The Uyghur Tragedy: An Embarrassment for Turkey

An ethnic group close to the Turks through religion, language and ethnicity, the Uighurs of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region are subjected to fierce and systematic repression which, with almost international indifference, has already placed more than one million of its members in “re-education camps”. Even Turkey seems to be abandoning them.

Uyghurs gathered in front of Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque for Eid El-Fitr
Preston Rhea/Flickr (2010)

The Uyghurs of Eastern Turkestan, an autonomous region in the Chinese province of Sin-Kiang, have much in common with the Turks: same religion, language and ethnicity. They are subject to a ferocious and systematic repression to which the rest of the world is practically indifferent. There are already more than a million internees in “re-education camps” about which practically nothing is known and whose name can scarcely hide a similarity with a notorious past.

Even Turkey, traditional champion of Turkish-speaking peoples generally and the Uyghurs in particular, except for rarely voiced and practically inaudible criticisms, has kept silent with regard to this atrocious State repression. An economic realpolitik and pragmatic geopolitical policy have led to this “abandonment.” The economic ties linking China and Turkey grow stronger by the day and have inverse consequences on Ankara’s independence. But this economic dependence is not the whole story. Having to a certain extent broken with the West, Turkey has become the friend and ally of strong authoritarian regimes and is drawing bitter criticism from its traditional allies, although often enough these let themselves be tempted by populist and demagogic policies.

A Colonising Process

For a long time the Turkish-Islamic Uyghurs were in the majority in Eastern Turkestan, renamed Xinjiang (“new frontier”) by the Beijing regime in 1949. Today they are a small, marginalised minority by reason of an aggressive colonisation by Han Chinese from other parts of the country. The very relative and theoretical autonomy originally granted them by the Communist power structure has been continually gutted ever since. Colonisation has proceeded at such a pace that in a big city like Urumqi, the region’s capital, Uyghurs now represent only 20% of the population and these are rapidly on their way to sinisation.

The Chinese policies of assimilation and marginalisation have prompted several uprisings: Baren, in 1990, Urumqi in July 2009 and more recently, in 2015, in several other cities of the autonomous region. Indeed, since the fall of the former Soviet Union, the Turkish-speaking countries of Central Asia have all gained their independence and become a model for the Uyghur separatist movement. Communitarian awareness has developed in an attempt to resist Chinese pressures, but there is little room for action and the independence impulse remains weak. Most Uyghur organisations merely demand respect for their autonomy as defined in the Chinese Constitution, as well as an end to colonisation and to the discriminations and oppression to which the Uyghurs are subjected. Indeed, many of their elementary rights are trampled on: repression of protests and expressions of their culture, curtailments of their religious freedom and above all a daily individual and collective intimidation and humiliation.

Repression and radicalisation

Chinese intransigence has already driven some dissidents to radicalise their positions. Among them, there are those who have embraced the Jihad in its Syrian or Afghan versions as a form of resistance to foreign invasion, thereby providing Beijing with a pretext, widely acceptable throughout the world, for legitimising and pursuing its policies of mass repression. This connection, tenuous and insignificant though it is, between a portion of the Uyghur resistance and the international jihadi phenomenon, is a windfall for China since it makes it possible to demonise the protestors as dangerous radical extremists and belittle their demands.

Sadly these repressive policies, which tend to conceal plain and simple oppression, have assumed extreme proportions with the internment of over a million people in “re-education camps,” which some go so far as to call “concentration camps.” The existence of these camps has been proven by a UN commission but international protests have been too feeble to worry Beijing and put an end to this injustice. Turkey has been among the few countries to have officially expressed its disapproval, but not firmly enough to satisfy the Uyghurs who expected greater support from their Turkish brethren. Turkey’s backing would have had a different, special weight.

Ottoman legacy

Paradoxically, as heir to the Ottoman Empire, the modern secular republic of Turkey still feels vested with an international diplomatic role of protector and host country for troubled Muslim populations in neighbouring States. And indeed, throughout its modern history, Turkey has on several occasions displayed concern for its persecuted Turkish-Muslim brethren. In 1974, the plight of the Turkish minority on the isle of Cyprus prompted an intervention by the Turkish army. Similarly, the fate of the Turkish minorities in Bulgaria and Greece has often been a bone of contention between Turkey and its neighbours.

Beginning in 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, Turkey’s concern and concrete material assistance were no longer confined to the Turkic minorities close at hand but extended to suffering Muslim populations as far away as the Rohingyas in South-East Asia. More recently the Palestinian cause, the plight of the Turkish-speaking Tatars in Crimea, but also that of the Turkmens in Syria and Iraq have benefited from Turkey’s special attention. These initiatives, this ethical commitment, are part of the Ottoman legacy but are not devoid of ulterior diplomatic and geopolitical motives. However, while they are indeed meant to develop Turkey’s prestige and legitimacy on the international scene, they have the advantage of providing moral support and concrete aid to oppressed peoples.

“Family Solidarity”

Exactly what role do the Uyghurs play in this Turkish policy of “family solidarity?” Long before the Republic, the Ottoman Empire had many exchanges with the Uyghurs in China. At the head of the emirate—a Chinese protectorate from 1864 to 1877—the Khan Yakub Bey reigned over a good share of present-day Uyghur territory and was on good terms with the Ottoman Sultans. In fact, to strengthen his fragile emirate, Yakub Bey requested the empire’s protection or even suzerainty. He was turned down because the Ottoman empire was in decline and already lacked the means to have that kind of political influence thousands of kilometres from its centre. With the advent of the Republic, the interest in the Uyghur issue declined.

And yet one of the paradoxical aspects of Mustafa Kemal’s Republic was that while brandishing a Turkish nationalism centred on Anatolia, it maintained a certain interest for “Turks abroad,” in particular for the ancient Turks of Central Asia. For this reason, Atatürk decided there should be a department of Chinese studies created in Ankara. True, the scholars there studied and documented the history of the ancient Turks, but one consequence of this initiative was to stimulate in Turkey research on the Uyghur question.

When Mao Zedong and his comrades took power in China, a new chapter began in the history of the Uyghurs. By establishing a stronger and more constrictive power structure, limiting the rights and freedom of the oppressed and marginalised minorities, the Communist regime drove several thousand people into exile. Thus, in the years that followed the establishment of the Communist power structure in 1949, many Uyghurs chose to make their way to Turkey where they settled with the help of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Among them were two eminent figures in the National Uyghur movement, Issa Youssouf Aptekin and Mehmet Emin Bugra. Thus there developed in Turkey, very early on, a small Uyghur diaspora, whose number gradually increased as the repression in China grew more brutal.

More than the official Turkish governments, it has mostly been the many foundations, associations and circles of nationalist or pan-Islamic intellectuals who have organised the reception and support of this exiled community, mostly settled in Istanbul but also in other cities such as Kayseri and Antakya. At the same time, in their great majority, the successive Turkish governments have more or less discreetly shown solidarity with the Uyghurs and provided them with explicit support. Thus, Suleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal, both successively Premier and President of the Republic in the eighties and nineties, did on several occasions have talks with the leader of the Uyghur community, Issa Youssouf Aptekin. And in 1995, on the historic Blue Mosque square in Istanbul, a park was inaugurated as a memorial to the latter.

“A near-genocide”

In 2009, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went a step further, severely criticising the Chinese repression of the Uyghurs, using the expression “near-genocide.” His declaration, which greatly annoyed the Chinese authorities—almost caused a break in the relations between the two countries. However, scarcely a year later, that mini-crisis did not prevent the signature of a strategic partnership between them. Indeed, despite the strong empathy felt by the Turkish government and public opinion for the Uyghur cause, actual Turkish assistance to their brethren is increasingly restricted and tends more and more to take the form of rhetorical stands. Thus, while news of the extent of the repression in China becomes more alarming by the day, despite extensive media coverage and an official declaration qualifying the Chinese policy as “a disgrace for humanity”, the voice of Turkey remains inaudible.

And if additional proof were needed that Turkey really has no wish to rile its Chinese partner, Ankara has more than once distanced itself from the Uyghur asssociations operating in Turkey. Thus, during the summer of 2019, the Turkish authorities decided to send back several thousand illegal immigrants. Among them was a whole Uyghur family, deported to Tajikistan whence it was extradited to China where the mother was immediately gaoled. Today, on the great scales of cynicism, Turkish-Uyghur camaraderie is largely outweighed by political, security and economic considerations between Turkey and China.

Abandonment or moderation?

If we are to believe the champions of the Uyghur cause in Turkey and across the world, we get the feeling that the Turks have dissociated themselves from their Turkish-speaking brethren and left them to their sad fate. However this feeling is belied to some extent by long-term actions conducted by Turkey. Ankara has not abandoned its support, merely toned it down. It cannot afford a deterioration of its relations with China for this would utterly destroy Turkish influence, including as regards the Uyghur question. It is a delicate balance, difficult to maintain. Until 1997, it is true, Turkey supported the Uyghur cause more openly, even expressing publicly its sympathy for the separatist fringes. Ankara could afford such a position so long as it had limited economic relations with China. On the other hand, as China gradually asserted itself on the international scene, and an increasingly open Turkish economy benefited from the bilateral relationship, Turkish policy with regard to the Uyghur cause was durably affected. What had once been a historical stance of unconditional support became one of benevolent pragmatism in its relations with Beijing. Thus the pragmatic factors which have forced Turkey to temper and put into perspective its support for the Uyghur cause are of different sorts.

Needless to say, the economy takes precedence over humanitarian considerations. In recent years, the Turkish economy has profited by the new Chinese markets, just as it needs direct Chinese investments in its own economy. These exchanges are heavily imbalanced in China’s favour and hamper Turkey’s economic sovereignty. The country finds itself woven into the meshes of the new Chinese strategy dubbed “belt and road project’s (or new silk route) determining its new policy of openness to the world. The importance of this initiative for Turkey was shown by the fact that President Erdoğan in person attended its inaugural forum in May 2017. In the eyes of the Turkish power structure, the recently completed Bakou-Tbilissi-Kars railway, three Bosphorus bridges and the new Istanbul airport are elements of this new silk road. Also, the fact that it has had to diversify its economic partners in view of the cooling of its relations with its traditional allies, Europe and the United States, Turkey cannot afford any sharp criticisms of China’s policies towards the Uyghurs, close though these are by blood and by religion.

The quest for new allies

For the fact is—and this is the basic lesson to be drawn from the Uyghur syndrome—Turkey has, in recent years, revised its fundamental values. To a certain extent it has called into question its determination to strengthen its ties with the West and moved closer to authoritarian countries like Russia, China, or Iran to name only those of immediate importance to its vital interests. On bad terms today with its traditional allies and having practically broken with the USA, Turkey must make up for this situation and can no longer afford to keep its distance from China or Russia, even if these countries ill-treat ethnic groups which are close to it like the Crimean Tatars or the Uyghurs.

Isolated on the international scene, having been the object of US economic and other sanctions following the imprisonment of the evangelist Andrew Brunson, accused of ‟ terrorism,” Turkey needs more than ever-new supporters and partners elsewhere, especially by moving the cursor eastward where China’s radiating economic vitality is concentrated. The fact that Turkey has adopted its authoritarian language does not come as a surprise, any more than do the cooperation agreements that have been signed, be they political, economic, or even military as was shown by the recent purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia. In 2012, Turkey was discussing a purchase of similar missiles from China. Ankara finally opted for the Russian offer, but is still very interested in military cooperation with China, which confirms a rebuff of NATO and its Western “allies.”

Thus the caution displayed by Turkey in its policy of solidarity with the Uyghurs is also explained by its distrust of the Chinese arguments legitimising their repression of so-called Uyghur Jihadism. For while such small groups do exist and are indeed active, their link with the separatist movement and their dimensions are considerably exaggerated by Beijing. Unfortunately, the fact that there are Uyghur groups fighting on the ground in Syria has tended to discredit the Uyghur cause and deplete its capital of sympathy and empathy. There have been no reports of Uyghur Jihadists returning from Syria to imperil the security of Chinese cities, but Chinese propaganda does not shrink from this kind of misleading conflation. For Turkey, itself already accused of a lax attitude towards the jihadist phenomenon in Syria, it has become hard to defend the Uyghur cause without appearing to justify Uyghur radicalism in China.

Translated from French by Noël Burch.