How Turkey Succumbed to China on the Uighur issue?
Dr Yatharth Kachiar

“We have kin in every corner in the world. From the Balkans to Central Asia, from Crimea to North Africa. All incidents, which take place in every single region, directly concern us. So claims about China’s pressure on our siblings in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region lead to sensitivity in our public”1

-President Erdogan on Uighur issue (2015)

Until 2019, amidst the deafening silence of the Islamic world on Chinese atrocities vis-à-vis its Muslim Uighur population, Turkey was perhaps the only Muslim country that was continuously targeting Beijing for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In 2019, President Erdogan urged Beijing to shut down “concentration camps in Xinjiang”. He termed these camps as a “great cause of shame for humanity”.2 After the July 2009 Urumqi riots, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then serving as the Prime Minister, condemned the riots between Uighurs and Han Chinese as “genocide”.3 President Erdogan’s criticism of Beijing’s atrocities against the Uighurs echoed deeply within Turkish society that shares deep historical, religious and ethnic ties with China’s Muslim Uighur population.

However, since then, Turkey has retreated from its previous pro-Uighur stance at the international stage. President Erdogan’s turn around on Uighur policy is deeply in disagreement with the Turkish public’s overwhelming affinity towards Uighurs. In direct contrast to its previous critical statements, on 29 September 2020, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) spokesperson raised the Uighur issue in a rather softened tone. He said: “Our sole desire on this issue is that Uighur Turks live in prosperity and peace, and contribute to China's development, social peace, prosperity, security as equal citizens.”4 Previously, in July 2019, President Erdogan stated that Uighur issue should not be “exploited” as it “reflects poorly on the Turkish-Chinese relationship.” 5

In July 2019, during 41st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Turkey refused to extend support to a group of 22 states when they issued a letter to condemn China’s “arbitrary mass detentions and related violations” of Uighurs.6 Domestically as well, on 10 July 2020, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in collaboration with its ultranationalist ally, Nationalist Action Party (MHP) voted against an opposition-led motion to constitute an ad-hoc committee in Parliament to examine “the problems of Uighur Turks exposed to China’s oppressive practices.”7 The sudden shift in Turkey’s policy towards Uighurs is primarily because of Ankara’s growing economic dependence on Beijing, especially at a time when Turkey’s economy is in shambles, relations with the West are strained, and western capital is fleeing the country.

Turkey’s historical ties with Uighurs

Turkey’s changed stance towards Uighurs is deeply problematic precisely because the persecuted Uighur community in Xinjiang has historically relied on Turkey for leadership and asylum. Being an Islamic country, Turkey shares a linguistic and religious kinship with Uighurs. For nationalists in Turkey, Xinjiang is the “easternmost frontier of Turkic ethnicity”.8 As an analyst writes, “Turkey’s involvement in Uighur affairs dates back to that time, when Ottoman Sultans instrumentalized Islam to spread their influence. In 1873, Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz sent the Uighurs a shipment of weapons for use against the Qing dynasty in China in return for recognition of his suzerainty.”9

Later, in 1949, following the Communist revolution under Mao Zedong, the Turkic region was fully integrated into China. However, the severe crackdown that Mao Zedong initiated against nationalist Uighurs forced many to flee the country in search of political asylum. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Turkey welcomed these persecuted ethnic Uighurs in the country. In the late 1970s, following post-Mao reform, another wave of Uighur refugees came to Turkey. During this period, the resettlement of Uighurs in Turkey became possible after financial support from the US and the UN. As an analyst writes “in the 1950s, Turkey accepted hundreds of Uighur refugees fleeing Xinjiang with settlement aid from the UN and later offered them Turkish citizenship. The arrangement marked the first large Uighur mass migration from China to Turkey in the 20th century.”10 Since then, Ankara has been at the forefront in granting temporary or permanent residency to Uighur refugees. Over the years, Turkey has granted asylum to 50,000 Uighurs who were able to escape Chinese oppression.11 The cosmopolitan Istanbul and adjacent areas such as Aksaray and Zeytinburnu provided the required space for the flourishment of Uighur culture and political activism. Turkish citizens in the country have frequently protested over China’s treatment of Uighurs.12

However, under continuous pressure from Beijing, Ankara has toned down its support for Uighur rights. After 2019, when President Erdogan had criticized China’s internment camps for Uighurs as a “shame for humanity”, Beijing retaliated by closing down its consulate in Izmir.13 Further, Chinese envoy in Ankara warned Turkey against taking international stance on Uighur issue. In a veiled manner, Chinese envoy threatened that it will be reflected in commercial and economic relations if Turkey keeps criticizing Beijing's treatment of Uighur Muslims.14 Over a period, Turkey has also succumbed to Beijing’s requests for extraditing Chinese Uighur nationalists. The reports suggest that “Beijing had secretly requested the extradition of Uyghur dissident Enver Turdi in 2016 and Turkish authorities subsequently harassed him.”15 Further, recent reports also indicate that Turkey, under extreme pressure from Beijing, is deporting Uighurs to third countries before sending them to China.16

Ankara’s Uighur dilemma: Economic prosperity vs Historic responsibility

The Turkish economy has been slowing down even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has worsened the economic woes of the country as the Turkish lira tumbled to a record low in 2020. In the first six months of 2020, Turkey’s Central Bank spent USD 65 billion of its foreign currency reserves to defend the country’s falling currency. Previously, in 2019, it had spent USD 40 billion of its foreign reserves to support the lira.17 According to reports, “as of mid-August, its remaining reserves were down to just USD 45.4 billion.”18 As the unemployment in the country is rising, the pandemic is resurging, and western capital is fleeing Turkish markets; Ankara is in dire need for foreign investment to rescue its economy.

Such a fragile economic scenario and Turkey’s strained relations with the West has given China yet another opportunity to expand its area of influence. Turkey’s geostrategic location between the East and the West makes it an important trade and transport hub and therefore, strategically critical piece in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is an ongoing discourse in Ankara and Beijing to establish compatibility between China’s BRI project and Middle East Corridor Project that Turkey has launched to establish a region-wide railroad network. However, despite a welcoming discourse, there is no clear roadmap yet to integrate these two ambitious projects.19

Over a period, massive Chinese investment in Turkey has positioned Beijing as Ankara’s third-largest trading partner. According to a report, in 2010, “Turkey and China signed eight strategic cooperative relationship pacts to increase their annual trade volume to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020. Trade volume between the two countries increased from $1.1 billion in 2001 to $23.6 billion in 2018, according to the Turkish Trade Ministry.”20 In 2012, both the countries signed a yuan-lira swap deal, something that President Erdogan has not been able to accomplish with the western countries. In 2019, during Municipal elections in Turkey, Beijing made its first transfer of funds under the terms and conditions of the yuan-lira swap deal. Again, in June 2020, Turkey paid for the Chinese imports by making use of a currency swap deal.21

In 2017, both the countries strengthened their financial cooperation when Turkish banking watchdog agency allowed Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the Bank of China to operate in Turkey. Similarly, various Turkish banks such as Akbank, Isbank and Garanti Bank have operational branches in China.22 Also, in 2017, Ziraat Bank, Turkey’s state lending institution, signed a USD 600 million credit arrangement with China Development Bank. Again, in 2018, the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) approved a USD 600 million loans to Turkey to ensure the security of Turkish gas supplies. As reports indicate, in July 2018, “the ICBC also issued a $3.6 billion loan to increase the capacities of Silivri and Tuz Golu Natural Gas Storage Facilities, which will store 20 percent of Turkey’s natural gas yearly.”23

Beijing has also invested heavily in various infrastructure projects in Turkey. For instance, at present Beijing holds a 65 percent stake in Kumport, Turkey’s third-largest container port in Istanbul.24 In 2019, Chinese Railway Express freight train began moving from Xi’an in northwestern China to Central Europe via Turkey across the Bosporus through the Marmaray railway tunnel.25 Further, in December 2019, a group of Chinese companies agreed to buy 51 percent stake in Istanbul-based IC Yatirim Holding AS that operates Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the third bridge spanning the Bosporus, for USD 688.5 million.26 Also, the Turkey Wealth Fund (TWF), established in 2016, as the national sovereign fund signed a MoU with China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation in March 2020 to cover insurance support up to USD 5 billion in various sectors such as energy, petrochemicals, and mining.27 There is also a possibility of cooperation between the two countries in nuclear power, energy and high-speed railway systems. According to reports, “Shanghai Electric Power, a subsidiary of China's State Power Investment Corporation, is investing USD 2.1 billion in a 1300 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Adana, along with other Chinese and Turkish partners.”28

In an attempt to woo the Chinese, Turkey's Istanbul Airport recently launched a “Chinese Friendly Airport” project. As the CEO of the airport, Kadri Samsunlu, stated, the aim of the project is “to provide a unique experience for the Chinese travellers and make them feel at home.”29 China’s overwhelming investment in Turkey’s economy and infrastructure has bought it President Erdogan’s silence over the human rights abuses that Uighurs, people of Turkic origin, face in China. Given Turkey’s need for Chinese investment, it is less likely that President Erdogan will take up the cause of Uighurs forcefully at the international level. As an analyst observes; “whilst Erdogan uses Islam as a convenient tool to bolster his position at home he would not use it in any way that sabotages Turkey’s economy.”30


President Erdogan’s rhetoric of fighting for the Islamic cause from Palestine to Kashmir becomes hollow when it comes to the atrocities on Uighurs. Turkey’s ruling party’s indifference towards Uighurs becomes deplorable, given not just religious but deep historical and cultural ties between Turks and Uighurs. In return for economic benefits, Turkish President has provided a carte blanche to China so that it can continue to commit human right abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang. President Erdogan’s silence on Uighur issue yet again proves that for authoritarian leaders self-interest triumphs over any other ideals to which they otherwise claim to champion. At the same time, it presents an astute case of Chinese cheque-book diplomacy where Beijing is inundating a country with its investments to such an extent that it has no other way but to toe the Chinese line and mute any support for Uighurs.

  1. Reports on Chinese practices in Xinjiang largely inaccurate, says Turkey’s Erdoğan, Hurriyet Daily News, 10 July 2015, URL:
  2. Turkish PM urges China to stop 'assimilation' of Uighurs, The Hindustan Times, 11 July 2009, URL:
  3. Ibid
  4. MuminAltas, Turkey: China's Uighur policy on Ankara’s agenda, Anadolu Agency, 29 September, 2020, URL:
  5. Erdogan says Xinjiang camps shouldn't spoil Turkey-China relationship, CNN, 5 July 2019, URL:
  6. 22 countries sign letter calling on China to close Xinjiang Uyghur camps, CNN, 11 July 2019, URL:
  7. AykanErdemir and Philip Kowalski, China Buys Turkey’s Silence on Uyghur Oppression, The Diplomat, 21 August 2020, URL:
  8. Turkish leader calls Xinjiang killings "genocide", Reuters, 10 July 2009, URL:
  9. SonerCagaptay with DenizYuksel, Will Turkey and China Become Friends?, The Washington Institute, 14 August 2019, URL:
  10. AsimKashgarian, Uighurs Concerned China Is Luring Turkey into Silence on Xinjiang, VOA News, 19 February 2020, URL:
  11. SiminaMistreanu, The Capital of Xinjiang Is Now in Turkey, Foreign Policy, 30 September 2019, URL:
  12. 1,000 protest in Istanbul over China’s treatment of Uygurs, South China Morning Post, 21 December 2019, URL:
  13. China plays economy card in Uighur dispute, Hurriyet Daily News, 1 March 2019, URL:
  14. Ibid
  15. China Buys Turkey’s Silence on Uyghur Oppression, The Diplomat
  16. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Exclusive: Documents show China's secret extradition request for Uighur in Turkey, Axios, URL:
  17. Lira hits record low as Turkey targets market manipulation, Al Jazeera, 7 May 2020, URL:
  18. GönülTol, Rauf Mammadov, Erdogan pulls a rabbit out of his hat with Black Sea gas find, but is it all it seems?, Middle East Institute, URL:
  19. SelçukColakoğlu, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s Middle Corridor: A Question of Compatibility, Middle East Institute, 29 January 2019, URL:
  20. Uighurs Concerned China Is Luring Turkey into Silence on Xinjiang, VOA News, 19 February 2020, URL:
  21. AykanErdemir and Philip Kowalski,China Buys Turkey’s Silence on Uyghur Oppression, The Diplomat
  22. SelçukColakoğlu,China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s Middle Corridor: A Question of Compatibility, Middle East Institute, 29 January 2019, URL:
  23. Ibid
  24. Chinese consortium acquires 65 pct stake in Turkish port terminal, Hurriyet Daily News, 17 September 2015, URL:
  25. First freight train from China to Europe to pass through Marmaray on Nov. 6, Daily Sabah, 3 November 2019, URL:
  26. Virus Risks Slowing Chinese Banks’ Deals in Key Turkish Market, BloombergQuint, 10 March 2020, URL:
  27. Turkish sovereign wealth fund courts China's Belt and Road, Nikkei Asia, 12 August 2020, URL:
  28. Ibid
  29. Turkey's Istanbul Airport launches "Chinese Friendly Airport" project,, 23 September 2020, URL:
  30. Prasanna Aditya, Comparing Erdogan’s outreach to India and China, ORF, 9 September 2020, URL:

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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