The Uyghurs, a Turkic/Muslim ethnic group living predominantly in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, have always constituted a thorny issue in relations between Turkey and the People’s Republic of China. Being concerned about both actual and perceived threats of separatism within its own borders, Beijing has been intolerant towards any kind of dissent from within the region, which has in some cases led to violent confrontations between Chinese authorities and the Uyghur people, such as the 2009 riots in Urumqi that had left more than two hundred people dead.

Proteters stage a march in Ankara calling for  boycott of Chinese products across Turkey
Protesters stage a march in Ankara calling for boycott of Chinese products across Turkey in this file photo

Ankara, on the other hand, has been trying to maintain a delicate balance between the Uyghurs and the Beijing government. An overwhelming majority of Turkish people considers Uyghurs as their ethnic brethren living in ancestral lands under oppression, and demands their government to be more vocal about their rights. However, Ankara feels the need to establish and maintain better relations with the world’s new superpower, especially in the economic realm,

So far, Turkey’s government has managed to maintain this balance by opposing separatism, defending the territorial integrity of China, at the same time investing in the economic development of Xinjiang and enunciating the need for improved social and cultural rights for the Uyghurs. Developments in the past weeks signal that the balance is fragile and getting increasingly difficult for Ankara to maintain.

What has triggered the recent chain of events is Beijing’s decision to ban Ramadan fasting for public servants, teachers and students in Xinjiang. Although this ban was not the first of its kind in the region, together with other events deemed provocative by Uyghurs such as the beer drinking festival held in Xinjiang a couple days before the beginning of Ramadan and a deadly clash between police and demonstrators, it has caused an unprecedented outrage in Turkey. Ultranationalist groups organized protests; calls for boycotting Chinese goods were made; in one instance, a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul was stoned; and the Turkish Twitosphere flooded with photos — some real, some photo-shopped or irrelevant — of what was presented as “Chinese cruelty against Muslims”.

Public anger against China because of the Uyghur issue is, however, not new in Turkey. It has happened before, and is likely to happen again. What came unexpected was Turkey’s official response. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese ambassador in Ankara to express concerns about the developments in Xinjiang, and a written public statement followed. The ministry had expressed concerns about violence in Xinjiang before, but this time it was about, as mentioned in the statement, “allegations of ban on fasting in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” and “the reports about the ban of fasting and observing other religious duties on Uyghurs”.

In other words, while Turkey had rightfully protested acts of violence in the region before, this time it did so as a reaction to a ban against religious practices, while “allegations” and unreferenced “reports” provided sufficient ground to give this response. As expected, Chinese Foreign Ministry lost no time in responding: “China has already demanded that Turkey clarify these reports and we have expressed concern about the statement from the Turkish foreign ministry.”

In other words, a diplomatic tug-of-war has started between Turkey and China over the Uyghur issue. While there are genuine concerns about the conditions of the Uyghurs and human rights, this turn of events is also related to Turkey’s domestic politics, which is currently in a state of uncertainty as political parties try to settle their cases to form a coalition government after the parliamentary elections of June 7 which ended the 13-year old single-party rule of AKP.

As soon as reports on the Ramadan ban in Xinjiang began to appear in Turkish media, the issue turned into political fodder. Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP for “being concerned of only what happens in Kobane and ignoring the plight of the Uyghur Turks” and “turning a blind eye to the attempts for eradicating Turkishness”.

Erdoğan slammed Bahçeli by arguing that the Turkish government has opened its doors to hundreds of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China, remarks which further agitated the Chinese authorities. In the meantime, Uyghur diaspora organizations in Turkey have expressed their disappointment, stating that Turkish government’s support for the Uyghurs “does not even amount to one tenth of what has been done for Syrians and Palestinians.”

Equations change very fast in Turkish politics, especially so at a time when political parties are bargaining to form a coalition government. How Turkey’s Uyghur policy will evolve will depend on which parties will be in the coalition. At the time of writing, a partnership between AKP and the hardliner MHP appeared to be one of the most likely options, despite the recent clash between Erdoğan and Bahçeli. The question is then: how will Turkey’s Uyghur policy, and correspondingly Turkey’s relations with China, shape under the new Turkish government, if the nationalists join the coalition?

Under any circumstance, it will be difficult for Turkey to maintain the balance between Uyghurs and Beijing in the coming period. A constructive dialogue between the two governments is the best way to strengthen Turkish-Chinese relations and to improve the living conditions of the Uyghurs at the same time. Neither Turkey nor China has anything to gain from strained relations, and increasing contention between the two countries will bring no benefits to the Uyghurs either.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a research fellow at the Asian Studies Center of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and a lecturer at the Asian Studies graduate program of the same university.

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