How the United States can help kickstart Turkey’s fight against Uyghur Oppression in China

Opinion Based Piece By THO Team Member, Tyvin Whittaker

We can be silent no more. 

Currently, over twelve million Uyghurs are facing systematic state ordained oppression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. These people are enduring religious and cultural persecution that is reminiscent of some of the most reviled chapters in our shared human history. 

The Uyghurs have been subjugated to forced sterilization, labor camps, “reeducation centers”, men have been forced to shave their beards, and women prohibited from wearing veils. 

This type of persecution can not go on unaddressed by the world at large, and it hasn’t. In July twenty-two countries, composed of mostly European states, sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning the actions of Chinese leadership. Notably, Turkey and the United States were absent from the list of signatures. (The U.S would later condemn China on the global stage at the general assembly.) Four days following this letter, thirty-seven countries signed a letter defending China and its reputation. Turkey was notably also absent from this list as well. Turkey's silence is not surprising. By remaining silent they were able to avoid condemning or supporting the actions China had taken publicly. It makes sense Turkey would be hesitant to make such a public stand in fear of upsetting its interests on either side. 

While it would be easy for me to sit back and criticize Turkey's silence and lack of action, that would not be conducive to finding any beneficial solutions to the problem. The reality of the situation is that Turkey is currently caught between a rock and a hard place. If the United States and NATO do not help alleviate the pressure, Turkey will most likely continue its silence in favor of its economy. So here are two suggested actions the United States can do to help kick start Turkey’s fight against the Chinese Uyghur oppression. 

First, the United States needs to pressure and provide incentives and support for Turkey to stop sending back its Uyghur refugees to China. As reported by the by Gareth Browne from the Telegraph on July 26th, “President Erdogan is helping China repatriate Muslim dissidents by sending them to third countries before they return”. 

This may prove to be difficult to achieve because Turkey has yet to acknowledge these actions. According to a report published in late July, Turkey has been sending these refugees/Muslim dissidents to third countries where they are in turn more easily sent back to China. There is evidence that shifting Turkey's position here is possible because it has been done before. In July of 2009 Reuters published the article: “Turkish leader calls Xinjiang killings "genocide". In the report Erdogan is quoted as saying: “The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There’s no point in interpreting this otherwise,” This proves that he has been willing to make a stand before and shows he has sympathy and an understanding of what is occurring here. The question is, why the shift? And what can the United States do to shift it back? The answer is surprisingly simple; economics.

China has been investing heavily in Turkish infrastructure, with large stakes in railroad and port development. The stalling Turkish economy needs this type of investment. This is a case of having to put your money where your mouth is. If the United States and other NATO nations wish to see Turkey shift its position away from China, they have to provide economic incentives and investment that is somewhat comparable to what they are currently receiving from China. 

The second and less favorable option here is for the United States to publicly condemn Turkey on the world stage for their lack of action; however, this may prove to be a difficult case for the United States to make. The first reason is obvious. It is not advantageous to call out your NATO allies on the world stage. Turkey would most likely not appreciate such public display of official outrage from the United States. As such times as these, the U.S. can not afford to ruffle the feathers of our allies. It would be most advantageous for their relationship, and a good show of faith if they met behind closed doors.  

On September 9th, news broke the story that Disney studios filmed part of its live-action Mulan reboot in the Xinjiang region, where most of these aforementioned human rights abuses are occurring. (Juwon Parks AP News, 2020) 

This leaves the United States in a tricky spot. How can they dare pressure or condemn Turkey when American interests have also profited from staying silent on the issue? The hypocrisy here would give little power to the words of the United States if they came forward with a strong-worded rebuke. 

You cannot shift national policy dramatically overnight. You often have to take it in single steps. The crucial first step the United States and Turkey should agree to, should be offering a safe haven to all Uyghurs who are able to flee persecution. Right now escaping China is almost impossible while this policy of sending them back remains. By allowing those who escape sanctuary, Turkey would be taking an important step in showing compassion. 

This also allows Turkey to remain publicly silent on the issue yet still make a meaningful impact. The United States’ role has to be to offer support and encourage Turkey to make this decision. Providing financial support or incentives for Turkey to accept and harbor these refugees from Chinese persecution is a crucial first step in providing relief to a group of victims who so desperately need it.