Challenging China: Turkey walks a fine line on repressed Uighurs

An official visit to Xinjiang to assess the fate of Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western Chinese Province is a risky proposition by any definition.

Even so, it would be worth the risk if China and Turkey could agree on the terms of a visit.

The problem is that the terms constitute a zero-sum game.

China wins if it controls the program of a visiting Turkish delegation as it does with whoever else is granted access to a region where in recent years, more than one million Turkic Muslims were reportedly incarcerated in reeducation camps dubbed vocational schools.

“Why would we be a tool of Chinese propaganda?” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu snapped at a recent news conference when asked about a visit to Xinjiang by Turkey’s ambassador in Beijing, Abdulkadir Emin Onen.

“It’s been five years since (Chinese President) Xi (Jinping) proposed this. Why have you been preventing this delegation from visiting for five years? Why don’t you cooperate?” Mr. Cavusoglu said.

The foreign minister conceded that “Turkish-Chinese ties have suffered over Beijing being disturbed by our attitude on the Turkic Uyghurs issue,” including a Turkish refusal to extradite to China Uighurs resident in the country.

China and Turkey started discussing a Turkish visit in 2019. However, the talks were put on ice when China effectively closed to shield the nation from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an indication of the importance, both countries attribute to a possible visit, discussion of the terms restarted within weeks of China’s recent lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

By controlling Mr. Onen’s program, China is seeking to ensure that he walks away from his visit praising the Chinese administration of Xinjiang.

Coming from Turkey, endorsement of China’s effort to Sinicise Islam and turn Uyghur identity into a folk tale would have particular significance.

Turkey has long fashioned itself as the hub of a Turkic world that stretches from the Turkish Diaspora in Western Europe through the Balkans across the Caucasus and Central Asia into Xinjiang and a defender of threatened Muslim communities.

Moreover, Turkey is home to the largest Uighur exile community.

The blue flag of East Turkistan, as Uighurs describe Xinjiang, is banned in China but flies in shop windows and restaurants in Istanbul neighborhoods heavily populated by the ethnic group.

Mr. Cavusoglu’s rare public challenge of China could prove a first test for China’s newly appointed foreign minister, Qin Gang. China has yet to respond to Mr. Cavusloglu.

A former ministry spokesperson, a deputy director-general of its information department, and most recently, ambassador to the United States, Mr. Qin made his name as a pioneer of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy involving confrontational and coercive responses to criticism of the People’s Republic.

Positioning Turkey as unwilling to walk on a Chinese leash, Mr. Cavusloglu is brandishing the nationalist credentials of his ruling Justice and Development or AK Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in advance of a critical election later this year.

With Uighurs on their minds, more than half of Turks polled in multiple surveys over the past two decades express critical and/or negative attitudes towards China.

In one of the latest polls, a survey conducted by the Center for Turkish Studies at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University concluded that only 27 percent view China positively.

Meral Akşener, the leader of the nationalist Iyi or Good Party, one of the opposition parties aligned against the AKP, and Ankara’s mayor Mansur Yavaş, viewed as one of Mr. Erdogan’s potentially most serious challengers, got significant traction on social media for commemorating the 1990 Baren Township Massacre during an armed clash between Uighur militants and Chinese security forces. Twenty-three people are believed to have died in the fighting.

Mr. Erdogan is seeking a third term as president in an election scheduled for June 18, the centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic on the ruins of the Ottoman empire.

Concerned that he could face the most serious challenge to date to his power, Mr. Erdogan uses every trick in the book to ensure that the election goes his way.

Recent polls suggest that the AKP could win less than 30 per cent of the vote.

Challenging China on the Uighurs follows sabre rattling in Syria, where Mr. Erdogan again wants to intervene to subdue Syrian Kurds.

At the same time, Turkey is engaging under Russian auspices with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a bid to open a pathway for the return of up to four million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Anti-migrant sentiment is a major topic in the election campaign.

Mr. Cavusoglu’s refusal to “be a tool of Chinese propaganda” jars with the past acceptance by Turkey’s state-owned news agency, Anadolu Agency, and journalists working for other pro-government media, of Chinese paid and tightly controlled tours of Xinjiang designed to counter allegations of abuse against Turkic Muslims.

Even so, a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that in the absence of much Turkish-language content in Chinese media that target foreign audiences, China “is now assertively developing new strategies to engage with local actors in Turkey.”

The strategy emphasises China’s economic and commercial ties to Turkey at a time when the country is struggling with an inflation rate that peaked at about 80 per cent in 2022 but dropped last month to 64.7 per cent.

It’s a strategy that may work.

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, slated to build Turkey’s 5G network, has four times more Turkish followers on Twitter than the Chinese embassy in Ankara.

Now and then, Turkey reasserts itself as a rare Muslim nation willing to tackle China publicly on the Uighurs. But, by and large, Turkey shines by mainly remaining silent.

In the final analysis, domestic politics, rather than principled concern, determines if and when Turkey takes on China. This year, elections are the driver.

As a result, Uighur exiles fear that their utility is temporary and that they ultimately could be sacrificed on the altar of Turkish-Chinese economic relations.

Said one exile: “Our existence is tenuous. Our space in Turkey is shrinking.”

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