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Beijing harasses dissidents - even in America

Fred Hiatt / Washington Post | October 11 2006

It's no secret that China in recent years has stepped up its repression of political, religious and journalistic freedoms, to only the mousiest of objections from the outside world.

Less well known is that China feels so unconstrained that it is brazenly harassing dissidents in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., too.

Just ask Rebiya Kadeer, who now lives in Fairfax County, Va. In April, Kadeer's grandson noticed four men videotaping and photographing the family's ground-floor apartment from a car parked outside. He called to his mother, who wrote down their license plate number. Kadeer passed that on to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who enlisted the FBI, which determined that three of the four men in the rented car were Chinese agents.

Of course, surveillance and intimidation are the least of what China's regime has inflicted on Kadeer. She was the victim of a mysterious hit-and-run accident in January; her children back home in China have been beaten and jailed; she herself spent nearly six years in prison.

Which leads to the question: Why would this 60-year-old grandmother with a sparkling smile arouse such fear and hatred in the powerful Communist rulers of Beijing? And what does that tell us about the nature of the regime that will be hosting the Olympics in less than two years?

These questions have come to the fore because Rebiya Kadeer has been nominated for the Nobel

Peace Prize, the winner of which will be announced Friday. Of course scores of people are nominated every year, but the talk alone has so infuriated Chinese officials that they have taken to threatening Norwegian officials with grave consequences if Kadeer should win.

So who is she? Former laundress, self-made businesswoman, mother of 11, member of the Turkic minority known as Uighurs who live in far western China. In the 1990s, China's regime elevated her to the national parliament, where she behaved as though China's virtuous laws on ethnic rights and autonomy were meant to be enforced.

She found out otherwise, and in 1999 was imprisoned for providing "state secrets" to foreigners. The "secrets" were newspaper clippings. Last year she was freed early from her eight-year sentence and exiled to the United States on the condition that she keep quiet.

"I nodded my head, for fear they would not let me go," she told me in an interview last week. "I had no choice. But after I came out, I couldn't not speak out for my people."

Her people consist of about 9 million Uighurs in China and 2 million or so elsewhere, mostly in Central Asia. Like the Tibetans, they have been subjected to decades of grinding repression that has left them, as a group, "nearly in a comatose state," Kadeer said. Forced abortions; children taken away to be raised in what she calls "mainland China"; history falsified; native language disfavored; jobs and natural resources delivered to ethnic Chinese - the story is familiar.

Repression intensified in 1997, Kadeer says, when the Chinese government felt that its rising power allowed it to stop even pretending about autonomy. It worsened again after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Uighurs are Muslim, and among them are a few violent separatists; the Chinese took advantage of the "war on terror" to imprison thousands of peaceful Uighurs as terrorists.

Kadeer has been similarly labeled, though an official dispatch in June gave away the real Chinese objection. Kadeer "promised not to take part in any activities endangering the security of the People's Republic of China," the dispatch complained, but "immediately upon arriving overseas she shed her pretense" and became active with pro-democracy forces. Kadeer, in other words, is a threat because she is an effective, engaging spokeswoman for her cause.

Ten years ago, when Kadeer still had hope for the Chinese system, so did American officials: engagement, trade and rising prosperity would lead to openness and political freedom, or so the theory went.

Instead, as a rare open letter to President Hu Jintao from 54 China experts around the world noted on Sept. 29, there has been a "sharp increase in official retaliation" against human rights advocates and their families "through persistent harassment, banishment, detention, arrest, and imprisonment."
Even in Fairfax County, Va.

 

 

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