How China’s influence flipped Turkey’s position on Uighurs

Uighurs in Turkey are having many sleepless nights. The rumor among well-informed circles is that in return for COVID-19 vaccines from China and additional economic deals, Turkey agreed to flip its Uighur policy, deny these people refuge, and send many of them back to China.

The lawyer Mehmet Okatan once tried to summarize the essence of Turkey by saying, “If the State wants to do something, it finds a way.” The more one observes the many aspects of life in this country, the more it becomes clear how true Okatan’s statement was and still is.
 
Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic group under heavy persecution by the communist regime in China, have, for decades, been seeking refuge and asylum in Turkey. Turkey for several decades showed openness to this group. However, in recent years China’s influence seems to have reached all the way to Bosporus and flipped Turkey’s position on the Uighurs living in its boarders, who now have reason to be more anxious than ever.
 
On Jan. 18, 2021, a 26-year-old Uighur Abdullah Metseydi was detained by Turkish police in Istanbul, where he was living. Police raided his apartment in the middle of the night frightening his 24-year-old wife Melike who claimed that police made her husband sign papers without seeing what was written on them. The officers then told Melike that it is proven that Abdullah committed illegal acts against China, and that he would be sent back to China.
 
Back in 2014, Metseydi fled to Malaysia from China without a passport. Like many of his predecessors, escaping Chinese oppression and the so called “re-education camps,” he began looking for refuge in Turkey and was brought to Istanbul on a Turkish Airlines flight. After several years of peacefully living in Turkey, Metseydi did something which could now cost him his status and cause him to be extradited back to China: He went to Syria to visit his older brother in 2018. As a result, he is now suspected of having ties to ISIS. His wife denies the allegations.
 
Another Uighur activist, Burhan Kerim, was recently extradited from Turkey to China. Kerim was arrested in Turkey on terror charges based on video footage. Although an expert report presented to the court pointed out that the person in the footage was not Kerim, the final decision did not change and he was sent back to China.
 
Regardless of these details of each story, Uighurs in Turkey are having many sleepless nights these days.
 
To make matters worse, Turkey recently signed an extradition agreement with the Chinese communist regime. China quickly ratified the agreement, and it is now time for Turkey to respond. The rumor among well-informed circles is that in return for COVID-19 vaccines from China and additional economic deals, Turkey agreed to flip its Uighur policy, deny these people refuge, and send many of them back to China.
 
Turkish government spokesman Ömer Çelik denied such allegations and claims that the extradition agreement signed with China is no different than any similar agreement Turkey has signed with other countries. However, lawyer İlyas Doğan has said that this is not the case because of China’s capital punishment law. According to Doğan, Turkish laws do not permit this kind of mass extradition of people who have a realistic chance of being affected by China’s harsh penalty system. Additionally, Turkey’s extraditions of Iranian activists back to Iran have become more obvious as of recently. Thus, its extraditions of Uighurs, although possibly against Turkish law, should not come as a surprise.
 
Regardless of what the real cause of this policy change was (and Ömer Çelik’s claims that there is no new relationship between China and Turkey) it is hard to deny that China has been expanding its economic influence in Turkey. Beijing has been working on turning Turkey into a vital part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A Chinese company bought almost half of the Kumport Terminal in Turkey’s Marmara Sea, which is the third largest container terminal in Turkey. Last summer, the People’s Bank of China extended an exchange deal to Turkey for the plummeting Turkish lira when Ankara could not secure this kind of deal anywhere else. China’s largest investment in Turkey is the construction of a thermal power plant in Adana. As a show of comparison, Volkswagen recently announced it was scrapping its factory project in Manisa due to “political instability and uncertainty,” while at the same time, Xiaomi is opening its smartphone production facility in Avcılar. An integral part of China’s sharp power philosophy is that every expansion of economic influence inevitably carries a political component. It is also indicative of the fact that the AKP’s government and particularly its President, take pride in being a global “voice of the voiceless” and usually are very open about their views of growing Islamophobia in the world. However, in the case of the Chinese oppression of Uighurs, the Turkish government has remained conspicuously silent in the last couple of years.
 
Even before it was hit by the coronavirus crisis, Turkey was deep in economic trouble and in a dire need of domestic reforms as well as also external help. Additionally, nationalist populism of the ruling establishment in Turkey has created a growing list of problems with traditional Western allies. This vulnerability and need for a substantial financial and economic infusion, which could not come from many places, turned Turkey into a target of the only alternative superpower in the new post-COVID-19 world. Turkey’s Uighurs could turn out to be the first visible collateral damage of this strategic shift.

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