Çolakoğlu: “Mutual trust and cooperation between China and Turkey are a prerequisite to resolving the Uyghur Issue"

Çolakoğlu: “Mutual trust and cooperation between China and Turkey are a prerequisite to resolving the Uyghur Issue"

By Emre Tunç Sakaoğlu

Turkish Weekly conducted an elaborate interview with Vice President of USAK and Director of the USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies Prof. Selçuk Çolakoğlu on the allegations that China has engaged in widespread human rights violations against the Uyghur minority within its territory, a controversy that has once again come to prominently feature on Turkey’s agenda over the last couple of weeks. The increasing number of deadly terrorist attacks that have taken place in China over the last few years, Turkey’s open-door policy towards Uyghur asylum-seekers fleeing China, and the future course of Turkish-Chinese relations in light of the Uyghur dilemma are also among the subjects that were put under scrutiny within the scope of the following interview.


Chinese state bans on religious practices, policies aimed at systematic assimilation, and grave violations of basic human rights that are targeting the Uyghur people of China have been brought up both within the Turkish and international media with an increasing frequency especially since the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a rather sensitive time for all Muslim populations including the Turkic Uyghur people. In your opinion, to what extent can such severe allegations that are directed at Beijing be deemed accurate and objective in reflecting the actual reality in the highly-secluded region?  


China has a general objection to international human rights standards. Beijing considers international criticism directed at some of its practices which are widely deemed to be deeply at odds with international standards of human rights and minority rights all around the globe as malign foreign intervention in China’s domestic politics. Therefore, China is utterly disturbed whenever such concerns are voiced by other countries or international organizations. At this point, China exhibits a different opinion from those of the community of democratic nations, which also includes Turkey, when it comes to certain basic political principles.


Officially, China has a communist regime and a secular system of government. Therefore, the regime maintains a certain distance vis-à-vis all religions. Nevertheless, Beijing assumed a relatively more tolerant stance towards religions with the reform era that was initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, in comparison to the strictly dismissive approach that was followed under Chairman Mao Zedong. Indeed, neither its geographical location nor historical heritage allows China to be comprehended in isolation from the Islamic world. It is a fact that numerous mosques had been built all over China since the early years of Islam’s expansion into Asia. Many mosques in urban China are currently open to local adherents of Islam. That means China does not pursue an oppressive anti-religious policy of banning Islamic practices all over the country. Particularly the Hui Muslims, who share the same ethnic background with the Han Chinese majority, are granted nearly complete freedom of religion. As a matter of fact, Beijing sees the Hui Muslims as a bridge between China and the Islamic world. Likewise, we cannot talk of widespread religious oppression against smaller Muslim communities such as the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik, who live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region alongside the Uyghurs.


However, the situation is much different for the Uyghurs. Beijing perceives the Uyghur minority, especially some separatist groups that are active within this community, as a significant threat. That’s why China feels the urge to control all sorts of religious and cultural activities of the Uyghur people. Mosques where Uyghurs regularly gather are particularly subject to monitoring, mainly because Beijing believes some of the separatist groups in question are in close contact with transnational radical organizations. However, such control mechanisms employed by Beijing usually backfire in a dangerous way. Restrictions resulting from persistent efforts aimed at bringing all religious activities under government control, and an intensifying focus on measures entailing severe suppression of religion lead to strong reactions on the part of both the Uyghur people and other Muslims worldwide. Events that have come to the fore over the last couple of weeks should be assessed within this context. The complex interplay of various factors in Xinjiang inevitably creates a fertile ground for the emergence of an identity-based and widespread nationalist reaction that incorporates religious elements, the global repercussions of which we are now feeling.    


If Beijing sincerely believes such allegations are completely groundless, what it needs to do is allow independent international observers, NGO representatives, and members of the press to see what’s going on in the region themselves, rather than hastily denouncing all sorts of related news stories and claims of abuse. Restrictions placed on foreigners who wish to access the secluded region, travel freely between various Uyghur settlements, or establish contact with locals from all walks of life are viewed by the international community with suspicion as can be expected. That is because rumors of even the most ridiculous sort can be considered as true by an international public when dealing with such an opaque context that lacks independent and transparent control mechanisms. In the end, claims that fasting is banned throughout Xinjiang and that the human rights of Uyghurs are being violated can be proven wrong and disbanded only if China takes firm steps in the direction of increasing transparency and accountability.  


It is said that 173 Uyghur asylum-seekers, most of whom are supposedly women and children, who had been kept in Thai detention camps for 15 months after fleeing severe discrimination in China were finally resettled in Turkey earlier this month thanks to Ankara’s determined diplomatic endeavors. What do you think about Turkey’s policy of accepting Uyghur asylum-seekers?


Hundreds of Uyghurs fleeing China’s far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with their families have sought refuge in various countries in recent years. Many Uyghur families tried to make their way to Turkey or other “safe havens” after initially fleeing to Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Malaysia. But when these people are caught by the security forces of Southeast Asian countries, they are treated as illegal immigrants and hence kept in detention camps. Here, we need to deal with two mutually exclusive claims. The first claim is that Uyghurs fleeing China do so in order to escape rampant policies of oppression and assimilation. On the other hand, the alternative claim suggests that these people leave their country of origin with purely economic reasons in mind, seeking more promising opportunities, under the guise of escaping political oppression. As for Turkey’s official stance, Ankara considers Uyghur people to be the Turks’ close relatives. And it is worried that Uyghurs fleeing China may well be subjected to various harsh penalties upon being charged with illegal immigration when they are repatriated. 


Turkey currently hosts over two million refugees, most of whom are of Syrian origin. After welcoming so many refugees from a wide variety of countries, Turkey does not have the luxury of closing its doors to only a few thousand Uyghurs, particularly considering that a vast majority of Turkish people tend to feel great affinity towards Uyghurs due to a consciousness of our shared cultural and linguistic heritage. Therefore Turkey never refuses to accept an Uyghur asylum-seeker, no matter what his or her reason for leaving China is. Such an attitude should not be seen as a direct political reaction to China. It should rather be considered as a natural extension of Turkey’s general policy of always leaving the door open to refugees. As a matter of fact, Turkey has always refrained from deporting those people who somehow managed to arrive within its borders while claiming to live under dire conditions in their home countries. 


A series of violent terrorist attacks were carried out all around China in the years following the tragic Urumqi events that took place in 2009. Extremists who are claimed to be of ethnic Uyghur stock are known to be behind these attacks. How do you think Turkey should approach this issue? 


It is frequently articulated that Uyghur people are the target of incursion plans and violent propaganda prepared by radical religious groups which have been organizing on a global scale since the early 1990s. According to Chinese sources, over 300 Chinese citizens of Uyghur origin are currently fighting in the ranks of various extremist organizations and terrorist groups that are ravaging Syria. These people are probably planning to return to Xinjiang after receiving sufficient indoctrination and training. These claims should be taken rather seriously, even though we are not yet sure of what sort of data and proof China relies on in reaching such a conclusion. In that regard, Turkish and Chinese authorities should begin sharing all relevant proof and valid documents they have managed to attain concerning such a pressing issue. Paving the way for in-depth cooperation is the only effective measure available to us at this moment. It should also be remembered that Turkey itself is also confronted with the perceived threat posed by terrorist groups such as ISIS. Therefore, extremist militants from China, traveling back-and-forth between the two sides of our extensive border with Syria, pose a great risk to us both. Obviously, individuals fighting for various terrorist groups in the Middle East who may later try to infiltrate China’s major cities, using Xinjiang as a stepping stone, are deemed an open threat. Likewise, such individuals may also try to infiltrate the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey and marginalize Uyghurs residing here. Cooperation against such a dire and shared threat should begin at the highest level. I don’t think Turkey will hesitate to take immediate action in this direction.  


According to some analyses, the so-called “Uyghur dilemma”, which is seen as the ultimate source of friction between China and Turkey, has the potential to undermine the two countries’ bilateral relations to the point of no return. Do you think Ankara and Beijing will be able to iron out their apparent differences, or at least find a way to avoid the greater risks hinted at by the recent events? 


Multi-dimensional cooperation between Ankara and Beijing gained significant pace particularly following former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2010 visit to Turkey, where the two parties signed a strategic partnership agreement. High-level bilateral contacts substantially increased in this period. Still, there is talk of unleashing a hugely untapped potential for furthering bilateral cooperation. Not only our bilateral trade volume but also our capacity for in-depth economic cooperation in various sectors and the volume of our bilateral investment continue to increase day-by-day. Chinese firms have already concluded large projects in Turkey that involved high-speed trains and the mining of various precious minerals. Today, Chinese firms are beginning to come up with lucrative investment projects in finance, banking, and IT. Turkey is also gradually becoming a center of attraction for Chinese tourists. Likewise, Chinese firms can be expected to participate in a future tender for the installment of a third nuclear power plant in Turkey in the upcoming years.


Despite all the promising aspects of bilateral cooperation as summarized above, the idea that the Uyghur issue may inevitably undermine bilateral political relations, and hence the associated economic prospects, in parallel with the deteriorating conditions in Xinjiang continues to haunt business circles. The essential dilemma here derives from the two parties’ virtually incompatible approach to the Uyghur issue. Ankara and Beijing agreed on a practical method to overcome the problem caused by their alternative perspectives on the Uyghur issue after the tragic Urumqi events of 2009. Turkey, in accordance with the mutually agreed framework, once again underlined some guarantees that it has previously provided to China. That means Turkey would pay the utmost respect to China’s territorial integrity no matter what, remaining loyal to the ‘One China’ policy. On the other hand, Turkey was assured of the importance attached by China to the smooth and fair integration of Uyghur people and other Turkic communities native to Xinjiang with the rest of the Chinese society and economy. Indeed, since this time Turkey has consistently emphasized its interest in Beijing safeguarding Uyghur people’s minority rights, and its willingness to contribute to joint efforts aimed at improving Uyghur people’s living conditions, both material and cultural.


High-level dialogue should be paid utmost regard to in order to assure that the generous promises of the past are properly implemented in real life situations. A solid ground conducive to long-term and sustainable cooperation can be firmly established only by way of reaching some very basic and practical understanding in the first place. Moreover, the two parties should take targeted steps in the direction of increased transparency, which is a prerequisite for mutual confidence. In that regard, significant progress has been made since 2009. However, we still need a larger and more diversified segment of the Turkish society that is able to pay more frequent visits to Xinjiang. I believe rather than putting China in a difficult situation, allowing for more humanitarian contact between the two countries will eventually serve China’s interests. If China is convinced that a vast number of speculative and ill-intentioned news stories on the conditions surrounding Xinjiang’s native Uyghur population are deliberately being fabricated, then the local offices of Turkish companies operating in Xinjiang as well as those of Turkey’s major news agencies can facilitate the generation and flow of much more accurate and well-grounded information. Particularly, Turkish field offices in Kashgar and Urumqi can fulfill this rather urgent need.   


On the other hand, we also need to emphasize the undesirability of any deterioration in Turkish-Chinese relations from the perspective of anyone who sincerely cares about the Uyghur people’s rights and welfare. We can serve the Uyghur people’s best interests only by advancing our bilateral relations with China. In line with this practical principle, Turkey has reiterated at the highest level time and again the essential value it attaches to the Uyghur people as a bridge of friendship and cooperation between the two countries located at the far ends of Asia. The flow of a larger number of Turkish businessmen, with an increasing amount of Turkish capital, into Xinjiang, from where they can then penetrate further into the Chinese markets, will only consolidate such a constructive and prospective type of relationship.


Lastly, it is a fact that Turkey has a pluralist social fabric and a democratic political system. Turkish public can react strongly to certain events taking place in various parts of the globe, just like some of Turkey’s policies and practices are occasionally criticized by many other countries and various international institutions, with the European Union and the Council of Europe first and foremost. A large part of such public reactions aren’t reflected in Turkey’s official stance at all. The Chinese government should also pay regard to the apparent discrepancy between various public reactions and the Turkish government’s official discourse. In that regard, any popular criticism that doesn’t identically match with the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s statements and contradict its official stance, no matter how loudly it may be voiced or how widely it may be covered by the media, should be considered as a natural reflection of the freedom of thought and expression. Moreover, I believe the prevalent mistrust that currently marks relations between Ankara and Beijing can be completely eliminated through increased interaction between Turkey and China, and especially by making available more frequent and reciprocal visits between Turkey and Xinjiang. No doubt, the direct flights between Urumqi and İstanbul, which have been taking place for the last few years, already contributed dearly to the strengthening of bilateral ties. Similar steps need to be taken with the joint efforts of both parties in a complementary and reciprocal fashion in the upcoming period. 











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