The last major opponent of China's Muslim oppression has retreated into silence. Here's why that's a big deal.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that Uighurs — the Muslim ethnic minority under oppression by the Chinese government — actually lead happy lives in China, Chinese state-media reported.
- This apparent capitulation is particularly significant because Turkey, until now, had been the only Muslim country to stand up against China for the Uighurs.
- Turkey is also home to hundreds of thousands of Uighurs. Many of them already live in limbo without work permits or legal residency, and unable to return to China.
- The reason behind Erdogan's about-face is not clear. He has, however, been trying to strike greater economic partnerships with Beijing.
- Turkey — whose currency collapsed, and whose economy went into recession last year — has grown increasingly reliant on Chinese economic aid in recent years.
- In recent months, a wave of Islamic countries stood up to China over its oppression of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority before backing down again, largely due to fear of Beijing's economic vengeance.
Turkey — which bills itself as a leader of the Islamic world — is the latest country to retreat into silence.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken out against China's oppression of the Uighurs on numerous past occasions, but this week he gave his implicit support to China's policies in Xinjiang during a state visit to the country.
"It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China's development and prosperity," Erdogan said on Tuesday, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported, paraphrasing the Turkish president.
He added that some people were seeking to "abuse" the Xinjiang crisis to jeopardize Turkey and China's economic relationship, saying according to Agence France-Presse.
"This abuse is having a negative impact on Turkish-Chinese relations. It is necessary that we do not give opportunity to such abuse."
China has installed a modern surveillance state in Xinjiang. Uighurs in the region are forced to download malware that sweeps their phones for content unsavory to the Chinese regime, and authorities have detained up to 1.5 million of them in prison-like camps where people are reportedly tortured.
Though major Muslim countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia have also been silent about China's Uighur crisis, Turkey's apparent capitulation is perhaps most threatening to Uighurs.
Until now, Turkey had been the only Islamic country that dared speak up for the Uighurs.
It has also offered a safe haven to the community. Many members of the Uighur diaspora have moved there in recent decades, enticed by the similarities between the Turkish and Uighur languages and cultures.
Turkey is currently home to some 35,000 Uighurs, Reuters reported this March, citing the Istanbul-based East Turkestan National Center.
That number includes many former detainees in China's prison-like camps, where guards reportedly force Uighur inmates to sing patriotic hymns in order to get food, and subject them to physical and mental torture.
Many Uighurs in Turkey still have relatives living in Xinjiang, and regularly stage large-scale protests calling for the release of their loved ones.
Erdogan himself has previously been a prominent voice for the Uighurs. Here's his record:
- In 2009, then-Prime Minister Erdogan described ethnic violence in Xinjiang as "a kind of genocide."
- In 2015, President Erdogan's government openly offered to offer shelter to Uighur refugees.
- In February 2019, Turkey's foreign ministry condemned China's "reintroduction of internment camps in the 21st century." It went on to describe China's "policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks" as "a great shame for humanity."
- February's statement came in response to widespread protests in Turkey over the reported death of Abdurehim Heyit, a Chinese Uighur poet and musician well known among Turks.
China has responded to all these statements by repeatedly threatening to jeopardize the two countries' economic relations.
Beijing also temporarily closed a consulate in Izmir, western Turkey, with Chinese ambassador to Turkey Deng Li telling Reuters: "Criticizing your friend publicly ... will be reflected in commercial and economic relations."
Read more: The mystery of a Muslim poet who may or may not be dead in a Chinese detention camp is at the center of a diplomatic crisis between China and Turkey
Why has Erdogan changed his tune?
Turkey — which underwent a currency collapse and a recession last year — has grown increasingly reliant on Chinese economic aid in recent years.
Ankara has been trying to join President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to link China to dozens of countries through infrastructure. The project has seen Chinese investment flow into developing countries, and critics have described the initiative as " debt-trap diplomacy."
Erdogan heaped praise on the Belt and Road during his China visit, with both Turkish and Chinese media reporting his eagerness to work alongside China on new projects in the region.
Turkey may also want to become closer to China militarily, having bristled with the US over its arms programs and foreign policy.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation — a 57-country consortium that calls itself "the collective voice of the Muslim world" — followed a similar pattern of speaking up, then rowing back their comments about Xinjiang.
Experts told Business Insider earlier this year that this behavior could be the result of Chinese threats against the countries if they do speak up.
Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher into the Xinjiang surveillance state, tweeted after Erdogan's visit to Beijing: "I guess the Muslim world's actual care for their spiritual brothers is essentially zero."
Uighurs in Turkey left in limbo
Many Uighurs in Turkey either had their Chinese passports revoked on their way out, or are unable to renew them at Beijing's embassy in Turkey, Deutsche Welle and Reuters reported earlier this year.
Without those Chinese passports, they cannot file for work permits or legal residency in Turkey. This effectively renders them stateless, which precludes them from finding work, both outlets reported.
For this reason many Uighurs in the country are unemployed. Those who find jobs are forced to take informal, cash-based work, Deutsche Welle noted.
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