Turkey remains silent as world rallies around Uighurs
A wave of global support has emerged in recent weeks for the persecuted Uighur people in China’s western Xinjiang province, but this momentum has yet to inspire any Muslim majority country, including supposed Uighur ally Turkey, to denounce Beijing’s Uighur crackdown, which some describe as genocide.
On Tuesday the BBC published video and text messages sent by Uighur model and activist Merdan Ghappar from inside one of the Xinjiang camps, providing detailed visual evidence of how China is forcing as many as two million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities to relinquish their culture and religion. It is the largest mass internment of an ethnic group since World War II, and escaped detainees have reported everything from being forced to eat pork to rape and torture.
Denunciations of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang have been ubiquitous since a late June Associated Press report found the Chinese government has been forcing sterilisation and abortion on Uighur women as part of a campaign that has slashed birth rates in some areas by 60 percent.
Talk show host John Oliver dedicated a late July episode of his HBO series to the Uighurs, calling on the United Nations and Western governments to do more. It has drawn some 6.5 million views on YouTube alone. France’s foreign minister described the situation in Xinjiang as unacceptable, and European parliamentarians called on the European Union to issue sanctions against Beijing for its Xinjiang policies, as the Guardian did for the British government.
Last month reports emerged that hundreds of thousands of detained Uighurs had been forced into labour, making products for top companies like Nike and Volkswagen and leading fashion brands. These companies are now facing pressure to ensure no forced Uighur labourers are involved in production; U.S. Congress last week introduced the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act. Also last week, the Trump administration levied sanctions against the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which oversees the camps, and two former top XPCC officials.
Dolkun Isa is president of the World Uighur Congress, the leading international organisation fighting for the rights of Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people originally from Xinjiang, or East Turkestan. He called for more pressure on Beijing.
“We have seen some positives from the international community,” he told Ahval in a podcast, pointing to the U.S. sanctions and its economic blacklist of nearly 50 Chinese companies. “But still so many countries support China’s policy. Still so many countries are silent, particularly Muslim countries.”
China’s Communist Party has never been a friend to religion, which it sees as a potential threat to its power. The Uighurs, along with Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, much like Tibetan Buddhists, have faced discrimination and harassment for decades. In 2009, Uighur frustrations led to mass protests and Beijing pushed back hard, destroying mosques and devastating some Uighur neighbourhoods in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi.
The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping soon declared Islam a contagious ideological illness and opened the detention camps, which were first reported in 2018. The people of Xinjiang live today in the world’s most advanced police state. Checkpoints appear every few blocks, while hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras monitor comings and goings.
Police detain anyone who violates any of 75 supposed indicators of religious extremism, such as storing large amounts of food, applying for a passport, or quitting drinking or smoking. Locals are forced to download apps on their phones that scan chat logs for Quranic verses, Arabic script or anything suspiciously Islamic.
“The Chinese government attacks and targets Islamic values, but no single Islamic country stands up to [break] the silence and speak out against the Chinese atrocity,” Isa said.
This extends to Turkey as well, where nationalists view Uighurs as their Turkic Muslim brethren due to linguistic, religious and Central Asian ties. Since Beijing launched its crackdown in Xinjiang, Turkey has welcomed some 20,000 Uighur exiles, more than any other country. Yet the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has voiced minimal support for the Uighur cause.
“Turkish people, because we share the same history, the same language group, they are trying to help us, showing solidarity,” said Isa. “The government, because of business and economic dependence, there is silence.”
Last month, a report by the Telegraph found that Turkey’s growing economic dependence on Beijing, particularly in regards to the Belt and Road Initiative, is eroding its ability to protect Uighurs. Instead of deporting Uighurs to China, for which Erdoğan’s government would face considerable criticism from its conservative base, the Turkish government appears to be secretly sending them to third countries.
The Telegraph article pointed to several examples, including Uighur mother Zinnetgul Tursun and her infant daughters, who were deported last year to Tajikistan, where they have no links or history, and from there sent to China. “Turkey is not willing to deport Uighurs to China, but some of the Uighurs are sent back through a third country,” Isa said. “This is a big shame.”
In 2009, then prime minister Erdoğan became one of the world’s first leaders to label China’s treatment of Uighurs a “genocide”. And last year Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu expressed concern about rights violations against Uighurs, qualifying his remarks by coming out in support of Beijing’s One China policy.
Isa said these comments inspired hope among Uighurs, but both times these were dashed when Ankara continued to side with Beijing. Turkish deportation lawyer İbrahim Ergin told the Telegraph he had a list of 200 Uighur academics in Turkey and China had made extradition demands on all of them, looking to apply greater pressure.
“China’s long arm is getting longer and longer,” said Isa, adding that Beijing has labelled him a top terrorist target.
Still he felt confident that due to support from nationalists, conservatives, opposition politicians and civil society, the vast majority of Uighurs in Turkey remain safe. He pointed to the case of Uighur leader Abdulkadir Yapcan. Beijing lobbied Ankara for two years to deport him and failed.
“I believe Uighurs in Turkey are not in a dangerous situation,” Isa said, calling on Ankara to do more. “The Turkish government should be breaking the silence and only supporting us, because the Turkish public and civil society have big support for the Uighurs.”
Beijing has seen its support in Washington decline in the past year, thanks to disagreements over trade, the coronavirus pandemic and Chinese-made social media tools. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate that the Chinese Communist Party represented the central threat of our times, and on Thursday Trump issued executive orders barring TikTok and WeChat from the U.S. market starting next month.
Despite Trump reportedly telling Chinese leader Xi Jinping last year that the Xinjiang camps were the right thing to do, his government has now sanctioned Beijing a number of times for the camps, with more possible sanctions in the works. Some analysts believe Washington’s recent focus on Xinjiang reflects growing bipartisan consensus on the need to punish China.
The XPCC, created by Mao Zedong in 1954 to colonise Xinjiang, is today a 3-million strong paramilitary outfit that runs its own cities, factories, farms, and media outlets, controlling more than 20 percent of the province’s GDP. Isa saw the U.S. sanctions on the XPCC making a significant impact, but believed altering Beijing’s policies would require a coordinated response.
“European countries, particularly Germany, should wake up,” he said. “International pressure is the only way to stop this atrocity, but as of now we have not yet seen big concrete action.”