Turkey and China, two countries that lead the world in having the worst records of human rights violations, are in the middle of a dispute over a human rights issue: China’s massive incarceration of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China.
The world has known about China’s detention of at least 1 million Uighurs for more than two years now. China initially denied that they’d been detaining the minorities, but after mountains of evidence published by the Western media and an outcry from activist and human rights organizations, China insists that putting Uighurs in “vocational skill training centers” is necessary to combat “extremists” and terrorists and will “de-radicalize and transform” them so they can become more acceptable Chinese citizens. Chinese authorities even backdated a law to legitimize such detention.
While Western nations, including the United States, France, and Germany, have urged China to “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” and release “the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of individuals detained in these camps,” almost all Muslim countries, including Turkey, have remained quiet and generally have avoided criticizing China publicly, for two obvious reasons.
Don’t Tell Mr. Moneybags He’s a Tyrant
For one, many Muslim countries depend on China economically. Several are recipients of investments from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious infrastructure program that plans to connect 65 countries from east to west through railroads, shipping ports, and other infrastructure projects. Many countries count on China to finance these infrastructure projects. For example, Beijing promised to invest $50 billion in Pakistan.
So speaking up may result in China stopping future funding and calling for debt repayment. Pakistan’s prime minister admitted publicly that “we owe China so what can we do” when he was asked why Pakistan hadn’t publicly condemn China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. Even countries not covered by the BRI are worried about potential economic retribution, such as lost trade and investments from the world’s second-largest economy.
Another obvious reason these Muslim countries have avoided criticizing China publicly is that they have poor human rights record themselves. Turkey is a good example. A 2018 United Nations report detailed extensive human rights violations in Turkey, including “nearly 160,000 people arrested during an 18-month state of emergency; 152,000 civil servants dismissed, many totally arbitrarily; teachers, judges and lawyers dismissed or prosecuted; journalists arrested, media outlets shut down and websites blocked.” They don’t want to invite public scrutiny of their own human rights violations if they criticize China.
To add insult to injury, some of these Muslim countries not only have remained silent on China’s crackdown on Uighurs, but also have actively assisted China in prosecuting Uighur activists and refugees. Egypt, a beneficiary of BRI, for example, deported a dozen Uighurs back to China in 2017. In the meantime, Turkey’s government has been actively monitoring Uighur activists and immigrants in Turkey on behalf of Chinese authorities.
Therefore, it’s somewhat surprising that Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement last weekend condemning China’s massive incarceration of its Muslim minority. It declares that “the reintroduction of internment camps in the XXIst century and the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uighur Turks carried out by the authorities of China is a great shame for humanity.” Turkey goes on to ask China to “respect the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and to close the internment camps.”
It looks like the straw that finally broke the camel’s back was the news (can’t be independently verified) that Abdurehim Heyit, a famous Uighur folk poet and singer who performed on international stages and has many overseas fans, passed away while serving an eight-year sentence in one of those internment camps. China charged that one of songs he wrote, called “Atilar,” or “Forefathers,” jeopardized national security, even though he was a state-sponsored artist and all his songs, including this one, passed state censorship in the past.
A Turkey-China Fracas Is Forming
After Turkey’s rare open criticism, China quickly pushed back by releasing a short video through China Radio International’s Turkish language service’s website and Twitter (even though Twitter is officially banned in China). The video purportedly shows a man self-identified as Heyit. He claimed he was in good health and had never been abused.
But people who know him think he looked distressed in the video. The video has the typical vibe of those “forced” confessions by jailed activists you often seen on China’s state-run TV network. It’s also unclear when and where this video was taken. Thus, rather than quieting criticism, the release of the video raises even more questions.
But China will have none of it. In addition to this video, a spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry called Turkey’s statement “vile.” An editorial in China’s state-run tabloid Global Times sniffed at Turkey’s human rights’ record: “Turkey has no grounds to point an accusing finger at China’s domestic affairs. Ankara is no saint toward the Kurds or in the purge following the 2016 coup attempt if judged by Western standards of human rights.”
China’s embassy in Ankara also condemned the Turkish foreign ministry statement as a “serious violation of the facts” and “completely unacceptable.” It demands Turkey’s Foreign Ministry “withdraw its false accusations and take measures to eliminate their harmful effects.” China’s embassy warned Chinese tourists about their safety in Turkey. But many interpret the warning as really meant for Turkey’s government. China has used cutting back tourism as a weapon to punish foreign governments for saying or doing things displeasing to China.
Just ask South Korea. In 2017, after South Korea began initial steps to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system that China objected to, China imposed (unofficially) a travel ban on tour groups to South Korea. After Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, CFO of China telecom giant Huawei, China issued travel warnings to Canada. Naturally, China’s embassy in Ankara seems to use the warning to Chinese tourists as a reminder to Turkey that China may turn off the flow of its much-desired tourism dollars if Turkey doesn’t shut up.
There is a certain irony in seeing the world’s two leading human rights abusers go at each other over human rights violations. We don’t know what motivated Turkey to finally speak up about China’s massive detention of Uighurs and whether it will continue to speak out despite of China’s pressure. Turkey is the number one destination for Uighur immigrants and refugees due to shared language, culture, and religion. Uighur activists had long pressured Turkey’s government to take a stand but had been ignored.
As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan becomes more and more authoritarian, he has made his own pivot to Asia by actively seeking a strong alliance with China. Therefore, the strongly worded condemnation from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on China’s human rights abuse may not represent any strategic policy change in Turkey. It’s unrealistic to assume Turkey has become a human rights defender overnight. A more likely explanation is that Turkey wants to be the leader of the Muslim world, so it feels that it has to say something since China hasn’t shown any intention to pull back its crackdown on Uighurs and the plight of Uighurs can no longer be ignored.
Whatever Turkey’s motivation is for speaking up now, what we do know is that China’s treatment of Uighurs is “a shame for humanity.” Although China is adamant about not bowing to any foreign government’s interference in its domestic affairs, Chinese leaders very much care about China’s image on the global stage and are eagerly seeking respect on the international stage. China’s economy has significantly slowed down and Chinese leaders are keenly aware that China needs international markets to help revive their economy.
Therefore, regardless of Turkey’s motive, Western governments, especially the United States, should join Turkey and let China know that international communities are united against China’s massive incarceration of its Muslim minorities and won’t back down until China closes their internment camps and releases innocent Uighurs.