On February 9, the Turkish government issued a stern statement denouncing China for “violating the fundamental human rights of Uyghur Turks and other Muslim communities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” That made Turkey one of the very few Muslim-majority countries to go on record criticizing Beijing for mass detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups – and it broke with the Erdogan government’s recent conspicuous silence on the issue.
Turkey has a long history of sympathy for the Uyghurs, who share cultural and linguistic similarities with other Turkic ethnic groups in the broader Central and West Asian region. Turkey has been a destination of choice for Uyghur refugees fleeing China since the 1950s, and is now home to a sizable Uyghur diaspora population (estimates put the number somewhere between 15,000 and 50,000). According to a 2015 Reuters report, Turkish diplomats in Southeast Asia even helped Uyghur refugees continue on to Turkey by providing travel documents (Uyghurs caught in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia are often deported back to China, where they face imprisonment).
Conscious of these cultural ties, people of Turkey have previously joined in mass anti-China protests sparked by reports that China was restricting Uyghur expressions of their Muslim faith.
However, more recently the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has valued its relationship with China above Uyghur rights. In 2015, when anti-China protests broke out in Istanbul, Erdogan acknowledged that “[C]laims about China’s pressure on our siblings in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region lead to sensitivity in our public,” but argued that unnamed forces were exploiting Turkish concerns to cause trouble in China-Turkey relations. Days later, Erdogan arrived in China, where he pledged support for China’s territorial integrity and promised that Turkey will not allow its cooperation with China to “be affected by ill-minded forces,” according to Xinhua. In 2016, in a remarkable shift from its traditional function as a Uyghur refuge, Turkey announced it had arrested approximately 100 Uyghurs from China en route to Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s zeal for closer relations with China has only increased since then, especially after an attempted coup in 2016 hastened Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. It’s a familiar story that has also played out in Thailand: a U.S. ally with an increasingly worrisome human rights situation turns instead to embrace China and its famous “noninterference policy.” As Chinese investment and inclusion on the “Belt and Road” became more important for Ankara, the fate of Uyghurs back in China fell farther from the government’s radar. Erdogan’s remark back in 2009 that China’s anti-Uyghur crackdown was “a kind of genocide” seem far removed from his present stance.
Given this backdrop, it was a surprise when Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs came out swinging against the intensive new phase in China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups. “It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uyghur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons,” the statement proclaimed.
Continuing, the ministry called the camps “a great shame for humanity” and called on China to close them. Further, it asked “the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang.”
The key to the timing of Turkey’s change of heart might come near the end of the statement:
In such an environment, we have learned with deep sorrow the passing away in his second year of imprisonment of the distinguished folk poet Abdurehim Heyit, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for one of his songs. This tragedy has further reinforced the reaction of the Turkish public opinion towards serious human rights violations committed in the Xinjiang region.
Abdurehim Heyit is famous as a Uyghur musician, both inside China and abroad.
Nury Turkel, a Washington DC-based attorney who also serves as Chairman of the Board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), spoke to The Diplomat about Heyit’s importance to the Uyghur community. Heyit is “revered by Uyghurs across the globe” for his music and the “authenticity of his style that was very traditional and very local,” Turkel explained. From his music to his dress, he represented the daily life and cultural heritage of Uyghur people – and thus “encouraged Uyghurs to be proud of their heritage.”
Like many other Uyghur artists and intellectuals, Heyit’s activities had previously been deemed harmless and even sanctioned by the Chinese government – but that was before prominent expressions of Uyghur identity began to be grounds for detention under the ever-tightening crackdown. “His lyrics carry a national sentiment – Uyghurness – that may have gotten the Chinese government’s attention,” Turkel said.
Interestingly, Heyit’s last overseas trip was to Turkey to promote the poems of Abdurehim Ötkür, another influential Uyghur, which Heyit performed set to music. That may help explain why Heyit was targeted by China — but also why Turkey in particular felt compelled to speak up when rumors began that he had died. Prior to his arrest, Heyit had been a “bridge between the Uyghur and Turkish cultures,” Turkel told The Diplomat. “That shouldn’t be a crime.”
Hülya Kasapoğlu Çengel, a professor at Gazi University, helped arrange the December 2015 performance by Heyit at Gazi to mark the 20th anniversary of Ötkür’s death. She wrote on Facebook about her memories of Heyit during that trip: “He was very careful and cautious” and rejected media inquiries, doing “everything he could” to prevent his overseas trip from causing problems. Heyit “asked me to announce that his most important title was State Artist of the People’s Republic of China,” Çengel recalled.
Apparently such precautions weren’t enough. Radio Free Asia reported that Heyit had “been arrested without official explanation” in 2017, part of a broader crackdown on Uyghur cultural figures.
Rumors of Heyit’s death in detention began circulating on social media on February 8, and were picked up by Turkish media. On February 9, the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded with its strongly-worded statement.
China’s authorities then released a video purporting to show Heyit alive. In the video, provided by China Radio International’s Turkish service, complete with English subtitles, a man identifies himself as Heyit, gives the date as February 10, 2019, and says he is being investigated for “allegedly violating the national laws.” He further claims to be “in good health” and to have “never been abused.” The video, reminiscent of forced confessions from other high-profile figures detained in China, has been called into question by Uyghur activists.
The Chinese embassy in Turkey also made sure to respond quickly to Ankara’s new stance. A statement posted on the embassy website repeated China’s usual justification that its Xinjiang policies are necessary to combat “three evils” of separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism. It added that Uyghurs are being placed into “vocational centers” aimed at de-extremism, not “concentration camps.”
“It is hoped that the Turkish side will correctly recognize and understand the efforts according to the law the Chinese side has made to effectively combat terrorism and get rid of extremism,” the statement said, furthering urging Turkey to “take back false accusations and adopt measures to eliminate evil influences.”
In a separate statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the video of Heyit proved Turkey’s statement was based on an “absurd lie.”
“The Turkish side has made a very bad mistake, which is quite irresponsible,” Hua said.
Such a counterattack from China was only to be expected. So why has the Turkish government now decided to risk China’s wrath by speaking out for Uyghurs?
In an op-ed for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, Serkan Demirtas notes that the government’s silence was increasing costly domestically. Political rivals to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been mounting challenges – the Great Union Party (BBB) organized “a massive protest” on January 24 urging the government to take action; the Good Party pushed for a parliamentary motion to investigate violations of Uyghur rights in China (a motion that was rejected by the AKP).
“Scores of similar protests and meetings have long been taking place in different corners of the Anatolia [Peninsula] in recent months, increasing the pressure on the AKP,” Demirtas added. Against that political backdrop, the report of Heyit’s death “was regarded as final straw by Ankara.”
The key question is what happens now. Will Ankara rest on its single strong statement, hoping to avoid further upsetting Beijing, or will the Turkish government actually put actions behind its words urging the international community to get involved?
Thus far, China has been remarkably successful in keeping Muslim-majority countries silent on the Uyghur issue. But as Turkel of UHRP told The Diplomat, Erdogan is an influential figure “in the Muslim and Turkic worlds… his words resonate.”