human
rights situation for Uighurs. But in fact it is
extremely dangerous. Self-determination always
means independence. If Kadeer is to really help
her people she must quickly reject a campaign for
a separate state and concentrate instead on human
rights, cultural autonomy and democracy within Xinjiang.

If Kadeer allows herself to become a separatist
leader, someone who explicitly threatens the
territorial integrity of China, then the range of
people who will deal with her internationally will shrink.

With time no respectable government will have anything to do with her.

There are many minority groups across the world
that would like to have their own state. Many
have a measure of justice on their side. But the
international system quite rightly has a great
bias towards conservatism on such matters. Once
you start on the process of ethnic separatism you never stop.

The logic is inexorable; why should I be a
minority in your state when I can make you a
minority in my state? That way lies ethnic
cleansing and perhaps genocidal violence; witness
partition between India and Pakistan.

Moreover, whatever the theoretical aspects of the
situation the plain reality is that China,
obsessed with energy security, will never give up
resource-rich Xinjiang. So anyone campaigning for
such an outcome is simply campaigning for
conflict, death and misery. For any foreign
government to give comfort to such a movement is
in effect an act of hostility. Many Indonesians
believe Australia harbours a secret desire to
carve off chunks of Indonesia into separate
states, especially, say, West Papua. As a result
Australian political leaders of both parties
constantly reiterate our support for Indonesia's
territorial integrity. No Australian government
would support a separatist campaign in Indonesia or in China, nor should it.

However, supporting a better human rights
performance in China is another thing altogether.
The Uighurs are subject to continual
discrimination, and even persecution, in
Xinjiang. When Kadeer calls attention to these
human rights abuses she is on unassailable moral
high ground. Tibet's Dalai Lama, whom Kadeer
greatly admires, does not support an independent
Tibetan nation. Rather, he wants Tibet to remain
part of China but to enjoy cultural and regional
autonomy. As a result many Western leaders,
including Kevin Rudd and John Howard before him,
have been able to meet the Dalai Lama as a
spiritual leader and endorse better human rights for Tibetans.

In time, if Kadeer follows the same path, more
and more Western leaders will meet her as a kind
of cultural Uighur leader and endorse her call
for better human rights for Uighurs. There would
be no reason she could not campaign for
self-government within China on a one-nation,
two-systems basis or simply greater regional
autonomy, internal democracy within Xinjiang,
full respect for Uighur religious and cultural
rights, an end to discrimination against Uighurs
and the like. It is only in these areas that
there is any realistic chance of improved
behaviour by Beijing, and only by running this
sort of campaign can Kadeer keep attention
focused on China's performance rather than unrealistic Uighur demands.

Kadeer was herself astonished at the success of
her tour in Australia. On Monday Labor MP Michael
Danby hosted 15 federal MPs in Parliament House
to meet her. The official Chinese reaction
against her vastly increased the profile she
enjoyed. The documentary about her life, The 10
Conditions of Love, is a good film. But it could
not have got anything like the response it did --
a sell-out audience of 1700 at its premiere --
without the official Chinese effort to suppress
it. This had substantial ripples overseas. The
New Yorker published a piece titled "We are All
Melbournian", which urged other international
film festivals to show the documentary to
demonstrate that they were entitled to show films critical of governments.

Australian institutions from the Melbourne
International Film Festival and Melbourne Town
Hall to the National Press Club, the federal
parliament and the Rudd government all behaved as
they should in accordance with their democratic
identities. They refused to be bullied by
Beijing, whose diplomatic representatives even
got a dressing-down from Foreign Minister Stephen
Smith over the aggressive manner in which they
tried to stop Melbourne Town Hall showing the
film. In all this Australia is a microcosm of the
whole Western world. Kadeer and her supporters
have the lessons in front of them.

One other thing Kadeer should do is learn enough
English to make her basic speeches in English,
even if she takes questions through a translator.
It's a tall order for awoman of 63 but, given
everything else she's accomplished, it's a snack.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank