- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that Uighurs – the Muslim ethnic minority under oppression by the Chinese government – actually lead happy lives in China, Chinese state-media reported.
- This apparent capitulation is particularly significant because Turkey, until now, had been the only Muslim country to stand up against China for the Uighurs.
- Turkey is also home to h undreds of thousands of Uighurs. Many of them already live in limbo without work permits or legal residency, and unable to return to China.
- The reason behind Erdogan’s about-face is not clear. He has, however, been trying to strike greater economic partnerships with Beijing.
- Turkey – whose currency collapsed, and whose economy went into recession last year – has grown increasingly reliant on Chinese economic aid in recent years.
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In recent months, a wave of Islamic countries stood up to China over its oppression of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority before backing down again, largely due to fear of Beijing’s economic vengeance.
Turkey – which bills itself as a leader of the Islamic world – is the latest country to retreat into silence.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out against China’s oppression of the Uighurs on numerous past occasions, but this week he gave his implicit support to China’s policies in Xinjiang during a state visit to the country.
“It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity,” Erdogan said on Tuesday, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported, paraphrasing the Turkish president.
He added that some people were seeking to “abuse” the Xinjiang crisis to jeopardize Turkey and China’s economic relationship, saying according to Agence France-Presse.
“This abuse is having a negative impact on Turkish-Chinese relations. It is necessary that we do not give opportunity to such abuse.”
China has installed a modern surveillance state in Xinjiang. Uighurs in the region are forced to download malware that sweeps their phones for content unsavoury to the Chinese regime, and authorities have detained up to 1.5 million of them in prison-like camps where people are reportedly tortured.
Until now, Turkey had been the only Islamic country that dared speak up for the Uighurs.
It has also offered a safe haven to the community. Many members of the Uighur diaspora have moved there in recent decades, enticed by the similarities between the Turkish and Uighur languages and cultures.
Turkey is currently home to some 35,000 Uighurs, Reuters reported this March, citing the Istanbul-based East Turkestan National Center.
That number includes many former detainees in China’s prison-like camps, where guards reportedly force Uighur inmates to sing patriotic hymns in order to get food, and subject them to physical and mental torture.
Many Uighurs in Turkey still have relatives living in Xinjiang, and regularly stage large-scale protests calling for the release of their loved ones.
Erdogan himself has previously been a prominent voice for the Uighurs. Here’s his record:
- In 2009, then-Prime Minister Erdogan described ethnic violence in Xinjiang as “a kind of genocide.”
- In 2015, President Erdogan’s government openly offered to offer shelter to Uighur refugees.
- In February 2019, Turkey’s foreign ministry condemned China’s “reintroduction of internment camps in the 21st century.” It went on to describe China’s “policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks” as “a great shame for humanity.”
February’s statement came in response to widespread protests in Turkey over the reported death of Abdurehim Heyit, a Chinese Uighur poet and musician well known among Turks.
Beijing also temporarily closed a consulate in Izmir, western Turkey, with Chinese ambassador to Turkey Deng Li telling Reuters: “Criticising your friend publicly … will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.”
Why has Erdogan changed his tune?
Ankara has been trying to join President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to link China to dozens of countries through infrastructure. The project has seen Chinese investment flow into developing countries, and critics have described the initiative as “debt-trap diplomacy.”
Turkey may also want to become closer to China militarily, having bristled with the US over its arms programs and foreign policy.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – a 57-country consortium that calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world” – followed a similar pattern of speaking up, then rowing back their comments about Xinjiang.
Experts told Business Insider earlier this year that this behaviour could be the result of Chinese threats against the countries if they do speak up.
Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher into the Xinjiang surveillance state, tweeted after Erdogan’s visit to Beijing: “I guess the Muslim world’s actual care for their spiritual brothers is essentially zero.”
Uighurs in Turkey left in limbo
Without those Chinese passports, they cannot file for work permits or legal residency in Turkey. This effectively renders them stateless, which precludes them from finding work, both outlets reported.
For this reason many Uighurs in the country are unemployed. Those who find jobs are forced to take informal, cash-based work, Deutsche Welle noted.
Erdogan’s conspicuous silence in Beijing is making Uighurs even more uncertain about their future.
Alip Erkin, an activist who runs the Uyghur Bulletin network, told Business Insider: “Wary of growing Chinese economic influence in Turkey and its increasingly cosy relations with China, Uighurs fear for even more restrictions on political activities and media coverage of what is going on in East Turkestan.”
Many Uighurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan. Uyghur is an alternative spelling.
“Lasting uncertainty of legal status is forcing them to seek permanent resettlement elsewhere through various official and unofficial means,” Erkin said.
‘A delicate balancing act’
The fate of Uighurs in Turkey remains unclear, but they haven’t lost all hope yet.
Ankara has sent mixed messages to the Uighur diaspora in recent weeks, with the government granting over 146,000 residence permits to Uighurs from China, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan in a gesture of support just five weeks ago.
“You don’t need to worry,” Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu told an audience on the day, referring to Uighurs, according to Hurriyet Daily News. He went on to say that the country will do all it can to ensure Uighurs “reach tomorrow as citizens of the Republic of Turkey.”
Erkin called this “a reassuring message to Uighurs living” in Turkey. He added that the contrast between Soylu’s support and Erdogan’s apparent kowtowing to Beijing is “a delicate balancing act on the part of Turkey.”
Business Insider has contacted Turkey’s foreign ministry for comment on whether Turkey would change its policies toward Uighurs’ path to Turkish citizenship.