Why Erdogan Has Abandoned the Uyghurs
As Ankara grows more economically dependent on Beijing, the Turkish government is no longer offering a safe haven or defending Uyghur rights.
It’s been eight years since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Xinjiang, the ostensibly autonomous territory inhabited by Uyghur Muslims living under Chinese control. And in 2009, Erdogan called Chinese repression of Uyghurs a “genocide,” drawing the wrath of Beijing and cementing his reputation as a defiant Muslim leader willing to speak truth to totalitarian power.
Eight years seems like a lifetime given how much the Chinese Communist Party has encroached on Uyghur rights in just about every aspect of life. By now, much of the world has heard of the millions of Uyghurs being rounded up into concentration camps in Xinjiang (though no one seems to be doing much about it).
Beijing says the interned are being cleansed of extremism and taught how to be good citizens. And that they’re free to leave whenever they like. As someone whose father was interned, tortured, and released from a Chinese concentration camp two years later with a broken leg, I can assure you these camps are nothing but prisons that enable ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.
Yet Uyghur repression didn’t start with the camps. Even when Erdogan was in Xinjiang, many Uyghurs were trying to get out. They saw Erdogan’s visit as a gesture of solidarity. The Uyghurs are an ethnically Turkic people, and our language is closely related to Turkish. So moving to Turkey made sense, especially considering how the country offered Uyghurs asylum as early as 1952.
Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea in 2012 turned out to be a false hope. Erdogan’s authoritarian efforts to keep power in Turkey by muzzling the free press and locking up dissidents have made him an uneasy ally for liberal democracies. All the more reason for him to look to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping while grappling with a floundering economy. Unfortunately, this often translates into changing Ankara’s policy toward Turkey’s 35,000 Uyghurs, from offering a safe haven to imposing downright repression.
Most Uyghurs have found it much harder to get resident permits or citizenship after 2014. They can’t make a living but risk being interned if they go back to Xinjiang. China also refused to renew their passports. Gradually, a Turkish government that was supposed to offer them freedom is now raiding Uyghur homes, arresting hundreds of people, and coordinating deportations with Beijing.
Take Zinnetgul Tursun, a Uyghur refugee whose family was lucky enough to get residential status in Turkey. Two years ago, her family (including two toddlers) was suddenly detained. Tursun was mysteriously deemed an illegal migrant from Tajikistan and sent back to China with her kids. This kind of treatment has become routine for Uyghurs in Turkey, who now live in fear of further persecution.
This is happening as Turkey shifts away from its NATO allies and toward Russia and China. China just ratified an extradition agreement with Turkey in what it calls a counterterrorism partnership. Erdogan has plenty of allies in this new status quo.
Take Dogu Perincek, head of Turkey’s left-wing nationalist Patriotic Party, who has exerted serious influence over Turkey-China relations after aligning himself with Erdogan. A Maoist ideologue and staunch supporter of Beijing, Perincek even compared Uyghurs in an article to the Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In the past two years or so, Perincek has become the country’s main advocate for a stronger alliance with China, going so far as to denounce U.S. criticism of China’s policy in Xinjiang as “imperialistic.” He also routinely lauds Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs. This rhetoric has an effect on Erdogan, who has come to see Perincek as a valuable ally in bolstering Ankara’s current realignment with China.
But there are other reasons for Erdogan’s friendlier stance toward China. The Turkish lira was already in trouble before the pandemic weakened the country’s tourism industry. Ankara needs China’s help. Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak got China to loan Turkey $3.6 billion in 2018. The People’s Bank of China gave $1 billion in cash to Ankara in 2019 to stabilize its faltering economy and China also became Turkey’s biggest importer last year. Erdogan doesn’t want to jeopardize this cash flow with rhetoric about the Uyghurs that will make his Chinese patrons angry.
Erdogan is a wily politician who exploits every occasion to build on his global reputation as a gutsy champion of oppressed Muslims. He never misses a chance to wax poetic about how Israel or France or even the European Union contributes to the tragedies of the ummah, the Muslim community.
It must therefore be hard for Erdogan to refrain from citing Chinese oppression of Uyghurs to keep up appearances as the world’s greatest defender of Muslims. But he can’t as Beijing tightens its leash around his neck.
The U.S. government has rightly called what China is doing to Uyghurs a crime against humanity. Other countries from Germany to Canada have spoken up for us. Muslim leaders, on the other hand, are all conspicuously silent. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is too busy preserving his country as China’s favorite client state. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has defended China’s concentration camps. And Iran, ever the opponent of “Western imperialism,” has also kept silent considering its deep ties to China.
Turkey’s grasp of these lessons has turned it from a country that all Uyghurs admired into a place where thousands of Uyghurs want to flee.
Those stuck in Turkey must be granted asylum in other countries, but words are cheap. Which countries will actually step up? It may well be the last chance to escape torture and death for many.