This article was published in Arab News on March 3, 2019.
Turkey can help prevent separatist violence in Xinjiang
A heated controversy has arisen between Turkey and China in recent weeks. It started with reports in the international media about the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province of China.
Xinjiang is more than twice the size of Turkey and covers more than one-sixth of China’s territory. However, it is sparsely populated, as most of the province is covered with deserts and rugged mountains. The total population of the province, which is rich in natural resources, was estimated at 25 million in 2017, 46 percent of which was Uighur and 39 percent ethnic Han Chinese.
Despite the hardships they face, Uighur students are given favorable discrimination on educational matters, meaning a certain number of points are added to their test scores in order to help them better compete with the Han Chinese. They were also exempted from China’s one-child policy.
However, Beijing is following a strict policy not to let the campaign for separatism become widespread in Xinjiang. For several months now, the international media has drawn attention to the “re-education camps” organized by the Chinese government in order to dissuade and punish those Uighurs who are engaged in separatist activities.
Turkey has always closely followed the developments in Xinjiang. When there were disturbances there in 2009, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “What is taking place in Xinjiang is almost genocide. It is cruel. There is no point in characterizing it in another manner.” He added that Turkey may issue a visa to Rebiya Kader, then-chairperson of the World Uighur Congress. China reacted strongly against this statement, but relations improved when the two countries decided to cooperate closely within the framework of Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative.
Western countries, which have previously remained indifferent to what was happening to the Uighurs, have recently started to show a keen interest in their fate.
For several months now, the international media has drawn attention to the “re-education camps” organized by the Chinese government in order to dissuade and punish those Uighurs who are engaged in separatist activities.
Popular Uighur musician Abdurehim Heyit was arrested in the early months of 2017 for having sung a poem titled “Forefathers.” In recent weeks, a new wave of news reports said that he had died in prison. Some reports claimed that the news of his death was propagated by the American Central Intelligence Agency to incite a reaction. Three weeks ago, the Chinese authorities released video footage showing Heyit saying that he was very much alive and that he had not been treated harshly. To prove the authenticity of the footage, he gave the date as Feb. 10.
The proportion of Uighurs in Xinjiang is likely to shrink in the long run. If the Han Chinese find better job opportunities in the province, nobody will stop them from settling there. The Chinese government may also wish to change the ethnic composition of the province. It has, in the past, provided financial support for any Han Chinese wishing to move to Xinjiang, and it may do so again. Furthermore, financial support is provided for those Han Chinese who marry an Uighur, as long as their offspring is registered only as Chinese. The Chinese government would not be the first government to resort to such measures.
Uighurs, who constitute about 1.7 percent of China’s population, cannot easily compete with the remaining 98.3 percent for control of Xinjiang.
Gen. Liu Yazhou, the president of the Chinese National Defence University, has published articles on the importance of Xinjiang for the national interests of China. “Western China (Xinjiang) is a vast empty expanse,” he wrote in Hong Kong’s Phoenix Weekly in 2010. “Moreover, our strategic direction should be westward. With an excellent geographic location (close to the center of the world), the western region can provide us with the driving force to build our strength. We should regard western China as our hinterland rather than as our frontier.”
There is every reason for the Chinese authorities to maintain this approach and keep Xinjiang under their control.
In view of the foregoing parameters, the most rational course of action for Turkey would be to discourage its Uighur kinsmen from getting involved in violence, encourage them to be better educated and acquire skills, contribute to the Chinese economy and benefit from the country’s prosperity. They should also cooperate with the Chinese authorities for the preservation and promotion of the Uighurs’ cultural identity.