It was the moment many had been waiting for – a major Muslim country blasting China for its internment of up to a million Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang.
The February 9 statement by Turkey’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy did not mince its words, accusing China of trying to “eliminate” the cultural and religious identities of the 14 million Muslims living in Xinjiang.
“The reintroduction of internment camps in the 21st century ….is a great shame for humanity,” he said.
One of the triggers for the statement – rumours that a Uighur poet and folk singer had died in Chinese custody – turned out to be unfounded.
On February 10 China Radio International released a short video on its Turkish language Twitter feed purportedly showing that Abdurehim Heyit was alive. In it Heyit confirms the date and says that he is being investigated for violating Chinese laws. “I’m now in good health and have never been abused,” he adds.
The next day China’s foreign ministry responded to Turkey’s accusations, branding them an “absurd lie”. “Turkey is also a multi-ethnic country facing the threats posed by terrorism. If it adopts double standards on counter-terrorism, it will only end up hurting itself as well as others,” it added.
Xinjiang is home to several Muslim minorities including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui and Kyrgyz. Uighurs make up the largest group and the language they speak is close to Turkish.
The Chinese government began building what it terms as ‘education centres’ in 2015, with some estimates that they may now hold as many as a million people. The UN has called such claims “credible”.
China says the centres are needed to stop the spread of radical Islam and to teach the Uighurs new skills so that they can benefit from economic development in the area.
Initially Beijing tried to keep the existence of the camps under wraps but the construction of 30 larger facilities was picked up by satellites. Later researchers unearthed procurement notices for equipment and staff online.
Since then Beijing has allowed a few journalists and diplomats to tour some of the facilities, including one visit in which the inmates were told to sing “if you are happy and you know it, clap your hands”, reports Reuters.
As part of these efforts, diplomats from 12 countries with large Muslim populations were escorted on one of the tours last December. Turkey was not among the group.
The wider question is how all of this will impact on Sino-Turkish relations, which had shown signs of improving since 2009, when Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused China of orchestrating “a genocide” against the Uighurs.
Erdogan has run Turkey for 16 years but his hold on power was threatened in 2016 by an abortive coup. He then purged large sections of the military, civil service and judiciary, a move that strained relations with the EU and the US. In response he turned to Russia and China for diplomatic support and finance for his ailing economy. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, visited Beijing in 2017, vowing to stamp out negative news reports about China in Turkey and said he would stop his country from being used as a base for activities “targeting or opposing China” – a reference to the thousands of Uighurs who have fled there.
Later that year Turkish state lender Ziraat Bank signed a $600 million credit agreement with China Development Bank. Then last year, as the value of the Turkish lira plunged, Chinese banking giant ICBC agreed to a $3.6 billion loan for investments in the energy and transportation sectors.
Running counter to the closer ties is Erdogan’s vision of establishing Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world. To do this he has to advocate the rights of Muslims in other parts of the world. Furthermore there are local elections in Turkey in March and opposition parties have been making his silence on the Chinese camps into a campaign issue.
The rumours that Heyit, the singer, is dead have turned out to be false. But for many Turks, this isn’t the issue.
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