Whenever President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets angry with the European Union over delays on Turkey’s accession, he frequently threatens to head to the Shanghai Five. Turkey is currently trying to improve its relations with China by planning to waive visa requirements for Chinese visitors in 2016. However, Turkey is still unable to cope with the issue of East Turkestan and the plight of the area's Uighur population, oppressed for decades by China’s assimilation policies. Therefore, China’s Xingjian Uighur Autonomous Region, or as Turkish nationalists longingly call it, East Turkestan, is used to easily excite Turkish opinion.
The latest provocations of the Turkish public was by pro-government papers like Aksam with the headline, “Chinese police massacre 18 fasting Uighurs”; daily Sabah with the headline, “Massacred for fasting: 18 killed”; and daily Takvim with the headline, “Uighurs forced to drink alcohol on Ramadan.” Internet sites and social media also contributed by manipulating the special ambiance of Ramadan with reports claiming that China banned fasting for civil servants, students and teachers in East Turkestan, ordering restaurants to stay open during fasting hours and markets to sell alcoholic drinks.
Several civil society organizations of the nationalist ideology organized anti-China protests in Turkey. In Istanbul’s top tourism district of Sultanahmet, a group of nationalists assaulted Korean tourists they mistook for Chinese.
Also in Istanbul, the windows of a Chinese restaurant where Uighurs work were smashed. Chinese flags were burned and an effigy of Mao was hanged at Balikesir. When the incidents continued, the Chinese Foreign Ministry felt compelled to issue a travel warning to its citizens going to Turkey. The Chinese ministry noted that Uighurs were enjoying religious freedoms and a right to live and work in peace within a constitutional framework.
Nothing to do with fasting
According to Radio Free Asia, on June 22 clashes broke out after a group attacked a police post at Tahtakoruk, attached to the town of Kashgar, with knives and explosives. Twenty-eight were killed including three Chinese policemen and six of the attackers. Police says 16 terrorists were killed. What you have is an attack, followed by clashes and disproportionate reactions of the Chinese police that cost the lives of innocent people. Backgrounds of the attackers suggest organized violent intentions rather than simply protesting a ban on fasting. Attackers were from the same family. Their land was given to Han Chinese 10 years ago. The family suffered economic hardships and in time became more religious, which attracted police attention. Police forced the family's women to expose their hair and the men to shave their beards. In short, they became one of the families Chinese police terrorize to subdue radical Islamists.
Persecution and terror
China’s problem in East Turkestan has two dimensions. One is its assimilation policies applied since 1949 to discourage the movement for independence; the second is terror brought to mainland China by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which colluded with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
This is when Turkey took some careless steps that laid the ground for its involvement in East Turkestan. One of these steps was Erdogan's reaction after clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs in 2009, when he openly accused China of genocide. He even scolded the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which tried to dilute his remarks. But most of the 197 people killed in those clashes were Han Chinese. Erdogan eventually backed away from his remarks and signed eight treaties with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who he hosted in Ankara a year later. Two years later, China did not react to Erdogan beginning his return visit to China from Urumqi, the capital of East Turkestan. This was followed by Turkey disregarding accusations of distancing itself from NATO and then offering China an unexpected alliance opportunity by declaring that it will purchase its massive anti-missile shield system from China.
China-Turkey relations are therefore characterized by sharp ups and downs. Just as Beijing reduces the Uighur issue to a simple matter of terrorism, Turkey prefers not to make mention of violence when appearing to be concerned with the East Turkestan affair. This is a dangerous approach, though: In old days when the Uighur movement was not receiving the support it had hoped for from Ankara, Chinese were forever looking for Turkish involvement behind East Turkestan actions for independence. Now they are looking for Turkish connections to the recent violence. In March 2014, when the attackers who killed 35 and wounded 141 in Kunming were caught in Indonesia carrying Turkish passports, Ankara found itself in a tight corner. Beijing was also considerably annoyed when 173 Uighurs who had escaped to Thailand were issued Turkish passports to prevent their extradition to China. Uighurs who join the Islamic State via Turkey present a new element adversely affecting the trust between Ankara and Beijing. Like many other countries, China believes Turkey is not doing the right thing in Syria.
In this new phase of tension, Erdogan has decided to go to Beijing in a surprise move on July 28. But at this point, overcoming the atmosphere of distrust might not be as easy as in 2010, given the emergence of more serious issues.
In sum, while the Turkish government insists on implementing the security agreement signed in 2000 by not issuing a visa to World Uighur Congress leader Rabia Kadir, it seems unsure how to react to the equating of alleged terror to legitimate grievances. This attitude narrows the possibility of resolving problems of cultural assimilation, discrimination and marginalization the Uighurs suffer.
In recent years, narratives crafted to impress domestic opinion have done much to expand problem areas in Turkey’s foreign politics. To drag foreign policy into domestic politics can quickly lay waste to efforts to develop bilateral relations.