While the United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and companies complicit in the abuse of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, Beijing makes use of its deep pockets to buy the silence of majority Muslim countries around the world. The most shocking among these is Turkey, which shares not only religious but also ethnic affinity with China’s more than 12 million Uyghurs.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees himself as a champion of Muslims around the world, has been uncharacteristically demure when it comes to the Uyghur issue. In July 2019, when a group of 22 states, including 14 of Turkey’s NATO allies, issued a joint letter to the 41st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to condemn China’s “mass arbitrary detentions and related violations” of Uyghurs and other minorities, Ankara looked the other way. Similarly, when a Turkish opposition party introduced a motion on July 10 to establish an ad hoc committee in parliament to investigate “the problems of Uyghur Turks exposed to China’s oppressive practices,” Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his ultranationalist partners in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) voted in unison to kill the initiative. While speaking on behalf of the motion, an opposition lawmaker accused the Turkish government of abandoning the Uyghurs and added, “I clearly state that the AKP and the MHP have sold out [the Uyghurs] for $50 billion.”
Back in 2012, Nury Turkel, a former president of the Uyghur American Association and a prominent human rights activist, claimed in a Wall Street Journal piece that Turkey provided “a model for other democratic countries on how to approach minority issues in China.” Turkel’s tone has changed markedly eight years later. Now a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Turkel tweeted on July 27, “It is unconscionable that #Turkey, once considered a safe haven for #Uyghurs, has caved to CCP pressure & deported Uyghurs to third countries that send them on to China. Turkey must end such deportations & protect all Uyghurs seeking refuge.”
What prompted Turkel’s tweet was an explosive report published by The Telegraph, a British daily, on July 26, detailing Ankara’s acquiescence to Beijing’s extradition requests targeting Chinese Uyghur dissidents. A month earlier, news website Axios similarly exposed a cache of Chinese documents proving Beijing had secretly requested the extradition of Uyghur dissident Enver Turdi in 2016 and Turkish authorities subsequently harassed him. NPR also reported in March on “China’s long arm” in Turkey and how Turkish authorities urged a Uyghur activist “not to speak out against China.” These exposés fit the overall pattern of Erdogan’s Uyghur policy, which is at odds with the Turkish public’s overwhelming sympathy toward the Uyghurs.
By all accounts, Turkey would seem to be a natural ally in the fight for Uyghur rights. Sharing the same religion and a similar language, Turkey has offered a natural harbor for 50,000 Uyghurs who managed to escape China over the years. Istanbul neighborhoods such as Aksaray and Zeytinburnu have become Uyghur cultural hotspots as well as centers of Uyghur activism. Turkish citizens frequently protest China’s Uyghur policies.
Erdogan’s compliance with Beijing’s demands is driven by his growing need for Chinese investment at a time when Western capital is fleeing Turkish markets. Turkey suffers from a chronic current account deficit and the ongoing Western exodus from Turkish bonds and equities has exacerbated the problem, putting further strain on Turkey’s nosediving currency. China and Turkey have a yuan-lira swap deal dating back to 2012. The first time Beijing transferred funds to Ankara under the terms of this deal was during an election month in 2019. This June, Turkey again made use of the swap deal to pay for a batch of Chinese imports. Erdogan, who — despite repeated attempts in 2020 — has failed to secure any swap deals with Western central banks, hopes that China will join his closest ally Qatar to offer greater capital injections through investment and swap deals to help bail out Turkey’s flailing economy.
In addition to purchasing Turkey’s silence, China is attempting to make the country a vital piece in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China now has a massive presence in Turkey’s infrastructure development, investing heavily in projects around Istanbul. In a city that links Europe with Asia, such investments could prove to be vital to China’s trade routes to the West. Chinese freight trains now make their way across the Bosporus via the Marmaray railway tunnel and into Europe, while China holds a 65 percent stake in Turkey’s third largest container port, Kumport, on the European side of Istanbul. As Beijing continues to pour resources into Turkey’s economy and infrastructure, Erdogan will be even less likely to heed popular pro-Uyghur sentiments.
All of this is to say that Turkey now joins the list of majority Muslim countries that have opted for silence in dealing with the one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. Saudi Arabia, eager for China to invest $10 billion in its oil giant, Aramco, pledged its silence and support. Similarly, in Pakistan, where China’s $62 billion investment has enticed Islamabad with dreams of turning its coastline into the next Dubai, Prime Minister Imran Khan pled ignorance and refused to even consider criticizing the Chinese government, which he credits with rescuing Pakistan when it was at “rock bottom.” Iran too, no stranger to waving the banner of Islam to further its political agenda, is now firmly on China’s side and in its pocket.
Although Turkey is not the only majority Muslim country to look the other way when it comes to the plight of the Uyghurs, Erdogan’s complicity is the most shocking, given the deep historical and cultural ties between Turks and Uyghurs. The Turkish president’s hypocrisy in offering China carte blanche to commit atrocities against fellow Muslims in return for economic benefits shows yet again that self-interest trumps the hefty ideals to which authoritarian leaders pay lip service.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir
Philip Kowalski is a research associate of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @philip_kowalski