Until last summer the train journey between Turkey’s capital Ankara and the country’s second city, Istanbul used to take seven hours. Today it takes three and a half thanks to a high-speed rail connection built by a Sino-Turkish consortium and funded by Chinese loans.
The plan is to build more track, eventually linking the Mediterranean country to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s new Silk Road.
But one potential obstacle in all of this is China’s Uighurs – a Muslim minority that speaks a Turkic language and lives largely in the western region of Xinjiang. Many Turks feel a deep connection with the Uighurs.
China says it is helping to develop resource-rich Xinjiang in order to give Uighurs better opportunities. The Uighurs, who number about 10 million, accuse the government of trying to wipe out their culture and limit the ways in which they can practice their Islamic faith. During Ramadan – which ends today – such accusations resonate throughout the Muslim world, including in Turkey. Thus on July 4, in response to a news report that Uighurs were being prevented from observing the holy month, young men affiliated to the Grey Wolves, the youth wing of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, attacked two tourist groups and a restaurant they believed to be Chinese in Istanbul. (Chinese state media said the original Ramadan report was based on fake online rumours.)
The next day a larger group descended on the embassy in Ankara.
And that may have been it, had China not, five days later, persuaded Thailand to repatriate 109 Uighurs that Xinhua said were illegal immigrants. The men and women – who were shown on CCTV with black sacks over their heads, handcuffed to Chinese police officers – were alleged to have travelled overland from China in the hope of making it to Turkey.
Earlier in the month Turkey accepted 173 people from Thai camps claiming to be Turkish citizens, and it had intimated it would take more. The Turkish governments condemned Thailand’s repatriation of the Uighurs to China and human rights groups warned the deportees were returning to a “grim” fate.
So in Ankara and Istanbul angry mobs once again attacked the Thai and Chinese missions.
Needless to say China was less than impressed with the violence and the “meddling”. It denied curtailing Uighurs’ religious freedoms and issued a travel warning to its citizens currently in Turkey.
After the second round of violence the Chinese foreign ministry warned that “certain forces” who attempt to “undermine our security and stability under the pretext of the so-called religious and ethnic issues … will not prevail”. New limits on growing beards and wearing veils are designed to stop the spread of extremist and non-native forms of Islam, it says.
The Uighurs who want to leave China are doing so because they wish to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq, the chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s Criminal Investigation Department, Tong Bishan told Reuters over the weekend. He said 13 of those repatriated had committed acts of terrorism or had escaped detention and the others had been brainwashed into becoming “cannon fodder”. He accused Turkish officials in Southeast Asia of providing “fake travel documents” so they could reach their destination.
All of which will mean there is a lot to talk about when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Beijing later this month. In 2009 Erdogan described the plight of Uighurs as “a kind of genocide”, but more recently has said he would rather Turkey joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation than the European Union.
After the recent violence he said: “Incidents that we never want to see and which we will never condone took place.” It was probably not as strong a condemnation as China was looking for but it was lot better than that offered by Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party. When asked why the Grey Wolves had mistakenly attacked South Korean tourists, he simply replied it was hard to tell them apart from Chinese because they “both have slitty eyes”. He looked even more ridiculous when it emerged that the Chinese restaurant attacked by the Wolves belonged to a Uighur.
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