By Roie Yellinek*
On August 3, 2017, the Turkish and the Chinese foreign ministers, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Wang Yi, met in Beijing to discuss ways to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. At the press conference at the end of the meeting, the Turkish minister stated that the Turkish government would eliminate any report in the Turkish media criticizing China, adding that the Turkish government took China’s security as Turkey’s security. The particular subject under discussion was the newspaper articles about China’s Uyghurs minority.
The Uyghurs are an ethnically Turkish Islamic-Sunni minority living in the Xinjiang region in northwest China. This minority is in constant conflict with the central government in Beijing over its demand for a separate and independent state. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them have fled Xinjiang to Turkey, a country many of them view, or better say – saw, as friendly due to their common religious and cultural foundations as well as its traditional support to the Uyghurs.
Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has said in the past that “the Uyghurs represent Turkey’s original, ancient culture”. Erdogan has seen himself as protector of the Uyghurs and has attacked the Chinese regime many times in its manner of dealing with the Uyghurs. In 2009, for example, Erdoğan said in regards of the violent riots in the Xinjiang region that the Uyghurs were facing a genocide and called on the Chinese government not to be a mere bystander.
However, last year, Erdoğan has changed his tune regards to the Uyghurs issue. He initiated the tightening of the relations between Turkey and China, the peak of which was the meeting of the foreign ministers and the Turkish declaration considering China’s security as akin to the security of Turkey.
The Turkish president’s desire to strengthen the relationship with China is comprehensible and legitimate. Erdoğan knows quite well that Turkey’s geographic location, a continental connection between Europe and Asia, is extremely important to the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative”, and could, therefore, result in closer Turkish cooperation with China and thus provide with greater power for him and his country. It is this calculation that brought him to look towards the future rather than the past with regard to the Uyghurs minority.
Furthermore, America’s failure (or failure of the US) to solve the conflicts in the Middle East and its surrender to Iran on the nuclear deal substantially dampened Turkey’s interest in being part of the bloc of countries traditionally led by the US. Ankara’s repeated failure to be accepted by the EU has pushed the Turkish leadership to the understanding that Turkey simply does not belong to the group of countries usually referred to as “western;” i.e., countries with western values.
As mentioned, in order to get close to China the Turkish president sacrificed those who, according to him, is the “Turkey’s original, ancient culture”, the Uyghur minority. He has done this through additional restrictions on freedom of the press in Turkey. These restrictions were added to closing down of nearly 150 media outlets, and to the arrest of around 160 journalists after the failed coup attempt on July 15th, 2016. The last restriction is only a symptom of the way Erdoğan uses his power to achieve his party’s and personal goals, and of his habit to change his commitments from one to another, -in this case from the Uyghurs to the Chinese leadership-. The strengthening of the relationship between his regime and China may help him to keep the power in his hands in the coming years with the economic and political benefits this relationship holds.
The narrowing of the press freedom in Turkey, becomes more and more worrisome for the Turkish citizens and the whole democratic countries have been watching very dangerous processes in Turkey without doing enough to urge the Turkish leadership to keep balance and receptivity. The Western world should awake and see what is going on in Turkey and find ways to support the moderate Turkish to have more influence on the regime. To this end, the first step should be to support and protect the freedom of the press.
*Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University, a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum and China-Med Project, and a freelance journalist.