Turkey hits China hard over Uighur. Why now?
A statement issued by the spokesman of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Hami Aksoy, on late Feb. 9, that accused China of imposing “torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons” on Uighur Turks was a surprise to many, even to members of the Uighur diaspora.
A Uighur academic and activist, Tahir İmin, speaking to the New York Times, expressed his satisfaction with the Turkish reaction against China, saying “Many of us have criticized the Turkish government for its stance on the subject, but today many Uighurs expressed their happiness and joy thanks to the Turkish authorities.” He also expressed his hope that “the Turkish government can lead the way for the other Muslim nations to bring some more pressure on the Chinese government.”
There is a reason why the Turkish government’s move against China has been interpreted as a surprising development.
The well-being and comfort of the Uighur Turks in China have always been a concern to Turkey and the Turkish public opinion due to strong ethnic and religious bonds. Turkey has never hesitated to confront China at times when Beijing imposed new restrictions and regulations on Uighur Turks. The governments’ moves have always been accompanied by a mass street protest against the Chinese administration.
However, for a while, the Turkish side was keeping quiet on the same matter even after China started to implement the “Sinification of All Religions and Beliefs” policy in 2017.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which has been aiming to further improve economic and trade ties with China, has been deliberately low-profile on the developments. Turkish diplomats, who have been attending UN-led meetings on Uighur Turks, were preferring a rather softer language on China. It was the ruling AKP which had rejected a parliamentary motion tabled by the Good Party in late 2018 in a bid to investigate the recent human rights violations by the Chines government on the Uighur Turks.
This stance of the government has kicked off reactions both in the international arena and inside Turkey. The ultra-nationalist Great Union Party (BBP), the nationalist Good Party and other minor parties were bashing the AKP for not raising its voice on the ongoing oppression of the Uighur Turks.
The BBP held a massive protest on Uighur Turks on Jan. 24 calling the government to act on the state of their kin “in eastern Turkistan.” Scores of similar protests and meetings have long been taking place in different corners of the Anatolia in recent months, increasing the pressure on the AKP.
The AKP, with a strong political Muslim identity, has always been very vocal and active to protect the rights and the lives of Muslims under oppression in practicing their religions and other freedoms. So, its silence on recent developments has been regarded as inconsistency and its soft spot, which was leaving the AKP officials uncomfortable and troubled when this issue was raised.
Another reason, perhaps, was about the passing away of the distinguished folk poet Abdurehim Heyit, in his second year of imprisonment in China, a tragedy that was regarded as final straw by Ankara which prompted this statement.
Although, of course, that would be too unfair to suggest that this strong-worded action against China has merely domestic political drives, it’s hard to speculate about other reasons.
The move comes as Turkey is trying to develop ties with China almost on every field and as President Erdoğan has invited President Xi Jinping for an official trip to Turkey in 2019. Plus, as recalled by the NYT, Turkish criticism comes after receiving a $3.6 billion loan for Turkey’s energy and transportation sector from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a state-owned bank.
At a time when Turkey is developing new alliances in the East, along with Russia and other major partners, this spat with China contradicts with this vision.
Whatever the reason behind this move is, Turkey’s statement should be seen as a new position on China adopted by the AKP government The fact that the statement by the Turkish spokesman is unprecedentedly very strong as it describes the “policy of systematic assimilation” against Uighur Turks as “a great shame for humanity” will sure have consequences on Ankara-Beijing ties.