The Uighurs, Central Asia and Turkey: Troubles across Turkestan
The Economist, 16 July 2009
THE plight of Turkey’s Kurdish minority has never been of compelling interest to ordinary Chinese people. But in the past few days internet forums in China have been clamouring their support for Kurdish separatists. As Chinese security forces reimpose order after a bloody spasm of ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, Turkey is finding itself in the line of fire.
The country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, helped ensure this by suggesting that the recent violence in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi involved “genocide”. The rioting in Urumqi began with attacks by Turkic-speaking Uighurs on ethnic Han Chinese, but the reaction of the security forces and reprisals by Han mobs has claimed dozens of Uighur lives. China’s official media says the latest death toll is 192, at least 46 of them Uighurs (though it is unclear if the count includes two Uighurs killed by police on July 13th). Turkey’s trade minister Nihat Ergun hinted strongly that Turkish consumers should boycott Chinese goods (though his ministry quickly said that this was a personal view). Mr Erdogan proposed a discussion of the rioting in the UN Security Council. This is a non-starter given China’s power of veto, but the very idea infuriated China.
Turkey’s cultural, religious and ethnic links with Xinjiang make it difficult for leaders there to keep quiet. Turkey has long been a haven for disaffected Uighurs, including Isa Yusuf Alptekin, the pre-eminent leader of Uighur nationalism until his death in 1995. To China’s fury, Mr Erdogan, when mayor of Istanbul, named part of a central park after Alptekin in the 1990s.
In recent years Turkey’s support for the Uighur cause had been dampened by China’s rapid economic rise and its growing international clout. In 2003 Mr Erdogan visited China with a large delegation to mend relations. A few days before rioting erupted in Urumqi, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul also paid a visit, saying afterwards that relations had turned “a new page”. They are now in tatters.
In contrast, most Western and Muslim countries have not seen much benefit in riling China over an issue that arouses little international attention compared with human-rights abuses in neighbouring Tibet. The reaction to Xinjiang’s unrest among Central Asian countries which are home to Turkic peoples has also been muted. The immediate concern for the Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments has been the safe return from Xinjiang of their citizens, many of them shuttle traders. Both countries have sizeable Uighur populations—50,000 in Kyrgyzstan; 300,000 in Kazakhstan (including the prime minister, Karim Massimov). There are also an estimated 1m ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, who complain that they face the same sort of pressure on their culture and traditions as the Uighur.
Mindful of China’s proximity, and of the dangers of being sucked into further unrest, the “stans” have taken a dim view of Uighur separatism. Kazakhstan, for example, has sent a few separatists wanted by China back to Xinjiang. In Turkey, by contrast, Mr Erdogan has offered a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur exile accused by China of fomenting Xinjiang’s violence.
The rewards of Central Asia’s co-operation are obvious. In April China agreed to lend Kazakhstan $10 billion in a “loan-for-oil” deal. In June it offered another $10 billion in credit to members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation—which links four Central Asian states with Russia and China—to shore up their struggling economies. As Turkey will find, there may be little to be gained by supporting the hapless Uighurs, except, perhaps, secret sympathy for its stance beyond China.