China’s Tactics for Targeting the Uyghur Diaspora in Turkey

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 19

Image: At a demonstration held in Istanbul in February 2019, ethnic Uyghurs residing in Turkey hold up photos of family members and prominent Uyghurs who have gone missing in the PRC. (Source: Reuters)

Introduction: Sino-Turkish Relations and the Uyghur Diaspora

Relations between Turkey and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been strained by the situation in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan), where the party-state has been subjecting over 14 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other (mostly Turkic) Muslims to heavy-handed policies—including mass incarceration, political reeducation, forced labor, enhanced social control, and technological surveillance, as well as the forced suppression of linguistic, religious, and cultural practices (China Brief, November 5, 2018; China Brief, February 1). Turkey has so far tolerated and offered symbolic support to the 35,000-strong Uyghur diaspora in the country, allowing free operation of Uyghur press outlets, advocacy organizations, public protests, and political lobbying. Earlier this year, rumors about the death of the popular Uyghur musician Abduréhim Héyit in PRC state custody prompted the Turkish government to condemn China’s Xinjiang policy (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 9; Hürriyet, 11 February; UN Web TV, 25 February).

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan adopted a more conciliatory tone during his July visit to Beijing (CCTV, 2 July). At the subsequent China-Turkey Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum held in Izmir in September, PRC Ambassador Deng Li (邓励) and Turkish Minister of Trade Ruhsar Pekcan signaled the intent of both countries to improve their economic ties (Xinhua, September 6; Cumhuriyet, September 8). These developments indicate that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has decided to prioritize economic ties with the PRC over support to Turkey’s Uyghurs. This policy will likely complicate the situation of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey—which has been the target of the PRC’s intensified pressure over the past two years, ever since intensified repression in Xinjiang began damaging China’s position in global politics.

Tactics of Intimidation and Coercion

The CCP considers the East Turkestani exile movement to be one of the so-called “Five Poisons” (五毒, Wu Du), the top political security threats endangering regime stability. [1] While Chinese authorities have engaged in systematic monitoring and harassment of the Uyghur diaspora in the past, PRC security organs have lately increased their pressure against Uyghurs abroad. These steps have been taken in part due to increased political mobilization among the diaspora—which is itself a reaction to the extreme policies of repression initiated after Chen Quanguo (陈全国) took office in August 2016 as the provincial CCP secretary in Xinjiang (China Brief, February 6, 2017; China Brief, September 21, 2017; Radio Free Asia, October 25, 2017).

Due to its size and the scope of its political activism, the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey is a prominent target of PRC intelligence operations. Blackmail by intimidating or holding hostage family members in Xinjiang is a common technique employed by the Chinese security apparatus to suppress the Uyghur diaspora’s political activism, to solicit specific information, or to induce long-term collaboration by the target. Several Uyghur persons in Istanbul stated in interviews with the author that they had been directly contacted by Chinese security personnel via remote communications. In some of these incidents, the persons contacted were pressured to return home. In other cases, the person was pressured to provide information about their or other Uyghurs’ activities in Turkey: for example, one woman described attempts by PRC security forces to pressure her into supplying information about the diaspora’s political life. (Author Interview, May 21)

In some cases, officials attempted to lure the target into cooperation by pretending to be concerned about their well-being, or that of their family. Other times, security personnel contacted the target via landline phone during a “visit” to family members back in the target’s home in Xinjiang. Individuals who encountered this practice believed that the purpose of this tactic was to prevent them from ignoring the phone call, while making it obvious that his or her family was effectively held hostage by security personnel. (Author Interviews, May 2019) One Uyghur man described how a Chinese security official attempted to establish contact by sending videos of his detained family members, on whose behalf the target had shortly before posted on social media. (Author Interview, May 25) In other cases, security authorities attempted to persuade the target to return home by threatening to arrest or otherwise persecute their relatives in Xinjiang (RFA, May 27).

The effort by Chinese security organs to pressure or blackmail Uyghurs in Turkey by holding their family members hostage often seeks to establish long-term intelligence cooperation. The Uyghur diaspora shares the general belief that many Uyghurs act as informants for PRC agencies—and indeed, some Uyghur exiles have come forward to state that they were coerced into spying on other Uyghurs abroad (RFA, February 6). Besides succumbing to pressure and financial motivations, individuals can be driven by their lack of proper residence documents—and thus, their lack of access to legal work, affordable healthcare, and education. Ironically, they may also be pressured with the threat of being labeled as an informant: one Uyghur man claimed that the authorities pressured him into collaboration by subjecting his two detained relatives to physical abuse, and by threatening to spread a rumor within the Uyghur community that he was a spy. (Author Interview, May 11) Another Uyghur man described how during his detention in Xinjiang he was pressured and sent to spy on a member of his family, a person tied to the political circles of the Uyghur diaspora in a particular European country. (Author Interview, June 1)

Legal Instruments Directed Against the Uyghur Diaspora

The PRC also employs legal instruments in an effort to incapacitate the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey. A draft extradition treaty between Turkey and the PRC has been signed, but not ratified. [2] Nevertheless, on a number of occasions the Turkish authorities have apparently complied with PRC requests for detention or extradition targeting Uyghurs. Media sources and the author’s own interviews of Uyghurs in Turkey have revealed many such examples:

  • A Uyghur man who claimed not to be involved in any political activities said that Turkish authorities held him between October 2017 and November 2018, notifying him verbally that they were responding to a Chinese request. (Author Interview, May 25)
  • A Uyghur student related that he was detained for four days in April and May 2019, and that since his release he has been obliged to regularly check in with a local police station. (Author Interviews, May 19, August 15)
  • A Uyghur intellectual stated that he had been detained for two months in the fall of 2018, and for a further two months in the spring of 2019. (Author Interview, May 21)
  • In July, a Uyghur woman with two children was deported to China via Tajikistan (Euronews, July 28).
  • In August, a group of at least nine Uyghurs was held at a Turkish deportation center. One of them stated that he was detained after his relatives in Xinjiang were pressured by Chinese authorities to sign documents demanding his return (DW, August 12).

A significant number of Uyghurs who either live in Turkey illegally or else have expired travel documents are particularly traumatized by the prospect of being detained by Turkish authorities. Yet even when holding valid documents, Uyghurs in Turkey permanently find themselves on the brink of deportation and subsequent imprisonment in China, because Xinjiang authorities consider travel to Turkey a political offense. [3] Such predicaments add to the traumas inflicted on Uyghurs by the plight of their relatives and fellow citizens in Xinjiang.


As the CCP party-state currently seems intent on maintaining its draconian repression and social engineering of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and other ethnic communities in Xinjiang, it is likely that the size and activism of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey will remain a liability to China’s national image and foreign interests. It can be expected that Chinese security agencies will continue to enhance their efforts to intimidate and politically neutralize the Uyghur diaspora. Unless Turkey improves assistance to its Uyghur community in terms of granting legal status—thus protecting them from deportation and improving access to employment, healthcare, and education—China’s efforts will complicate the already difficult position of Uyghurs in Turkey.

One factor contributing to future convergences could also be the growing China ties of Turkey’s AKP government. This results from the AKP’s increasingly complicated domestic political standing—reflected, for instance, by the party’s loss of power in Istanbul in June elections. The Erdoğan government is also motivated to vie for Chinese investment and tourism by the economic crisis that has plagued Turkey in recent years. The pro-China (as well as pro-Russia) vector of Turkish foreign policy could further strengthen due to the country’s increasingly troubled relations with Western governments—exemplified by Turkey’s recent purchase of the Russian S 400 missile system, even at the cost of being excluded from the U.S. F-35 program. Moreover, due to China’s wide-ranging cultivation of Turkish political figures and businesspeople, pro-China inclinations might not prove exclusive to the party currently in power. Therefore, the status of the Uyghur diaspora will be indicative of the degree to which Turkish political actors are willing to submit to China’s political demands.


This text is adapted in part from a paper published by The author is grateful to Jichang Lulu, Alex Joske, Andréa Worden, Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı, and another colleague for their comments and assistance. Research for this article was funded by the Lumina Quaeruntur fellowship of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Ondřej Klimeš is a researcher at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, where he focuses on China and Xinjiang politics, propaganda, and ethnic policy.


[1] The remaining four “poisons” are pro-democracy activists; supporters of Taiwan or Tibet independence (as defined by the CCP, to include campaigners for greater autonomy and identity preservation); and members of Falun Gong.

[2] The draft bill of an extradition treaty was signed by the two countries at the first BRI forum in Beijing in May 2017. The draft treaty allows for refusal to extradite individuals sought for the purpose of, or when prone to persecution on account of, religion, nationality or political opinion. The draft treaty currently awaits ratification by the Turkish parliament (Treaty on Extradition between the Republic of Turkey and the People’s Republic of China, May 13, 2017; Grand National Assembly of Turkey, accessed October 5, 2019).

[3] “Eradicating Ideological Viruses”: China’s Campaign of Repression against Xinjiang’s Muslims,” Human Rights Watch, September 2018, pp. 4.