Why China Fears This Uyghur Exile

Susan V. Lawrence/WASHINGTON
Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue cover-dated July 15, 2004

THE GOVERNMENT OF China did everything it could to prevent Erkin Alptekin, the 65-year-old leader of a new exile group dedicated to self- determination for a region in northwest China, from visiting the United States recently. In lobbying the State Department and the White House to deny entry to Alptekin, China's embassy accused his organization, the World Uyghur Congress, of planning "terrorist activities aimed at splitting China."

China worked so hard to deny Alptekin the oxygen of international exposure because it sees his cause as a deeply worrying threat to Chinese sovereignty, territorial integrity and social stability. It also seems to fear that Alptekin is emerging as a charismatic leader for disaffected members of its ethnic-Uyghur minority, who have previously failed to rally behind any single leader.

Yet the U.S. government ignored China's entreaties. In contrast to Beijing, many in Washington see Alptekin as a rare, Westernized, moderate Uyghur leader who might be in a position to influence more radical Uyghurs operating in a volatile region. Washington's dismissal of China's concerns regarding Alptekin is striking because it comes at a time when the joint commitment of China and the U.S. to fighting terrorism is often cited as a key factor in their improved bilateral relations.

After China failed to prevent Alptekin's U.S. visit, its ambassador continued to work to try to limit the audience for the Uyghur leader's message there. In a May 27 letter to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Richard Lugar, Yang Jiechi wrote, "I hope that you will . . . not attend or send your staff to attend" two events at which Alptekin would be speaking, and will "use your important influence to advise your colleagues not to attend these events either."

Alptekin did not meet any Bush administration officials on his May 27-June 3 trip, but despite China's efforts he did get a warm reception, particularly from some prominent U.S. congressmen.

One reason is Alptekin's strong support for nonviolence. His group claims to represent the worldwide community of Uyghurs, the Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim people of northwest China's Xinjiang province. Some 8.4 million Uyghurs live in China; another estimated 600,000 live abroad, the greatest number of them in Central Asia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., a small number of Uyghurs have been linked to terrorism, which is a sure way to get attention in Washington these days. Yet Alptekin not only condemns violence, he is also closely associated with the U.S. because of a long career working for the American-backed Radio Liberty in Europe. Alptekin is a German national.

Dru Gladney, an expert on Islam in China at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, cautions that Alptekin may not be able to win the support in the broader Uyghur community that some of his international boosters might hope for. Alptekin benefits from strong name recognition among Uyghurs: His father, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, headed a short-lived Uyghur government in Xinjiang in the 1940s, when China was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists. But Gladney says his close ties to the U.S. may blunt his appeal to radical Uyghurs, while his long absence from Xinjiang, which he last visited in the early 1980s, may make him less relevant to Uyghurs in China. Gladney also notes that Alptekin is not a practising Muslim. "To some extent, to have influence over some of the more radical Uyghurs, one would need to be religious," says Gladney.

A likely factor in Alptekin's positive reception in the U.S. was long-running irritation in Washington over the perception that China is overplaying its hand in labelling Uyghur separatist groups as terrorists and thereby justifying draconian measures in Xinjiang.

Signs of a disconnect between Washington and Beijing over what China calls "East Turkestan terrorism"--East Turkestan is the name Uyghur separatists use for Xinjiang--became evident long before Alptekin's visit. Most conspicuously, in December when China released a list of four organizations and 11 individuals it claimed to be Eastern Turkestan terrorists, the U.S. declined to endorse it.

The case of Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur businesswoman imprisoned for sending articles cut out of a newspaper to her husband in the U.S., is an additional irritant in the relationship and complicates China's efforts to win sympathy for its approach to Xinjiang. Many people in official Washington consider Kadeer's treatment a direct affront to the U.S. because she was detained in Xinjiang in 1999 while on her way to meet visiting staff from the U.S. Senate and the American Congressional Research Service.

In a barbed reply to Ambassador Yang's letter requesting that Lugar stay away from the Uyghur events being held during Alptekin's trip, a Lugar aide, Keith Luse, wrote that "Ambassador Yang's admonition to the chairman to not attend a meeting in the United States reminded me of Rebiya Kadeer . . . This mother of 10 continues to sit in a cell. China has not responded to repeated calls for her release by the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress. Could Ambassador Yang write to Chairman Lugar advising when Rebiya Kadeer will be released?" Luse copied his letter to the full membership of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney have both warned China not to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to repress its ethnic minorities. Highlighting U.S. concerns about Chinese policies in Xinjiang, Alptekin was invited to testify before the House International Relations Committee on the human-rights situation in Xinjiang. Alptekin spoke alongside an exile from Tibet and a representative of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in China.

At a gala dinner organized by a local Uyghur group, the Uyghur American Association, at which Alptekin was the star guest, Congressman Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, lauded the Uyghur cause: "The dignity and commitment to principle that you are showing" in your struggle against official Chinese repression is "humanity at its best." He added that he wanted to stress "how pleased I am to be able to come and express my solidarity with a Muslim group fighting for the same principles that we fight for in America."

Alptekin has been struggling most of his life to focus the world's attention on the fate of the Uyghurs under Chinese communist rule. After the communists came to power, his family fled, first to Srinagar, India, where 12-year-old Erkin attended a Catholic school, then to Turkey. Erkin's father, a personal friend of Tibet's Dalai Lama, worked tirelessly to publicize the Uyghurs' situation.

But for most of the time that father, and later, son, lobbied on behalf of the Uyghurs, Alptekin says they had trouble getting anyone to listen. In his radio days, Alptekin recalls, the world's media used to publish only one or two articles about the Uyghurs a year. Despite decades of peaceful efforts to call China to account for what the exiles said were repressive tactics, by 1990, Alptekin says, "nobody was interested."

Then, in the 1990s, sporadic violence began to break out in Xinjiang. Alptekin says that frustrated young Uyghurs "lost patience" with China. He condemns their resorting to violence but also says that the Uyghurs involved likely concluded that violence was the only way to "draw the attention of the international community" because "the international community only reacts when conflict breaks out." Chinese police in Xinjiang reported that there were bus bombings, a train derailment and bombings of police stations.

After September 11, 2001, under heavy pressure from China, the United Nations labelled a Uyghur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organization. Among the crimes China blamed on the group were the bombing of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul and assassinations of Chinese officials in the Kirgyzstan capital of Bishkek. This year, U.S. officials disclosed that 22 Uyghurs are among the nearly 600 prisoners being held on suspicion of terrorism at the U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Both developments cast the Uyghurs in an unflattering light, but also help to put them on policy agendas in many capitals.

In April, exiled Uyghur delegates from 13 countries met in Munich, Germany, and agreed to merge two of the exile community's most influential organizations, the East Turkestan National Congress and the World Uyghur Youth Congress, into a new World Uyghur Congress headed by Alptekin.

The World Uyghur Youth Congress was one of the four groups identified as terrorist organizations in China's December 2003 list. But in a press release, Alptekin announced that the new organization would promote the right of the Uyghur people to use "peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan."

In addressing audiences in Washington, Alptekin was careful to emphasize his opposition to violence. He says he tells Uyghurs pragmatically that if they rise up against their Chinese rulers, they will be "slaughtered and the world would just watch." He says he asks them: "Is it worth it just for publicity that we send our people to death?"

Alptekin says the priority for the Uyghur community now should be to preserve the Uyghur language, culture and national identity, so that if some day given a choice, Uyghurs will still be a sufficiently distinct ethnic group to justify a separate state. In 50 years, if Uyghurs "are all assimilated, [if they've] lost their tongue, literature, and everything, what is the use of that independence to me?" he asked in a public speech hosted by a group of Turkic associations. The Chinese embassy had two diplomats at the session quietly taking notes.

Copyright Review Publishing Company Limited, Hong Kong.