A chill for Uyghurs sweeps across the Mediterranean


A summary of the top news in Chinese politics and current affairs for August 3, 2017. Part of the daily SupChina newsletter, a convenient package of China’s business, political, and cultural news delivered to your inbox for free. Subscribe here.

Combination of satellite photos shows Chinese-controlled North Island, part of the Paracel Islands group in the South China Sea, on February 15, 2017 (top) and on March 6, 2017. Planet Labs/Handout via REUTERS

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on August 3 that his government, led by the increasingly autocratic Tayyip Erdogan, “absolutely will not allow in Turkey any activities targeting or opposing China,” Reuters reports. He also said that Turkey will censor — or, in his words, “eliminate” — any “media reports targeting China.”

Who would target China from Turkey?

  • In a word, Uyghurs. It’s estimated that hundreds, or even thousands, of the Turkic-language-speaking and largely Muslim Uyghurs of China’s western province Xinjiang have made their way to Turkey. Turkey has long angered China by sheltering this population, and Erdogan himself had even in 2009 accused China of committing “genocide” toward its Uyghur population, Bloomberg points out.
  • Beijing is concerned that some may have joined Islamist militants in the Middle East, though concrete numbers for this are even more difficult to obtain than for the Uyghur population in Turkey. Estimates of Uyghur militants in the Middle East range from 300 to 5,000.

So why the sudden move to please Beijing? Two things:

  • Turkey is “keen to tap into” China’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that aims to link the East with Europe.
  • Bloomberg highlights the larger strategic context: “China, Russia and Turkey have strengthened their partnership while Erdogan has pulled away from the orbit of European governments amid disputes over human rights and other issues.”

Turkey is not the only country that China has recently convinced to crack down on its Uyghur population.

  • A month ago, Egypt detained and deported over a dozen Uyghur students, in a move that “seemed to be in support of the Chinese government’s deepening effort to stifle resistance” from Uyghurs within China, the New York Times reported (paywall).
  • Just last week, Reuters noted, “A prominent Uighur exile was detained briefly by police in Italy,” and the man claimed that “officers had said they acted on a request from China.”