Turkey has traditionally been an ally of the Uyghurs due to strong linguistic, cultural, and religious ties.
Yet, in recent years, Ankara’s alliance with Beijing, including its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have complicated these bonds, divided public opinion, and reshaped Turkey’s policy regarding the Uyghurs.
Having lost their political independence in the 1940s, the nearly 13 million Uyghur people living in western China’s Xinjiang province have long considered Turkey a cultural and political haven.
Turkey has become a home to Uyghur businessmen and students, as well as dissidents who have sought refuge to escape persecution and life in internment camps.
Today, an estimated 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey, fleeing the Beijing-orchestrated deprivation of their most basic human rights, including freedom of religion, of movement and of communicating in their native language.
Until the early 2010s, the Uyghur cause was widely embraced in Turkish political circles. In 2009, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, described the situation in Xinjiang as a “genocide” and sought to shame China internationally.
A Sudden U-Turn
But following a sharp economic decline in the aftermath of a military coup in July 2016, Erdoğan’s tone changed.
While nearly a quarter of Turkey’s government bonds were held by foreign investors in 2013, today it is around 4 per cent. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has also dropped.
According to the Ministry of Trade, from 2016–2020, total FDI in Turkey dropped from $12.18 billion to $6.67 billion.
In due course, investors from the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Azerbaijan, and Russia all reduced their investment in the country.
China to the Rescue
As foreign investors fled Turkey, China stepped in as an important player.
Shortly after the currency crisis in 2018, Beijing provided Turkey with a $3.6 billion loan, to be used in the energy and transportation sectors.
Since then, Beijing has loaned an additional $6.6 billion to strengthen economic and commercial ventures between the two countries.
As ties strengthened, Turkey’s policies on the treatment of Uyghurs in China weakened.
Most notably, in 2017, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu assured his Chinese counterparts that Turkey would not tolerate criticism of Beijing, marking a shift in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policies regarding the Uyghurs:
“We absolutely will not allow in Turkey any activities targeting or opposing China. Additionally, we will take measures to eliminate any media reports targeting China,” Çavuşoğlu stated.
The last time Turkish authorities criticised the mistreatment of Uyghurs was in February 2019.
In a written statement, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hami Aksoy said:
“More than one million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons. Uyghurs who are not detained in these camps are under heavy pressure.”
The response from the Chinese government was swift.
Ambassador Deng Li “warned” Turkey that such statements disturb Chinese investors and if Turkey continues its criticism, it would inevitably jeopardise bilateral economic relations.
In 2017, Turkey signed an extradition treaty with China during President Erdoğan’s visit to Beijing. The agreement consists of 22 articles and obligates Turkey to extradite anyone wanted on criminal charges to China.
Although China ratified the treaty in December 2020, Turkey is yet to do so.
But Beijing is notorious for getting what it wants through its policy of economically punishing countries who criticise it. Turkey is no exception.
Thus, it was not at all surprising to hear Erdoğan speak fondly of China during his meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing in July 2019.
According to reports in Chinese media, an obviously humbled Erdoğan thanked “China’s prosperity” for ensuring the “happy lives” of “residents of various ethnicities living in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”
The Turkish president also emphasised his opposition to extremism and willingness to increase mutual political trust and strengthen security cooperation with China.
Erdoğan assured Beijing that Turkey won’t allow anti-Chinese activities on its territory.
In response, President Xi expressed his appreciation of Turkey’s position and thanked Erdoğan for assuring that no power in Turkey would be allowed to take separatist action against China.
The final show of this assurance was the exclusion order that Turkey presented to the President of World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa on 9 September, 2021.
However, the AKP’s U-turn on China is not widely supported. According to a MetroPOLL survey conducted in May, 53.2 per cent of respondents said that they did not think the government was responding adequately to China over its treatment of Uyghurs.
In addition to public response, the opposition leaders have also voiced criticised the ruling government’s silence on Uyghurs — a narrative the ruling party has had a hard time controlling.
“The Chinese side resolutely opposes and strongly condemns any challenge by any person or power to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Chinese side reserves its right to a rightful response.”
While the ruling party kept it quiet, on Twitter, the response was different.
Journalist Gökhan Özbek, wrote:
Bu ülke sömürge değil.
Ve siz de had bildirecek sömürge valisi değilsiniz!
Siz bu ülkede tek bir yurttaşı üstü kapalı tehdit edemezsiniz!
Diplomatik kurallar içinde kalınız!
Kimseyi Türkiye’de hedef göstermeyiniz!
— Gökhan ÖZBEK (@gokhanozbek) April 6, 2021
Translation: Know your place!/This country is not a colony./And you are not the colonial governor to snub! You cannot implicitly threaten a single citizen in this country! Stay within diplomatic rules!/Do not target anyone in Turkey!
Another Twitter user wrote:
Çin , Uygur Türklerini savunan Meral Akşener ve Mansur Yavaş’ı tehdit edip hedef göstermektedir.
Çin’e nota verilmeli ve Çin Büyükelçiliği çalışanları istenmeyen adam ilan edilmelidir. pic.twitter.com/mK2FGxe6T2
— KABAÇ HATUN (yine Emevi-Arap zihniyetine karşıyız) (@KabacHatun) April 6, 2021
Translation: China threatens and targets Meral Akşener and Mansur Yavaş, who defended the Uyghur Turks. A diplomatic note should be given to China and the 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 government’s sudden change over the plight of the Uyghurs is indicative of the AKP’s flexibility in exchange for Chinese incentives.
The significance of Ankara’s willingness to accommodate Beijing cannot be overstated. Without Turkey, it’s hard to imagine who the Uyghurs can turn to.
This story is part of a Civic Media Observatory investigation into competing narratives about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and explores how societies and communities hold differing perceptions of potential benefits and harms of Chinese-led development. To learn more about this project and its methods, click here.