Turkey’s Uyghur Dilemma in the Context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative · Global Voices



Illustration by Giovana Fleck, used with permission

Turkey has traditionally been an ally of the Uyghurs because of its strong linguistic, cultural and religious ties. Yet Ankara’s political and economic alliances with Beijing, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have complicated these historic ties, divided Turkish public opinion, and reshaped Turkey’s official Uyghur policy. during the last years.

Having lost their political independence in the 40s, the roughly 13 million Uyghurs living in western China in Xinjiang province have long viewed Turkey as a cultural and political haven. Turkey has become home to Uyghur businessmen and students, as well as dissidents who have sought refuge to escape persecution and life in internment camps. Today, an estimate 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey to escape the deprivation of their most basic human rights, including freedom of religion, movement and communication in their mother tongue.

Until the early 2010s, the Uyghur cause was widely adopted in Turkish political circles. In 2009, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan described the situation in Xinjiang as “genocideAnd sought to shame China internationally.

A sudden U-turn

But after a sharp economic downturn following a military coup in July 2016, ErdoÄŸan’s tone has changed. The national currency depreciated by 29%, dealing a heavy blow to the economy, as relations with the United States deteriorated and Turkey swapped its parliamentary system for a presidential system in 2018.

The economy has not recovered much since. Rating agencies currently classify Turkey as a high risk country. Over the past three years, capital outflows have outmoded capital inflows. In other words, foreign investors are leaving the Turkish economy for economic or political reasons. While nearly a quarter of Turkish government bonds were held by foreign investors in 2013, they are now hovering around 4%. Foreign direct investment (FDI) also fell. According to the Ministry of Commerce, between 2016 and 2020, total FDI in Turkey increased from US $ 12.18 billion to US $ 6.67 billion. In due course, investors from the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Azerbaijan and Russia all reduced their investments in the country.

China to the rescue: investment and vaccines

As foreign investors abandoned Turkey, China has become an important player. Shortly after the 2018 currency crisis, China granted Turkey a loan of US $ 3.6 billion for use in the energy and transportation sectors. Since then, the country has lent an additional $ 6.6 billion to strengthen economic and business ventures between the two countries.

As economic ties strengthened, Turkey’s policies on the treatment of Uyghurs in China weakened. More specifically, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt ÇavuÅŸoÄŸlu made a statement in 2017, assuring its Chinese counterparts that Turkey would not tolerate criticism of China, marking a shift in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) policies regarding Uyghurs.

We will absolutely not allow any activity in Turkey aimed at or opposing China. In addition, we will take steps to eliminate any media reporting targeting China.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

The last time Turkish authorities criticized the mistreatment of Uyghurs was in February 2019. In a written statementTurkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said, “More than one million Uyghur Turks arbitrarily arrested are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons. Uyghurs who are not detained in these camps are under great pressure. The Chinese government’s response was swift. Chinese Ambassador to Turkey Deng Li has “warned” Turkey that such statements annoy Chinese investors and that if Turkey continues its criticism, they will inevitably jeopardize bilateral economic relations.

In 2017, Turkey signed an extradition treaty with China during President Erdogan’s visit to Beijing. The agreement consists of 22 articles and requires Turkey to extradite to China anyone wanted on criminal charges. Although China ratified the treaty in December 2020, Turkey has yet to do so. The Turkish parliament received the document in 2019. Numerous have bound the delay in ratifying the treaty with China, failing to deliver the promised 100 million doses of products made in China Vaccines against covid-19.

But China is known to get what it wants with its economic coercion policy punish countries that criticize its policies – and Turkey is no exception. It was therefore not at all surprising to hear ErdoÄŸan speak fondly of China during his meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing in July 2019.

According to Chinese media reports ErdoÄŸan thanked “China’s prosperity” for ensuring “a happy life” for “residents of various ethnicities living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The Turkish president also underlined Turkey’s opposition to extremism and its willingness to increase mutual political trust and strengthen security cooperation with China. He also assured China that Turkey will not allow anti-Chinese activities in Turkey. In response, President Xi expressed China’s appreciation for Turkey’s position and thanked ErdoÄŸan for assuring that no power in Turkey would be allowed to take separatist action against China. The final proof of this assurance is the exclusion order. presented by Turkey to Uyghur World Congress President Dolkun Isa on September 9, 2021. Despite a September 7 court order stating that Isa should be allowed, Turkey banned Isa from entering the country on September 19, 2021. September.

However, the AKP’s turn on China is not widely supported. According to a MetroPOLL survey from May 2021, 53.2% of those polled said they did not think the government was adequately responding to China on the treatment of Uyghurs.

In addition to the public backlash, opposition leaders also criticized the ruling government’s silence on Uyghurs – a narrative the ruling party has struggled to control. In April 2021, when President of the Good Party (Ä°YÄ° Parti) Meral AkÅŸener tweeted its support for East Turkestan, the Chinese Embassy in Ankara tweeted in reply, “The Chinese side resolutely opposes and strongly condemns any challenge by any person or power to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. The Chinese side reserves the right to a legitimate response. ”

Although according to To Turkish media, Ankara summoned Chinese ambassador to tweet, Turkish Foreign Ministry does not have issue a press release about the convocation. While the ruling party has remained silent, on Twitter the response has been different.

Journalist Gökhan Özbek, wrote:

Know your place! / This country is not a colony./And you are not the colonial governor to be snubbed! You cannot implicitly threaten a single citizen of this country! Stay in the diplomatic rules! / Don’t target anyone in Turkey! “

Another Twitter user wrote:

China threatens and targets Meral AkÅŸener and Mansur YavaÅŸ, who have defended the Uyghur Turks. A diplomatic note should be given to China, and Chinese Embassy staff should be declared persona non grata.

So far, joining the AKP’s silence is its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The sudden shift in narrative about the plight of Uyghurs living in Turkey and their treatment in China, in return for economic incentives from Beijing, is indicative of the AKP government’s priorities and its willingness to control media discourse to impose narratives that best suit their policy. interest of the day.

This story is part of a Civic Media Observatory investigates competing narratives of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and explores how societies and communities have different perceptions of the potential pros and cons of China-led development. To learn more about this project and its methods, Click here.



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