Turkey’s Sinophobia, China’s persecution

Turkey’s Sinophobia, China’s persecution

Last Saturday, a group of Korean tourists enjoying the historic beauty of Istanbul had unexpected trouble. Hundreds of angry protestors that were condemning China’s oppression of Muslim Uighurs, a Turkic people from the Xinjiang region, began harassing the tourists. Luckily the police intervened and no one got hurt, but the tourists were scared. One of them was caught by news cameras while trying to say, “I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean!”

“Well, what is the difference between a Korean and a Chinese; they all have slanted eyes,” opposition leader Devlet Bahçeli noted the day after, in a shocking remark. “These are young kids,” he also said regarding the angry crowd, sounding as if he were tolerating their aggression. 

This is just one of the several incidents Turkey had in the past two weeks regarding the Chinese, real or perceived. News about China’s oppression of the Uighurs made many people angry, and some found the solution in attacking a Chinese restaurant, or storming the Thai consulate, for the latter is accused of collaborating with the Chinese government on this issue. Thank God, no big harm has taken place due this sudden burst of Sinophobia, and it will probably be short-lived. But it is still disturbing.

There a few things I would like to underline about this wave. First, those who take the lead in these incidents are not exactly the Islamists of Turkey (who would identify with the Justice and Development Party - AKP), but rather the ultranationalists who would identify with Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Their solidarity with the Uighurs has a strong ethnic (Turkish) component to it, besides the religious (Islamic) solidarity that the AKP also shares. 

Second, some of the “news” that enraged these “young people” are counter-factual. They heard that Chinese authorities make every Uighur forcibly drink beer during Ramadan, for example, which is false. (What is true is the Chinese authorities organized a “beer festival” in the city of Hotan in Ramadan, and it did offend many Uighurs.) The problem is that Turkey is quite an isolated county, and these particular “young people” are especially parochial. They are, in that sense, not too different from a parochial bigot in America who could commit a hate crime against his Muslim neighbors for what he sees on the evening news about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Third, while these immature outbursts in Turkey are dead wrong, China’s persecution of the Uighurs is a burning fact. As the Human Rights Watch put it in a recent report: “For decades Uighurs have endured discrimination, exclusion from central government-driven economic development, and increasingly intrusive restrictions on religion, language, and culture.” Things got worse in the recent years, as some violent reactions by a few Uighur extremists led Beijing to take unacceptably heavy-handed “anti-terrorism” measures. As HRW also notes, these are “systemic, uncorrected abuses” such as “dozens of enforced disappearances of Uighur men and boys, as well as hundreds of arbitrary detentions and summary trials lacking the most basic protections of a right to a fair trial.” This year, Chinese authorities went even more oppressive, by banning fasting in Ramadan by all by civil servants, teachers and students – a stunning attack on religious freedom.

So, in Turkey, we should curb our “young people” who are prone to attack Chinese tourists and restaurants. But then China must begin to tame its deep-seated despotism in Xinjiang, and begin to respect the basic rights of its Uighur citizens.