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Turkish diplomat's visit to Uyghur region in China raises concerns

FILE - Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Ankara, Turkey, July 26, 2023. Fidan wrapped up a three-day visit to China on June 5, 2024. (Pool via Reuters)
FILE - Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Ankara, Turkey, July 26, 2023. Fidan wrapped up a three-day visit to China on June 5, 2024. (Pool via Reuters)

On Wednesday, wrapping up his three-day official visit to China, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan tweeted about fulfilling his long-held dream of visiting Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China.

"For many years, I have had the opportunity to visit many historical cities that contributed to the establishment of the Turkic and Islamic civilization," Fidan said in his tweet. "However, Urumqi and Kashgar always remained in my heart as a regret. Thanks to my contacts in China, I finally visited these two ancient cities."

Xinjiang, often referred to as East Turkestan by Uyghurs and the Turkish diaspora, is home to nearly 12 million ethnically Turkic and Muslim Uyghurs. Experts highlight the Uyghurs' significance in Ankara's ties with Beijing because of shared ethnic and religious bonds.

"Turkish people have long held concern for the well-being of the Uyghurs, which influences decision-makers in the government," Erkin Ekrem, director of the Ankara-based Uyghur Research Institute, told VOA. "Actions or inactions concerning Uyghurs can impact the outcomes of local or national elections each term."

Turkey hosts nearly 50,000 Uyghurs, many of whom fled escalating repression in Xinjiang, establishing one of the largest Uyghur communities outside China.

Detention, imprisonment

Since 2017, following reports of China's arbitrary mass detention and imprisonment of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other human rights violations against the Turkic Muslim population, the U.S. and several parliaments have designated China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

In 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Office concluded in a report that Beijing's actions toward Uyghurs might constitute crimes against humanity.

China denies these accusations, asserting that the measures in Xinjiang are acts of counterterrorism.

Historically, Turkey has allowed Uyghurs in the country some freedom to protest China's treatment of Uyghurs. However, since urging China in 2019 to close the internment facilities and respect Uyghurs' human rights, the Turkish government has not publicly criticized China, according to experts.

Turkey has long been pressured by China, one of its largest trade partners, to stop Uyghur advocates and organizations from calling out China's repression, Ekrem said. "Turkey has made efforts to limit Uyghur activism within its borders," he said, "but many Uyghur and East Turkestan groups and individuals operate within Turkish law, making it impossible for the government to completely comply with Chinese demands."

During the trip, Fidan met with several high-ranking Chinese officials, including his counterpart, Wang Yi, Chinese Vice President Han Zheng and Chinese security chief Chen Wenqing. He also held talks with officials in Xinjiang.

In a statement following his meeting with Wang Yi in Beijing, Fidan described Urumqi and Kashgar as "ancient Turkic and Islamic" cities that serve as bridges between China, the Turkic world and the Islamic world. "They are symbols of our historical friendship and neighborliness," Fidan said.

However, since 2017, China's official messaging to Uyghurs in Xinjiang is that they are a non-Turkic group with deep roots in the Chinese nation.

According to Abdurresit Celil Karluk, professor at Haci Bayram Veli University in Ankara, Fidan's emphasis on the Turkic and Islamic identity of Urumqi and Kashgar, along with his decision to visit these cities, was a diplomatic signal to his Chinese counterparts and the international community that Turkey remains concerned about the fate of the Uyghurs.

"To the best of my knowledge, previous high-level Turkish officials have not previously highlighted the Turko-Islamic identity of this region or Türkiye's geocultural presence in the region during their visits to Beijing," Karluk said in an email to VOA. "It seems that the message was intended for both China and Turkish domestic politics and the Uyghur diaspora."

Repression rose

In the past, however, repression against the Uyghurs has steadily increased after each visit of high-level Turkish officials to "East Turkestan," according to Karluk.

"Since the early 2000s until 2012, at least four top Turkish government officials, including [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, visited East Turkestan," Karluk said. "Consequently, Uyghurs faced increasing repression, and since Erdogan's visit in 2012, Uyghurs have endured ongoing genocide."

While in China, Fidan prioritized trade talks between the two countries, seeking to boost Chinese investment in Turkey and attract more Chinese tourism to help balance the trade deficit.

"As you know, China is Turkey's second-largest trading partner, and currently, there's almost a $50 billion trade volume between the two countries," Fidan told China Media Group. "However, it's currently in favor of China, and during this trip, we are focusing on how to balance this trade deficit."

According to Karluk, Turkey, as a developing country currently struggling with economic problems, seeks to benefit from China's Belt and Road Initiative. Conversely, China aims to utilize foreign diplomats' "visits to the East Turkestan to counter accusations" of genocide by portraying these visits as evidence of normalcy.

"Fidan's visit to East Turkestan may serve several purposes: While Türkiye seeks to demonstrate [to] the world its concern for the Uyghurs, it also reminds China of Türkiye's deep ties to the region and thus Türkiye's geopolitical presence in the region. China is trying to put a positive spin on its treatment of the Uyghurs," he told VOA in an email.

Chinese media reported that Fidan stated Turkey is committed to the "One China" principle, opposes any actions undermining China's territorial integrity, and agreed to "strengthen anti-terrorism" cooperation between the two countries.

Some advocates of Uyghur independence believe that by inviting the Turkish foreign minister to Xinjiang and securing support from Turkey, a prominent Turkic Muslim-majority country, China aims to diminish the impact of international condemnations of its actions against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

"[T]his maneuver will be perceived by the international community, particularly Western nations, as an endorsement of China's genocidal regime," Salih Hudayar, a member of the Washington-based Uyghur group East Turkestan Government in Exile, said in an email to VOA.