For five days this month, Jevlan Shirmemmet and other Uyghur activists demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara, where they demanded to know the whereabouts of their missing family members in China’s Xinjiang Province. But on the sixth day, the Turkish police intervened.
They prevented the activists from gathering in front of the diplomatic mission, positioned themselves in front of their hotel and accompanied them wherever they went.
The stalemate reflects the difficult balance that Turkey, home to tens of thousands of exiled Uyghurs, must strike with Beijing, not least because it wants closer ties and investments and depends on China for its coronavirus vaccine supplies.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who presents himself as a champion of oppressed Muslims across the world, has in the past been a vocal critic of China’s actions in Xinjiang, the northwest region where the Chinese Communist Party has internal over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims.
“On the one hand, Turkey wants to defend us, we know it, we feel it,” said Shirmemmet, 29, whose mother has been detained in Xinjiang since early 2018. “But they can’t. We have the impression that their hands are tied.
Analysts say the plight of Chinese Uyghurs poses a problem for Erdogan, who is looking for alternative global partners at a time when relations with the West are deeply strained. “They are Muslims, they are Turks, and Turkish voters are sensitive to the issue,” said A Merthan Dundar, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Ankara University. “The government cannot establish a very close relationship with China. But he doesn’t want to cut all ties.
In years past, Erdogan was one of the most outspoken world Muslim leaders regarding the plight of the Uyghurs, who are seen in Turkey as part of a larger global family of Turkish peoples whose rights Ankara has a responsibility to defend.
But opposition parties accused Erdogan’s government of toning down its criticism to avoid upsetting Beijing. “Europe and America have spoken out against the oppression of our Uyghur brothers in China. . . But there is still no sound from Ankara, ”Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition party IYI, said last month. Turkish officials insist they continue to voice their concerns in Beijing behind closed doors.
Some figures in Erdogan’s government have called for stronger ties with Beijing to attract Chinese capital at a time when foreign direct investment from Western countries has declined.
So far, investments have been limited, with the value of Chinese investments in Turkey rising to $ 1.2 billion in 2019 in terms of equity, according to central bank data, against more than 100 billion dollars in Europe.
Ankara wants more. The country’s sovereign wealth fund was woo Chinese investment and plans to open an office in China in the first half of this year. Ankara also has a swap deal with the Chinese central bank which has helped bolster Turkey’s appearance. depleted foreign exchange reserves of about $ 2 billion.
The pandemic has added additional complexity to the relationship. As Turkey struggled to source vaccines made in Europe, it struck a deal for 100 million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine made by Chinese drug maker Sinovac Biotech. Delays in shipments in December coincided with a decision by the Chinese parliament to ratify an extradition treaty between the two countries. Turkey has not yet ratified it.
Yildirim Kaya, member of parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party, said Beijing’s ratification of the treaty had created “great panic among Uyghur Turks who fled China to Turkey.” In a series of questions to Turkey’s health minister, he demanded to know whether Ankara had come under pressure to ratify the deal in order to speed up vaccine delivery. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reacted angrily to these suggestions. “We are not using Uyghurs for political purposes,” he said. “We defend their human rights.”
Analysts are also skeptical that China would use the vaccine, which Turkey has already administered 6.2 million doses of, as gross leverage. Ceren Ergenc, associate professor of Chinese studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, believes Ankara was more likely to be doing Beijing a favor by signing a deal for a vaccine that had yet to be released. approved in China – and that has always question marks on its effectiveness.
“This happened at a time when China did not necessarily need money but prestige in the international system when it comes to the credibility of its vaccines,” she said. “There is a kind of indebtedness or reciprocity – Turkey still needs financial support from China, so it made this act of buying the Chinese vaccine which had not yet undergone all phases of testing to the time.
In response to questions from the Financial Times, the Chinese embassy in Ankara said the recent protests sought to “smear” China and that their actions threatened the security of the diplomatic mission. He firmly rejected the idea that he had used Turkey’s need for vaccine doses as political leverage as “absolutely unfounded guesswork and malicious misinterpretation”.
Still, the episode left many in the Uyghur diaspora deeply nervous about their place in Turkey. “China considers us criminals,” said Mirzehmet Ilyasoglu, who joined the Ankara protests this month to demand information about his brother, brother-in-law and four missing friends. “We hope that this [extradition] the deal will not be presented to parliament, but if it is signed our concerns will increase. “