Turkey is home to the largest Uyghur diaspora in the world. The Muslim minority group, which is persecuted in China, sees the Turks as “cousins”. But as the country’s economy grows increasingly dependent on Beijing, Erdogan is holding his tongue about human rights abuses — and he is not alone.
ISTANBUL — Omer Faruk is a serious-looking man. He stands very straight and speaks clearly. The 32-year-old Uyghur has laid out photos in front of him – his mother in her wheelchair and baby pictures of two of his daughters.
For a few years now, Faruk has run his own bookshop for Uyghur literature in Istanbul. In 2016, along with his wife and two older children, he fled oppression and violence in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Over many years, the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have imprisoned tens of thousands of people from the Muslim minority group in so-called “re-education camps”, where torture and brainwashing are common.
Eventually, Faruk and his family could not bear to stay any longer, so they fled to Turkey, leaving the two youngest children behind in China with their grandparents. Since then, they have lost all contact.
Turkey is home to largest Uyghur diaspora
The neighborhood of Sefaköy lies in the west of Istanbul, near the now-closed Atatürk Airport, and it is here that most of the 50,000 or so Uyghurs in Turkey’s capital city live.
They represent the largest Uyghur diaspora in the world. The community has strong cultural, linguistic and historical links to Turkey. They often refer to the Turks as “cousins”.
Even in Xinjiang, until a few years ago, people’s eyes would light up when you mentioned Turkey, as if it were an older brother who had gone abroad and done well for himself, gaining wealth, strength and security.
But in reality, the situation for the Uyghur minority living in Turkey today is tense. They have support from the nationalist “Iyi Parti” (“The Good Party”) and their leader Meral Aksener.
But the ruling party, the AKP, does not want to risk relations with its strategic partner China. In 2016, Ankara extradited the Uyghur activist Abdulkadir Yapcan to Beijing. In 2017, Turkey and China signed a readmission agreement, although it has not yet been ratified by the Turkish parliament.
Up until now, there has been little sign of movement on this, perhaps because it would provoke outcry among the nationalist circles in both parliament and the general public. The nationalist parties still enjoy around 15% of the vote and exert considerable influence over the secular CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party.
Erdogan is treading carefully
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likes to portray himself as a defender of all Muslims, but he is treading carefully in his relations with Beijing. That has not always been the case: In 2009, when the Communist party brutally suppressed an uprising in Xinjiang, Erdogan accused Beijing of “a kind of genocide”.
There is a reason why the former “defender” – and the rest of the Islamic world – are keeping silent over current human rights abuses in the region: Erdogan has alienated the rest of Europe and made his country increasingly dependent on Chinese money. While most direct investment in the country still comes from the EU, Beijing’s influence is steadily growing. At the height of the pandemic, China donated 50 million Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines.
Erodgan likes to portray himself as a defender of all Muslims, but he is treading carefully in his relations with Beijing.
Since 2016, the two states have signed ten bilateral agreements. There are around 1,000 Chinese companies trading in Turkey. Erdogan is also hoping that Beijing will help with the country’s struggling currency. Rather than implementing a strict interest rate policy, he is pinning all his hopes on a large influx of capital from abroad.
Ideally that would take the form of direct investment in factories and infrastructure projects, which would lead to greater economic growth, or tourists spending foreign currency in Turkey. In the short term, a significant chunk of cash would also help, such as when Qatar – one of Turkey’s few remaining allies – gave it 15 billion dollars in 2018, stabilizing the lira for a time.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China.
Middle East turning closer to China
As early as March 2021, the magazine Foreign Policy reported that Erdogan was already committed to greater reliance on China. The article claimed that Turkey was now an authoritarian country, which made it much closer to China than to the liberal democracies it had earlier sought to ally itself with.
The Communist Party of China is actively seeking to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. The currency swap agreement introduced in June 2020, which “allowed” Turkish companies to settle payments for Chinese imports using the yuan, was the first step of a larger, long-term plan to reduce the dominance of the dollar. Every direct currency swap with China that does not use dollars as an intermediary currency is a win for Beijing. It was an attractive offer for Turkish companies caught up in a currency crisis.
Chinese companies have been involved in infrastructure projects such as the cargo port Kumport in Istanbul, the Third Bosphorus Bridge, a new coal power station on the Mediterranean coast and the country’s (as yet unfinished) third nuclear reactor. Telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE are also flourishing in Turkey. While Huawei has been criticized for its poor security in the West, in Turkey its market share is over 30%.
The lucrative Belt and Road Initiative – also known as the New Silk Road – is another reason why not only Turkey, but also many other Muslim states, are keeping silent about the Uyghur genocide. This new trade network incorporates almost the entirety of the Middle East, giving Beijing access to markets across Central Asia, Europe and Africa. In Pakistan, which has been a close ally for decades, China is building a deep water sea port in Gwadar on the Indian Ocean, while the highway over the Karakoram mountain range was intended to promote trade between the two countries.
In Iran, Chinese companies and products have long been market leaders. Unlike the West, Beijing did not introduce sanctions against the mullah regime, so China filled the gap left behind the European companies.
For many countries in the region, China has long been their most important trade partner. Saudi Arabia sells 25% of its oil to China, and may soon start paying for this in yuan. In 2021 alone, Beijing invested more than 10 billion in energy projects in Iraq. Since 2018, it has invested 18 billion dollars in the special economic area around the Suez Canal in Egypt.
It’s unclear whether this investment from Beijing comes with the explicit condition that these countries remain silent over the fate of the Uyghur people.
But neither the Saudis – the guardians of Islam’s holiest sites – nor any other Muslim leader has addressed the human rights abuses. Since 2017, all these states have imprisoned hundreds of Uyghur people and secretly extradited them to China. With that in mind, Turkey might be the safest option for those fleeing persecution.
“Most governments in the Islamic world are not interested,” says anthropologist Adrian Zenz, who has studied numerous aspects of the cultural genocide perpetrated against the Uyghur community. “The Uyghurs are seen as a fringe group, partly because they follow a syncretic version of Islam. And Beijing puts a lot of economic pressure on many governments.”
Neither the Saudis nor any other Muslim leader has addressed the human rights abuses.
However, Zenz believes Turkey’s approach is shameful. “Erdogan wants to keep the possibility of a strategic partnership with China open, as he has increasingly alienated Western democracies,” he says.
Omer Faruk has had some good news: He and his wife have been granted Turkish citizenship.
That means they cannot be deported. It gives them a degree of protection, but will not help Faruk see his two youngest daughters again. It has been five years since he last saw them. According to Adrian Zenz’s research, in this time period more than 880,000 children have been sent to orphanages and boarding schools in Xinjiang.
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