Gulmira last heard from her mother via text message on October 19, 2017: “Hello, daughter. Don’t worry about me. I’m going to camp. Don’t write to me.” Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government placed her mother in an internment camp. From August 2016 until the time of her mother’s arrest, mass internment of the Muslim Uighur minority in China had intensified. Alleging concerns about terrorism, the Chinese government began targeting Uighurs who had travelled abroad; Gulmira believes it was her mother’s two visits to see her in Turkey that led to her internment in China. It has now been over a year since Gulmira last saw, or spoke to, her mother.
Gulmira’s brother Mehmet also endured an unexpected and harrowing experience with the Chinese authorities. When Mehmet, who was studying to earn his PhD in the United States, went to visit his family in Xinjiang during a term break in January 2018, he was detained for twenty-seven days. Authorities did not allow him any outside communication and refused to tell him where he was being held. Mehmet’s mother had warned him not to visit home, but Mehmet had assumed that his status as a student in the United States, and the fact that he had not traveled to any Muslim-majority countries, would protect him from suspicion and offer no grounds for detainment. After the authorities cleared Mehmet of wrongdoing and released him, they withheld his passport for three months. Mehmet says they firmly told him and his sister never to return.
The Chinese government has persecuted the Uighur minority since their home province of Xinjiang became autonomous in 1949. In Xinjiang, Uighurs are treated as second-class citizens to the ethnic Han Chinese. The Han have greater access to economic opportunities, while the Uighurs face high rates of unemployment. The Chinese government heavily restricts Uighur language instruction and Islamic religious practice. In recent years, authorities have ramped up harassment, justifying the persecution of Uighurs by claiming it is part of efforts to prevent Islamic extremism. The Chinese government has reportedly forcibly imprisoned one million Chinese Uighur citizens in internment camps, officially called “reeducation centers.” The government is insistent on asserting control over the Uighur; this approach is clearly reflected in the increasing reach and arbitrariness of their persecution.
As a result of this persecution, many Uighurs have fled abroad, forming a robust diaspora. Some Uighurs seeking asylum, like Mehmet, have found safe haven in Turkey. He explained that, for Uighurs, Turkey “feels and looks like home” since Turkish culture is widely consumed in Xinjiang through popular Turkish music and television shows. Since the 1990s, the Turkish people and government have welcomed the Uighurs, with whom they share a religious and ethnic background. The Turkish public is, therefore, opposed to anti-Uighur discrimination in China, responding to the 2015 reports of the Chinese fasting ban on Uighurs during Ramadan with pro-Uighur protests outside of the Chinese Embassy in Ankara. The Turkish government has allowed Uighurs to obtain Turkish passports and citizenship and has spoken out against their persecution. In 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan openly denounced China for its treatment of Uighurs, risking strained relations with the Chinese.
However, the relationship between the Uighurs and Turkey seems to be changing, putting at risk the estimated 50,000 Uighurs living in the country. As the number of Uighurs interned in China continues to rise, the Turkish government has remained noticeably silent as of late. This shift can be traced to China’s growing economic influence in the region. Following Turkey’s recent economic crisis, Beijing has offered crucial economic opportunities, shifting Turkey’s reliance away from the United States and toward China for financial support. Beijing has made it clear that it is ready to support Turkey through investments, lending, and financing for infrastructure projects, but has also warned Turkey to avoid making any more “irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang.” China will heavily involve Turkey in its large-scale Belt and Road Initiative, which has the potential to bring millions of dollars of investment to Turkey. Additionally, China is boosting its banking and trading activity across the region, seeking to shore up its long-term influence and replace the dollar with its yuan currency for lending and trading. Prime Minister Erdogan has demonstrated his willingness to secure this new alliance, emphasizing that the initiative would help put an end to terrorism.
For Uighurs living in Turkey, this shift in the government’s priorities has disrupted their protection in the country. The legal status of Uighur residency and travel to and from Turkey is now in flux. Gulmira, like most Uighurs, is eligible for long-term residency, but has recently heard that other Uighurs are facing bureaucratic troubles in their application processes. It is unclear whether Turkey will continue issuing Turkish citizenship and passports to this diaspora Uighur population. Her Chinese passport is also due to expire, but the Istanbul consulate is reportedly refusing to issue new passports for Uighurs. Should this be the case, Gulmira will officially become stateless. There is an option to obtain a special travel document for single entry back to China, but going home is too risky.
Fortunately, even as Turkey has diminished its support of the Uighurs, U.S. support has increased, with the United States strongly denouncing China’s maltreatment of the ethnic minority. A group of U.S. lawmakers recommended to U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo that sanctions be imposed on seven Chinese officials involved in Uighur repression. In May 2018, a U.S. representative to the United Nations openly criticized China for preventing exiled Uighur activist Dolkun Isa from speaking at a UN indigenous rights conference in New York; the U.S. representative was then ordered to leave by the Chinese mission. In August 2018, the U.S. mission to the UN tweeted that it was “deeply troubled by reports of an ongoing crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslims in China,” and called for China to “end their counterproductive policies and free all of those who have been arbitrarily detained.” So far, U.S. support on the Uighur issue remains rhetorical, but escalating discussions may lead to more tangible action on the issue.
The repression of Uighurs in China poses a tough challenge to the Western liberal order. As China expands its economic influence, it is also far more likely to achieve its political goals, many of which violate values upheld by the international community. Unfortunately for the Uighurs, it seems that countries like Turkey are increasingly willing to sacrifice human rights in favor of quick economic relief and the benefits to be gained through lucrative partnerships with China.
Sarah Khalbuss is a Syrian-American educator and community organizer dedicated to improving the social inclusion of migrants and expanding education for development. Supported by a Fulbright scholarship, in 2015 she spent time in Turkey observing the rising tensions between locals and displaced Syrians. In 2016, Sarah co-founded a non-profit youth empowerment organization, Istanbul&I, to work with refugees in Istanbul. She is currently a Turkish Heritage Organization non-resident fellow writing articles and blogs on Syria and migrant issues.