While the mass incarceration of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region continues to garner media attention and international condemnation, Muslim-majority countries have been largely silent on the issue. On Saturday, Turkey bucked that trend when it issued a statement calling on China to close its internment camps and criticizing the “torture and political brainwashing” of Chinese Uighurs as “a great shame for humanity.”
The statement was prompted by recent reports that Abdurehim Heyit, a renowned Uighur folk poet and musician, had died in Chinese custody. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said it had “learned with deep sorrow” of Hayit’s death. However, a video released Sunday by Chinese state media outlet China Radio International shows a man who identified himself as Heyit, saying he was under investigation for “allegedly violating the national laws” but was “now in good health” and had never been abused. Uighur activists said Heyit’s testimony could have been coerced or even digitally altered. News outlets have been unable to independently confirm the authenticity of the video. On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the video showed Turkey’s statement was an “absurd lie.”
Ankara’s rebuke of China comes after Turkish opposition parties and the media put mounting pressure on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to condemn the Uighur crackdown. Turkey hosts a large community of Chinese Uighurs, and many Turkish nationalists “view the ethnic minority as their Turkic kin,” according to The Washington Post. Beijing called Turkey’s remarks “vile” and “completely against the truth,” and followed up with a safety alert to its citizens in Turkey.
Activists have applauded Turkey for speaking out, but some have questioned what took Erdogan, who champions himself as a leader of the Muslim world, so long to denounce what China calls an “anti-extremism campaign.” The Post reported that Tahir Imin, a Washington-based activist, and others have provided documentation of China’s mass incarceration of Uighurs to the Turkish government for over a year without any response. Erdogan has previously been more outspoken. In 2009, when he was prime minister, he described the killing of Uighurs in Xinjiang during a period of ethnic violence there as “genocide.” But as the Post notes, Turkey’s ties with China have improved since 2016, when Erdogan survived a coup attempt and deteriorating relations with the West.
Fear of a backlash from China may be keeping other Muslim-majority countries from joining the chorus of international condemnation, especially given China’s economic influence. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $20 billion in development loans to Arab countries and over $100 million in direct aid. In Central Asia, meanwhile, Kazakhstan has been mute on China’s abuses despite having the world’s second-largest population of Uighurs after China. It is also signed up for a wide range of joint venture infrastructure projects with China worth over $27 billion.