No doubt the Uyghurs, living in the western region of China’s autonomous Xinjiang Province under heavy surveillance and detention, have had their rights violated by the Chinese government. The government has targeted the group amid an increase in terrorist attacks in the country since the 1990s. The Chinese government’s method of curbing extremism in the region has led to the creation of so called “re-education camps,” which the government prefers to call it a program for “resettlement” of extremists.
Rebiya Kadeer, who leads the World Uyghur Congress, stated over a decade ago, “The Chinese government’s fierce repression of religious expression, its intolerance for any expression of discontent, its discriminatory economic policies and its support for the movement of migrants, have linked Tibet and East Turkestan and have led to the tremendous social tensions in both regions.”
Prisoners are met with heavy-handed methods, where they are physically and mentally tortured.
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan capitalized on the suffering of the minority group. Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in February saying, “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. Uyghurs who are not detained in these camps are under heavy pressure.”
In 2009, Erdogan accused the Chinese government of genocide, publicly stating, “The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There’s no point in interpreting this otherwise.” According to the Istanbul-based East Turkestan National Center, Turkey is home to nearly 35,000 Uyghurs.
Hypocrisy runs deep within the Turkish government.
Take for example Erdogan’s hard line approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Erdogan believes Turkey, not Arab countries like Jordan, should be the custodian of Jerusalem and the protector of Palestinians. But Turkey also enjoys strong economic relations with Israel and does not want to be steered away from tarnishing the billions it receives from Israeli markets.
WHY? FIRST, simply put, Turkey benefits from Israel more than it does the Palestinians.
Second, how can Erdogan use the term “genocide” against China but refuse to recognize the Armenian Genocide perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire? In his view, Turkey’s rulers conquered not by committing genocide but by “conquering hearts.”
Third, does Turkey have any legitimacy speaking about rights of minorities? The Turkish government has committed mass atrocities against minorities within its own borders against the more than 20 million Kurds since the founding of the state in 1923. In addition to imprisoning Kurds, Kurdish cities have been flattened, and their language and culture nearly erased. Turkey is still involved in a four-decade long war with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has taken the lives of nearly 40,000 Kurds and Turks.
Erdogan should know change begins at home. But Erdogan is not concerned about human rights, religious freedom or the Uyghurs.
Erdogan took a sudden U-turn in his recent visit to China. He said, “It is a fact that peoples of China’s Xianjiang region live happily in China’s development and prosperity” and that China and Turkey share a “vision of the future.”
The soft approach between the two countries comes at a time when Erdogan is eager to bolster his image at home and abroad. Facing heavy pressure after the loss of Istanbul elections, twice; tensions with the European Union over Cyprus; worsening ties with the United States over the purchase and delivery of Russian S-400 missiles; his deteriorating policy against Syria’s Kurds; and of course the economic crisis, he is desperately looking for a Chinese boost.
Turkey’s shift toward the East should not surprise anyone.
Leaning closer to Russia and now China, Erdogan is trading the Uyghurs’ religious rights for cheap Chinese loans. Turkey is part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative as the country lies on the shortest route between China and Europe.
Unfortunately, the Uyghurs bet on an unreliable liaison to push their rights forward with the Chinese government appears to have backfired. That is why the United States should apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act which holds individual anywhere in the world “responsible for or in complicit in or to have directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” The US State Department openly criticized the Chinese government stating, “The United States is alarmed by China’s highly repressive campaign against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims in Xinjiang, and efforts to coerce members of its Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate.”
Without impeding trade ties with China, the US has an opportunity to avoid repeating the Turkish mistake and pressure the Chinese government to loosen its grip on its Uyghur minorities. The US must take a strong stance on protecting religious rights anywhere in the world, including China, and must show the Uyghurs that unlike Turkey, the US will not trade their rights for political points.