Ethnic tensions complicate Turkey’s relationship with China
Turkish and ethnic Uighur protesters seen burning Chinese flag outside consulate
Uighur refugee women in a gated complex in the central city of Kayseri, Turkey. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters
Riot police clash with a group of Uighur protesters outside the Chinese Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, in June 2015. Photograph: Burhan Ozbilici/AP
For many Chinese, the images coming out of Turkey this month have been ferocious and frightening. Online video clips and photographs from Istanbul have shown Turkish and ethnic Uighur protesters burning a Chinese flag outside China’s consulate; angry men racing threateningly toward Korean tourists, apparently thinking they were Chinese; and a mostly Uighur group of proptesters smashing windows at the Thai Consulate after Thailand sent more than 100 Uighurs back to China against their wishes.
Chinese might wonder whether this is the same Turkey that has been attracting their country’s tourists in greater numbers – or, for that matter, the one that agreed to buy a missile defense system from a Chinese company, or that paid Chinese state-owned enterprises to build a 300-mile high-speed rail line between its two largest cities.
Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, has long seen itself as a protector of Turkic-speaking people across the arc of Central Asia – and that includes the mostly Muslim Uighurs in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where ethnic tensions and outbursts of violence between Uighurs and ethnic Han, the dominant group in China, have been rising because of what Uighurs say is official repression, although Chinese officials blame terrorist ideology.
Some analysts wonder whether this issue, one that has long simmered in Turkey, could upend the two nations’ growing economic and diplomatic ties and tar the image of each country in the eyes of the other. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Tuesday for a state visit to China.
“Bilateral trade is growing; China has sold Turkey some weapons; and cooperation has been carried on in various fields,” said Yin Gang, a Middle East researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But the Uighur problem is somehow standing in the way.”
Erdogan’s office did not provide details on Tuesday about his China trip. Turkish newspapers close to the government have reported that the president will be accompanied by a group of Turkish businessmen; they have not said whether Erdogan, who is also dealing with an escalation of Turkey’s fight against the Islamic State and against Kurdish militants, intends to raise the Uighur issue with the Chinese.
Forced to eat
China and Turkey have had sharp diplomatic exchanges recently over the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. On June 30th, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said that reports of the ban on Ramadan fasting and limits on other religious observances had “caused sadness among the Turkish people” and that Turkey had conveyed its “deep concern” to the Chinese ambassador.
China answered with what amounted to a propaganda campaign: Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said in Beijing that “Uighurs live and work in peace and contentment and enjoy freedom of religion under the rules in the constitution.” State-run Chinese news organizations published articles and Twitter posts about Uighurs in China fasting during Ramadan.
“There are some rumours and twisted facts today that strain the bilateral relationship,” said Yang Shu, a former Chinese envoy to the Soviet Union and head of the Institute for Central Asian Studies at Lanzhou University in China. “For example, the alleged ban on Ramadan in Xinjiang, which led to the protests in Istanbul, just can’t be true. No government is capable of issuing such a ban on nearly 15 million Muslims in Xinjiang.”
Erdogan has taken a measured stance on the issue, trying to play to domestic sympathies toward Uighurs while reassuring China. At a meeting on July 9th with ambassadors in Ankara, he said: “We voice distress about our siblings living in the Uighur Autonomous Region at the highest level, and we will continue to do so. But the provocative incidents in Istanbul neither suit our hospitality nor are they a remedy for the troubles of our Uighur siblings.”
The Uighur issue has shadowed the countries’ relationship for many years. Decades ago, Uighurs pushing for an independent East Turkestan – as many Uighurs call their homeland in Xinjiang – began doing advocacy work from Turkey. Chinese military intelligence officials who operate out of diplomatic missions in Turkey have been assigned to spy on and infiltrate Uighur organisations there, according to a 2009 paper by Yitzhak Shichor, an Israeli scholar.
In 1997, after a surge of violence in Xinjiang, hundreds of Uighurs and Turkish nationalists held protests in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul and burned the Chinese flag. China has put pressure on Turkey to curb the activities of Uighur advocates, but with mixed success, Shichor wrote.
Chinese state-run news organizations have reported that staff members at Turkish embassies helped smuggling rings get Turkish passports or identification papers for Uighurs seeking to flee China. Despite such tensions, the trend of economic cooperation has not slowed, and the Turkish government has not canceled any major contracts or economic agreements with China. Bilateral trade was $23 billion last year, up from $650 million a decade earlier; nearly 84 per cent of the trade in 2014 came from Chinese exports, according to Chinese customs statistics.
Mehmet Soylemez, a Turk at Hong Kong Baptist University who researches China-Turkey relations, noted that the relationship strengthened even after Erdogan, then the prime minister, said in 2009 that China was carrying out “a kind of genocide” against Uighurs. The next year, the two nations announced a “strategic partnership” to increase bilateral trade to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020.
Popular perceptions of China have suffered, though, which helps explain the importance of the Uighur issue in Turkish domestic politics. In this year’s Pew Global Attitudes Poll, a mere 18 per cent of Turks said they had a favorable view of China. Only Japan scored lower, at 9 per cent.
Chinese both here and in Turkey are aware of the hostility. Wang Xiao (26) who was traveling in Turkey with her boyfriend this month, said she had encountered an anti-China demonstration near the Topkapi Palace on July 4th – the same event at which some protesters tried to attack Korean tourists. She said that while she had found most Turks to be friendly, the protesters were taking part in “hostile and dangerous” demonstrations.
Another tourist, Zhu He (23) said she believed the “religious radicals” were in the minority, but she added, “I would not have come to Turkey if I could choose again.”
– (New York Times)