Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have threatened to close a retail building owned by exiled Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer on grounds it poses a fire hazard, in what the Kadeer family describe as retaliation for her criticism of Beijing.
An order published in the Xinjiang Economic Daily newspaper in April said the Urumqi municipal fire department had named the Rebiya Kadeer Trading Hall as one of nine local buildings on a fire hazard blacklist—saying it had been on the list for three years.
The fire department wants the building closed, the newspaper said. The order came one day after Kadeer testified before the U.S. Congress on deteriorating human rights conditions in Xinjiang.
Contacted in Germany, where she traveled immediately after her testimony, Kadeer said some 2,000 ethnic Uyghurs in Urumqi were occupying retail space in the building.
“About 10,000 people depend on the trading hall business for their livelihoods,” she said.
The buildings owned by the Chinese also have similar problems. Ours is not the only one. But they have been constantly giving warnings to us.
“In 1996, I spent 700,000 yuan (U.S.$90,000) on new fire safety equipment. Two months ago, the government regional policy-making body sent four policemen to the Trading Hall to collect nine million yuan (U.S.$1 million) for better fire equipment.”
“This order came immediately after my testimony in the U.S. Congress—it’s revenge for my activities in the United States, and it’s totally unacceptable,” she said.
An officer at the Urumqi municipal fire department said the building had failed fire inspections for the last three to four years, but the officer declined to give further details.
Nationwide, China has a detailed fire safety regime, but implementation is highly elastic and varies according to the priorities of local governments.
Overall, industrial safety still lags far behind the standard expected in developed economies, and major fires with large numbers of fatalities are still commonplace.
An official who answered the phone at the Urumqi municipal police station said reports that the Rebiya Kadeer Commerce Building would close were based on rumors. “You shouldn’t believe that. There’s no such thing,” he told Uyghur service reporter Guljekre.
Local residents said the building was home to large numbers of merchants, who depended on it for a living.
"There are rumors floating around on the street. However, I have not heard anything from the administration about it,” one Uyghur businessman who uses the trading hall said.
“They told us the fire protection facilities are not working properly. And the security exits are not well placed. If there is a fire the people inside will have a hard time getting out of the building. That is what they say,” he said.
“Probably people will complain. Where are they going to move the merchants? They do it for a living.”
Kadeer’s daughter Ruqiya, who handles the building on behalf of her mother, said police had promised that the building would not be closed down after she threatened a protest, citing discriminatory implementation of fire rules.
“Our building is not the only building whose emergency exits are blocked by stall sellers,” she said.
“The buildings owned by the Chinese also have similar problems. Ours is not the only one. But they have been constantly giving warnings to us.”
Original reporting in Uyghur by Guljekre. RFA Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.