Speaking at Stanford, Tibetan and Uyghur leaders decry Chinese domination

Tibetans and Uyghurs discuss more than half-a-century of Chinese rule and call for a negotiated autonomy for their peoples, rather than independence from China.


Courtesy of P H Yang Photography Rebiya Kadeer and Samdhong Rinpoche

Rebiya Kadeer, an activist on behalf of the Uyghur people, and Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the exiled government of Tibet, spoke at an event hosted by Stanford's Friends of Tibet.

In the world of international human rights, both speakers are heavy hitters from the East: Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the exiled government of Tibet, and Rebiya Kadeer, a leading activist on behalf of the 9 million Uyghur people of the Xinjiang region of western China.

The two spoke about relations with China, ethnic tensions, civil disobedience and nonviolent solutions to the plight of their peoples last week at an event co-sponsored by the Stanford Friends of Tibet and the Stanford University Speakers Bureau. The discussion was moderated by history Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford.

Samdhong Rinpoche, a close adviser to the Dalai Lama, said that the Nobel Peace Prize winner has told him that while his faith in the Chinese leadership becomes "thinner and thinner," his faith in the people of China is unwavering; they are his "great hope."

A Gandhian and Buddhist scholar, thoughtful and slow to speech, Samdhong Rinpoche spent most of his time at the podium giving an abbreviated history of Tibet, emphasizing Tibet's longstanding interest in a negotiated settlement for its autonomy. He concluded by describing the last decade's nine rounds of dialogue with the People's Republic of China, during which Tibet sought the middle path – "not seeking independence but genuine autonomy."

"Now the ball is in their court," he said. "We have made it crystal clear what we want," he said. He called for a "sincere implementation" of the constitutional provisions for Tibetan autonomy.

Kadeer echoed some of the same sentiments: "In spite of six-decades-long suffering and persecution, we are still expressing a conciliatory message – like the Dalai Lama, a peaceful negotiated settlement of issues."

Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, is a former child refugee, laundress and finally multi-millionaire businesswoman and mother of 11 children. She spent six years in jail as a political prisoner, two of them in solitary confinement, and now lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of last year's acclaimed Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China. She spoke through a translator and startled many in the audience with the sound of a language that is Turkic, not Chinese, in origin.

"We have not enjoyed a moment of peace under Chinese rule," she said, noting Chinese promises that the Uyghur would live under "self-rule, and that our culture, religion, traditions would be respected and we would run our own affairs."

Crackdowns on the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority of China, became more fierce after the Sept. 11 attacks and the "global war on terrorism," said Kadeer. "Using the label of 'terrorist' since 9/11, the Chinese government has been able to murder tens of thousands," she said.

"Beginning in 2003, the Chinese government implemented a bilingual education policy for kindergarten through college – truly a monolingual Chinese program against constitutional laws," she said.

"Professors and teachers who could not teach in Chinese language were fired and had to pick up janitorial and menial jobs," she said. Those who spoke out were arrested and "in many cases charged as terrorists and executed."

She also said that the Chinese government is "violating its promises not to transfer Chinese settlers in the region" by bringing millions of people into the area "to dilute the culture."

She addressed why the plight of the Uyghur people is not as well known as Tibetans' troubles. The Dalai Lama was able to flee in 1959, she said, and with thousands of monks and other refugees was able to set up an exile government in Dharamsala, India. "The Uyghur political leadership were forced by Stalin to negotiate with Mao Zedong," she said. Its leaders were "killed for refusing to cooperate."

One Stanford student, George Qiao, a doctoral student in history, questioned the presentation as "very one-sided."

"I respect your passion in searching for freedom," Qiao said, "but partial truth is not truth." He suggested the speakers were "demonizing the Chinese government."

Said Samdhong Rinpoche: "I fully agree with the idea presented by the young gentleman for more dialogue. Since 2008, a large number of Chinese people did awake and try to find out the real situation – and we made efforts to reach out."

He called for "more and more intimate dialogue and the dispelling of the misinformation and misconceptions" as "the only way to establish genuine friendship between people who have lived for thousands of years as brothers and sisters, friendly nations and friendly people."

He suggested that, in the age of the Internet, Americans spend 15 minutes a day "reaching out to some Chinese person inside China."