Are Uighur Turks oppressed in China?
During every Ramadan, news erupts in the Turkish press claiming China is oppressing Uighur Turks in the country and banning their practice of Islam. As usual, this was again the case last month. Similar news was broadly covered in the media upon which anti-China demonstrations and attacks took place throughout Turkey.
Yet are these claims valid? Are Uighurs tyrannized in China?
I had the chance to have first-hand observations and meetings in China last week when I took part in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s official visit to Beijing.
First of all, Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group; their language is related to Turkish and most of them are Muslim.
Yet they are not the only minority in China. China’s population is 1.4 billion and 92 percent of it is ethnically Han. The rest, 8 percent, is composed of 55 different ethnic groups. Muslims constitute 19 million, which is about only 1 percent of the whole population. According to official numbers, there are 9.5 million Uighurs, yet Uighurs themselves claim they are 15 million.
Han Chinese is considered the first class ethnicity in the country. They are said to be given the best jobs and the majority do well economically, something that has fuelled resentment among Uighurs.
But the most conflicting issue between Beijing and Uighurs is the name of the Xinjiang region. Uighurs call it “East Turkestan,” which originated from the “East Turkestan Islamic Republic,” which briefly survived as an independent state between 1933-34. The second time Uighurs were independent in history was under the “East Turkestan Republic” between 1944-49, which had been built with the support of the Soviet Union. Yet later in 1949, Xinjiang officially became part of communist China.
Beijing opposes this name and insists on “Xinjiang Autonomous Region.” When they hear “East Turkestan,” Chinese people feel just like a Turk would feel if Turkey’s southeast region were called “Kurdistan.”
Xinjiang is given this much importance by Beijing and the wider international community mainly because most of the oil and gas resources in the country are found in this region. Moreover it is the most strategic transit point of the Silk Road.
This is still a highly strategic asset, since the Silk Road is getting re-vitalized by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Jinping announced this economic development framework which will integrate trade and investment in Eurasia in 2013. It included 65 countries situated on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
As complementary to that, the oceanic “Maritime Silk Road” will be constructed with aims at fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania and North Africa, through the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean and the wider Indian Ocean area.
These two together will form the “One Belt, One Road” project, which Beijing aims at realizing in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of China.
Despite all these promising initiatives, Beijing is still primarily concerned about disintegration, since it has longstanding conflicts with its own autonomous regions. Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China, is occasionally shaken by anti-China demonstrations. Tibet is one of the most complicated conflicts in China. Beijing has been arguing that Tibet is after independence. China is also worried that Inner Mongolia, which is another autonomous region, might get annexed by Mongolia.
Last but not least, it still considers Taiwan, which claimed its independence in 1950, as its own province.
Moreover, Beijing has longstanding territorial disputes with countries surrounding the South China Sea, which is very rich in oil and gas reserves.
This fear of disintegration peaked upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and doubled with the concern that communism might weaken in due course.
On top of all that, the recent rise of radical Islam all around the world has been worrying for Beijing.
As a result, China has increased the pressure domestically which triggered separatist movements. And this, in turn, gave birth to further pressure. The Xinjiang conflict in itself involves and represents all of these sensitivities of Beijing.
Yet, still, Beijing does not oppress or target Muslims and Uighurs specifically and exclusively. As all other communist regimes around the world, it is distant and cautious towards all religions, including Islam.
There are several indicators that Muslims and Uighurs are not oppressed particularly. First of all, proportionally the number of mosques in China outnumbers the ones in Turkey.
President Erdoğan specifically emphasized this point when we asked him about this issue. Erdoğan said that he met with the representatives of China’s Muslim community in Beijing. Accordingly, they said there are 35,000 mosques and 40,000 religious officials in the country and they don’t face any restriction in their religious practice.
In addition, while Hans are subject to the “one-child policy,” minorities are not exposed to this restriction at all.
In light of all these indicators and the fact that China is not a democratic regime, restrictions and oppression seem to be an organic part of the country, yet not applied to any specific group.