More than 1 million Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of China, their native land, are believed to have been interned in so-called reeducation camps by the Chinese authorities. The number may be as high as 2 or 3 million—out of a population of 11 million. Trapped along with them are Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, other Muslim minorities, though in smaller numbers.
The Uighurs still on the outside are living in one of the world’s most pervasive and heavy-handed surveillance regimes, in which the camps are just one form of containment and punishment. Uighurs live in constant fear of arbitrary detention and can expect swift retribution for any expression of Turkic or Muslim identity—to the absurd extent that giving your child a traditional Muslim name is illegal.
Yet when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the self-styled defender of Muslims worldwide, visited China last week, state media reported that he said all the people in Xinjiang were “living happily” there, thanks to China’s general upward economic trajectory. Erdogan’s attitude is all too typical of the approach taken by the world’s most prominent Muslim leaders toward the Uighurs.
Erdogan’s buddy-buddy act with Chinese President Xi Jinping came despite a proclamation by the Turkish Foreign Ministry in February. “It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons. Uighurs who are not detained in these camps are under heavy pressure,” the statement read. The ministry insisted that Turkey had raised the issue with Beijing.
Beijing reacted forcefully to the gesture, and Ankara folded without hesitation. Erdogan’s priority is now reviving historical links and “strengthening cooperation” between Turkey and China, as Turkey is bidding for a key role in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Any road or rail channel between China and Turkey would have to go through Xinjiang, the westernmost part of China, so, in Ankara’s view, a shared faith, history, and kinship with the Turkic Uighurs should not get in the way of China’s handling of the local population. Ordinary Turks are strong supporters of Uighur rights, but Erdogan has a country to run—and he will not get sentimental about the issue. Muslim solidarity is a good campaign slogan and good international public relations, but that seems about as far as it goes for Turkey and others.
Pakistan, just across the border from Xinjiang, emerged as a country in 1947 specifically to be a place of refuge for Muslims. Since then, the country’s political, military, and religious leaders have taken it upon themselves to champion Islam and defend Muslims wherever they may be. Pakistan is, after all, the only Muslim nuclear state, so, by at least one measure, it has the most powerful military and the greatest capacity to intervene on behalf of oppressed Muslims anywhere.
Except, perhaps, if those Muslims live in China. Some go as far as describing Pakistan as a client state of China. Regardless, in an otherwise hugely fractured country and society, there is one thing everyone from military intelligence to radical preachers to politicians agree on: Chinese investment is vital for the country’s development and perhaps necessary even just to have enough economic activity to sustain the state and its massive army. That’s why there has been silence out of Islamabad—and why Prime Minister Imran Khan pretended not to even know about the issue when asked.
Pakistani men married to Uighur women have seen their spouses disappear into the camps but received no aid from their government. China has been running a vehement propaganda campaign on the issue, spearheaded from its embassy—and spying on Uighurs in Pakistan itself.
Nor can Uighurs expect much sympathy from their other Turkic Muslim neighbors across the border in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, or any of the other Central Asian republics. They may share the religion of Islam, and even a common ethnic and cultural history, but all the governments in the region are looking to curry favor with Beijing as China is building its Belt and Road westward.
On the one hand, there are the hard geopolitical realities of having a landlocked country dependent on powerful neighbors for trade. On the other, there is the local governments’ predilection to lock up their own citizens. These countries hardly have the moral standing to censure China, even if they had the capacity to do so. Diplomatic pressure behind the scenes, coupled with public outcry in their home countries, has ensured the release of Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and others from the camps—but that sympathy doesn’t extend to Uighurs themselves.
The news today swung the Turkish stance in the opposite direction, as Erdoğan gave a major signal of support for China’s Xinjiang policies during his meeting with Xi, according to the Xinhua readout:
Turkey stays committed to the one-China policy, Erdogan said, stressing that residents of various ethnicities living happily in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region thanks to China’s prosperity is a hard fact, and Turkey will not allow anyone to drive a wedge in its relations with China. He also expressed the readiness to deepen political mutual trust and strengthen security cooperation with China in opposing extremism.
In other Xinjiang news, the Guardian reports that Chinese border police at the Irkeshtam border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Chinese Xinjiang “are secretly installing surveillance apps on the phones of visitors and downloading personal information,” including emails, texts, contacts, and information that can be used to identify or track the handset itself.
Uighur activists have criticised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for failing to speak out against China’s detention of hundreds of thousands of the predominantly Muslim Turkic minority in the western Xinjiang province during a visit to Beijing on Tuesday.
In an article published in China’s Global Daily newspaper ahead of Erdogan’s meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Erdogan said that the two countries shared a “vision of the future”.
Erdogan also highlighted Turkey’s support for the Belt and Road Initative (BRI), a vast infrastructure project that aims to create better transport and trade links from China to western Asia and Europe.
Who are the Uighurs?
Uygurs are Muslims, and their origins are in the Turkic people. Official statistics indicate that there are 30 million Muslims in China, 23 million of whom are Uighurs, while unofficial reports indicate that the number of Muslims is about 100 million, about 9.5 percent of the total population.
The Uygurs make up about 45 percent of East Turkestan, which has been controlled by China since 1949, and has launched Xinjiang, the new frontier.
Experts and human rights groups say up to one million Muslims are being held in political rehabilitation centers in Xinjiang.
International human rights organizations accuse the Chinese authorities of holding millions of Uighurs in East Turkestan in detention camps under the pretext of “re-education”.
But Beijing denies the charges and talks about vocational training centers aimed at fighting extremism. It also emphasizes that security measures in Shanjiang are necessary to combat extremism, and are not aimed at a specific ethnic group.
Last December, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said her office was seeking to arrange a visit to the region to investigate “worrying reports” of detention centers that China calls “political re-education camps”, including Uighurs.
A recent US congressional report said Chinese authorities were cracking down on “unprecedented” repression of members of ethnic minorities, including Uighur Muslims, and authoritarian government tactics were causing the country’s human rights to deteriorate.
The executive committee on China in Congress, made up of bipartisan members, said repression had increased in recent years despite the country’s strong economic growth and its growing dealings with the world.
The report highlighted “the severe human rights situation within China, which continues to deteriorate in all respects,” since Shi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, became president the following year.
Between Muhammad bin Salman and Erdogan, the Uighur file lied to the lies and trade of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the issues of Muslims and Arabs, which happened in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other issues that are traded for the interests of Turkey and Qatar and the international organization of the Brotherhood.