After China announced on December 27 that it had ratified an extradition deal signed with Turkey back in 2017, Uyghurs around the world marshaled their efforts to persuade Ankara to spurn the agreement, which envisions sending back Uyghur Turks stranded across Turkey. The latest move startled Uyghurs and stoked an abiding source of concern about the state of their brethren, the majority of whose legal status is far from being properly settled in Turkey.
What animated the recent round of debate was allegations of a precondition put by China for the shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Turkey. This last-minute change has generated an ensuing public controversy and prompted demonstrations to protest China’s cajoling, while urging the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to snub Beijing.
But more than anything else, even the contemplation of the extradition deal in the Turkish parliamentary commission has revealed a deep sense of betrayal among Uyghurs. They now feel that they have been left alone in the cold, with no protection against the Chinese Communist Party’s global reach.
Beijing has been conducting a genocidal campaign across Eastern Turkestan, the Uyghur name for Xinjiang, through hybrid methods bent on eradicating the cultural, linguistic, religious, and even physical existence of an indigenous population that has lived in the region for thousands of years. For Uyghurs, Turkey has long been the last shelter; it stood as a second home given the fact that Anatolian Turks share ancestral heritage with their Uyghur brethren and worship the same God of Islam. None of the multitudes of common glues that bind the two peoples together seem to matter, however, as decision-makers in Ankara pay more attention to the pressing needs of the country’s flagging economy than moral charges of their discontents over the consequences of selling Uyghurs out.
“This extradition treaty will cause worry among Uyghurs who have fled China and do yet have Turkish citizenship,” Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Uyghur World Congress, told AFP earlier this week. He emphasized that China stepped up its economic pressure to secure the ratification of the deal.
In a Zoom meeting, Kuzzat Altay, the president of the Uyghur American Association, voiced his bitter disappointment over the dreadful prospect of Turkey’s extradition of Uyghurs back to China. (Note that Altay’s views as expressed in this article represent his own thinking, not the positions of the Uyghur American Association.)
According to Altay, the contours of the extradition arrangement were set out during President Erdogan’s visit to Beijing in 2017. It was largely rooted in the Chinese composition of the framework, cloaked under dubiously defined legal language. It envisions the tracing and apprehension of criminals who fit the requirements of the extradition deal, but the devil is hidden in details.
“According to the Chinese regime, simply being Uyghur is a crime. Reading [the] Quran, or speaking the very own language constitutes a crime according to the Chinese laws,” Altay told me, revealing the mindset behind the regime of draconian measures across Eastern Turkestan. Based on the available evidence, if the deal is ratified by the Turkish legislative body, it would allow the the blanket arraignment of any Uyghur, without distinction, and their deportation back to China.
The matter of extradition of Uyghurs long precedes the latest controversy. Altay offers a searing indictment of practices that are often overlooked by the public in Turkey. Approximately, 100,000 Uyghurs are believed to have taken residence in Turkey, fleeing persecution back in China. Not all of them, Altay plaintively notes, are well connected. Some of them have no relatives in Turkey. These individuals with no material well-being and political backing appear prone to the unwelcoming realities of an increasingly teetering Turkish economy.
For reasons that still remain obscure, some Uyghurs have already been extradited back to China via Tajikistan, the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur leader said. To avoid public backlash, the Turkish authorities conceal this unpopular practice through a tangled web of measures by using third countries and some subtle methods. This has been reported by international media outlets, to the chagrin of the Turkish government and to the dismay of the public, outraged by Ankara’s fealty to Beijing.
“There are hundreds of expatriates currently accommodated in the immigration bureaus of police departments that handle the state of undocumented immigrants in Turkey,” Altay said. “We do not have any information about them. We do not know for certain how many Uyghurs have been sent back to China via third countries without our knowledge.”
Soon after the news of the extradition treaty broke out, thousands in different cities across Turkey launched demonstrations to vent their anger. Driving the public rage is the irony that the wrangling over extradition is taking place under a coalition government forged by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).
The conservative AKP constituency has a particular concern over and interest in matters related to the suffering of Muslims around the world, while the MHP’s political creed is defined by an unshaken commitment to the well-being of Turkic brethren in Central Asia. But neither has registered any real sense of alarmism about Uyghurs placed in concentration camps at the hands of the Chinese regime.
At the heart of Altay’s criticism lies the unbridled opportunism that has captured the Turkish leadership. With its size, considerable might, and strategic location, Turkey would normally expected to be in the vanguard of Muslim opposition to China’s treatment of Turkey’s ethnic and religious brethren. This is also what the Uyghur diaspora expects and wants amid the deafening silence of the Islamic world toward the plight of Muslim Uyghurs in western China. Yet, their exalted expectation has been shattered by the revelation of the extradition deal, which currently sits in the parliamentary commission before a vote on the grand floor of the Turkish Parliament.
After a torrent of public reaction, the Turkish government sought to reassure wary Uyghurs on December 31. “Until now, there have been requests for returns from China related to Uyghurs in Turkey. And you know Turkey hasn’t taken steps like this,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in remarks to media members in Ankara, according to France24. He noted that Turkey has been more sensitive to this issue than others.
Still, Altay does not mask his disillusionment toward the current administration in Ankara. (The interview with Altay took place before the minister’s press remarks.) He said that the influence of Dogu Perincek, the Maoist and pro-China head of the Patriotic Party, has hijacked Erdogan’s policy agenda with regards to the relationship with China. On the surface, Perincek, the leader of a small political party, is a marginal figure in Turkish politics, but he has gained outsized influence with the Erdogan administration, winning him the unofficial moniker of “shadow defense minister” due to his connections to the security services. He has been particularly influential on foreign policy, where he is staunchly anti-West — and pro-China. The first victim of this deference to Perincek’s ideological conviction and set of preferences in Turkey’s China policy appears to have been Uyghurs living in Turkey.
Another factor, Altay mused, that drives the political calculations in Ankara is the wobbly state of Turkey’s economy battered by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which, in an ironic coincidence, originated in China.
The decline of Turkey’s economy has seemingly deprived Ankara of many palatable choices in its foreign policy. Consequently, this also renders Turkey considerably vulnerable to the financial overtures of Beijing, whose well-known debt-trap diplomacy aims to subjugate client countries after offering large sums of credit loans. Though Turkey may not be as dependent on China as many countries in Asia or Africa, the pandemic has inexorably weakened the Turkish government’s hand in negotiations, be they for diplomatic or legal arrangements or an economic deal.
“The $3.5 billion worth of credit deal snapped up by former Finance Minister Berat Albayrak’s delegation during a visit to China was then presented by the Turkish media as a huge success in the mold of Magnificent Suleiman’s glorious victories,” Altay said. “This is a joke. The figure here [is] not even worth mentioning. It is nothing. Yet, they [Turkish leadership] made Turkey even need such paltry figures.”
Altay does not spare his blunt criticism about the government’s incompetent management of the Turkish economy during the pandemic. This, he fears, sustains Turkey’s vulnerability, which may compel the Turkish leadership to heed the additional Chinese demand for the ratification of the extradition deal by the Turkish Parliament before vaccines are shipped to Turkey, where the coronavirus’ uncontrollable spread has wreaked havoc over the past year. The death toll is now steadily mounting, while hospitals across the nation are overwhelmed by the surge in new cases.
The government’s mixed record over its Uyghur policy does not instill any confidence in the Uyghur diaspora. Altay no longer takes Turkey’s rejection of Chinese demands about Uyghurs for granted. He fears that the pro-Beijing mindset in the Erdogan government and the country’s economic hazards may tilt Ankara to a position close to China. In the worst-case scenario, the ratification of the controversial extradition deal would be the first outcome of this pivot.
Abdullah Ayasun is a journalist and political analyst based in Washington, D.C.