The accelerated repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities inside and outside of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since 2016 has highlighted the Chinese state’s extreme methods of governance and power projection abroad. The crisis in Xinjiang has become a liability for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), tarnishing its national image and triggering increased backlash from the international community and advocacy by the global Uyghur diaspora. In Turkey, China has sought to curb such activity through the securitization of its foreign relations and pandemic diplomacy, while simultaneously employing direct coercive tactics to incapacitate the sizeable Uyghur émigré community—apparently with the tolerance or assistance of local organs (China Brief: February 26; November 1, 2019). In addition to leveraging the Chinese state’s foreign affairs apparatus, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also carries out Xinjiang-related work (涉疆工作, shejiang gongzuo) in Turkey, which consists of both propaganda and thought work (思想宣传工作, sixiang xuanchuan gongzuo) and united front work (统一战线工作, tongyi zhanxian gongzuo). The CCP uses these tools to influence public debate in Turkey and legitimate anti-Uyghur policies in Xinjiang.
Coopting the Xinjiang Diaspora
Turkish messaging on Xinjiang is disseminated by both foreign affairs and propaganda organs via the websites of the Ankara embassy and the Istanbul consulate; China Radio International; and the Xinjiang.cn website, which is produced by the China International Communication Center (五洲传播中心, wuzhou chuanbo zhongxin). Through these channels, Xinjiang-related themes often appear alongside content designed to further related political objectives such as alleged benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); common interests in a multilateral system of international relations; and shared battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
The CCP’s united front work—which can be broadly described as “the process of building a ‘united front’ coalition around the CCP in order to serve the Party’s objectives, subordinating targeted groups both domestically and abroad”(China Brief, May 9, 2019)—specifically targets Turkey’s Uyghur community. For example, Sabir Boghda, a PRC-born chairman of the Uyghur Industrialists and Entrepreneurs’ Association (Uygur Sanayici ve İşadamları Derneği; UYSİD, accessed November 26, 2020), has strong ties to the Chinese party-state and previously served as a non‑voting delegate to the national and Xinjiang committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (Xinhua, March 3, 2015; CCP Central Committee United Front Work Department, January 13, 2016). In both Turkish and Chinese media, he has frequently promoted business opportunities presented by Xinjiang and the BRI for Turkey, disregarding controversies surrounding China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims (Ulakçı, June 12, 2020; Yön Haber, June 12, 2020; CRI Türk, June 12, 2020; Ulakçı, October 2, 2020).
Boghda has spread disinformation that benefits China, claiming, for example, that connections between Uyghurs in Turkey and Xinjiang have been severed due to the Covid-19 pandemic (and not the Chinese state’s internal crackdown on communications and travel) (Ulusal Kanal, July 12, 2020). Boghda also previously partnered with the Turkish chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR, 中国和平统一促进会 zhongguo heping tongyi cujin hui) to support the CCP’s position on the 2019 Hong Kong protests (CRI, August 19, 2019; CRI Türk, August 19, 2019).
Chinese propaganda and united front work target and coopt students from Xinjiang studying in Turkey, perceiving them as “people’s diplomats” (民间外交官, minjian waijiao guan) and “important new troops to implement the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (实现中华民族伟大复兴中国梦的重要生力军, shixian zhonghua minzu weida fuxin zhongguo mengde zhongyao shenglijun) (PRC Foreign Ministry, January 24, 2016). Since 2011, the Xinjiang government’s Department of Education has cooperated with the PRC’s overseas missions to award scholarships to Xinjiang students in Turkey and other countries. One goal was to encourage awardees to return and “serve the motherland and serve Xinjiang” (为国为疆服务, wei guo wei jiang fuwu) (Service Site for Overseas Students in Singapore, April 6, 2012; CRI, December 27, 2012). For example, the “Love Xinjiang Scholarship” (爱疆助学金, ai jiang zhuxuejin) was awarded to outstanding and politically reliable students (PRC Embassy in Turkey, February 15, 2018; PRC Consulate in Istanbul, August 19, 2017; China Cultural Centre; August 30, 2017). The PRC’s Istanbul Consul General Cui Wei (崔巍) awarded similar scholarships to Chinese overseas students in 2019 and 2020 (Xinhua, May 10, 2019; PRC Consulate in Istanbul, May 21, 2020).
Involving Local Politicians, Businessmen and Media
The CCP’s closest political ally in Turkey is the Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi, VP). The chairman of VP is Doğu Perinçek, a nationalist opponent of liberal democracy and a vocal supporter of China’s Xinjiang policy. The VP has established long-term cooperation links with the CCP Central Committee’s International Liaison Department (ILD, 对外联络部, duiwai lianluobu) and Chinese state media. As a result, the VP’s own or partner media outlets—including the daily Aydınlık (Enlightenment), the radio station Yön (Direction), Ulusal Kanal TV station, and Oda TV station—are the main transmitters of CCP ideological tenets to Turkish audiences. For instance, themes such as “core interests and major key issues” (核心利益与重大关切问题, hexin liyi yu zhongda guanqie wenti) and cooperation on Turkish-Chinese “common counter-terrorist security” (teröre karşı ortak güvenlik)—to include opposing the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement—featured in an online seminar held by the VP and the ILD on September 23–24, 2020 (CCP ILD, September 24, 2020; Vatan Partisi, September 24, 2020).
In December 2019, the VP’s Aydınlık forged a partnership with media organizations in China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and five other countries to promote “connectivity of people’s hearts” (民心相通, minxin xiangtong) and form a “wide circle of friendly media to build the community of human destiny” (在构建人类命运共同体中扩大媒体朋友圈, zai goujian renlei mingyun gongtongti zhong kuoda meiti pengyouquan). The initiative was organized by several CCP propaganda system institutions that included the Beijing municipal government’s information office (市政府新闻办公室, shizhengfu xinwen bangongshi), the All-China Journalists Association (中华全国新闻工作者协会, zhonghua quanguo xinwen gongzuozhe xiehui), the China Public Diplomacy Association (中国公共外交协会, zhongguo gonggong waijiao xiehui), and the Beijing Media Network (北京广播电视台, beijing guangbo dianshi tai) (Beijing Municipal People’s Congress, December 14, 2019). The China Public Diplomacy Association previously briefed a group of Turkish media and think tank representatives on Chinese ethnic and religious policy, the BRI, and related issues during a visit to China in May 2018 (China Public Diplomacy Association, May 30, 2018).
After Sino-Turkish relations deteriorated following Turkey’s criticism of China’s Xinjiang policy in February 2019, Perinçek travelled to China to participate in meetings organized by the ILD. In Xinjiang’s capital Urumchi, he attended a meeting titled “China’s Ethnic Policy and Ethnic Unity—Praxis in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” (中国的民族政策和民族团结—新疆维吾尔自治区的实践, zhongguode minzu zhengce he minzu tuanjie—xinjiang weiwuer zizhiqude shijian). The event was organized by the ILD and the Xinjiang Communist Party Committee and attended by ILD head Song Tao (宋涛) and XUAR Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo (陈全国), along with over 200 international delegates. Perinçek’s endorsements of China’s Xinjiang policy were subsequently disseminated across both Turkish and Chinese media (CCP ILD, February 22, 2019; Aydınlık, February 22, 2019; Aıdınlık, February 27, 2019; Xinjiang Daily, February 28, 2019).
In Turkey, the VP organizes networking events that disseminate VP and CCP ideology. Three Turkish-China business forums held in Izmir, Istanbul, and Ankara in May 2019 were attended by Turkey’s business elite and the PRC’s highest diplomats. As a keynote speaker, Chinese Ambassador Deng Li (邓励) promoted the potential for cooperation between the two “natural partners” within the framework of the BRI. For his part, Perinçek touted talking points bolstering Turkey and China’s mutual economic and security interests: that both share an interest in fighting against East Turkestani and Kurdish separatist and terrorist organizations supported by the U.S.; that the “Atlantic Age” of global politics is over and humankind is entering an “Asian Age” pioneered by Turkey and China and that both countries shared a post-imperial legacy of “making nationalities coexist while protecting the safety of trade routes.” Participating Turkish tycoons such as VP member Ethem Sancak and Murat Ülker declared their support for China’s politics. Also attending was Bekir Okan, a billionaire who funds the private Okan University in Tuzla, Istanbul, which hosts one of four Confucius Institutes in Turkey (Oda TV, May 30, 2019; Vatan Partisi, June 15, 2019).
The VP-organized gathering was also covered by the Russian media organization Sputnik, which commonly features articles supporting Chinese policies in Xinjiang. Sputnik Turkey’s Editor Erkin Öncan has also written articles on Xinjiang for Chinese state media (Sputnik Türkiye, May 30, 2019; Sputnik Türkiye. February 25, 2019; Global Times, January 10, 2019). At a December 2020 meeting with Liu Shaobin (刘少宾), China’s new ambassador to Turkey, Perinçek again underlined the overlapping security interests of Turkey and China (Vatan Partisi, December 18, 2020). Whitewashing the Chinese state’s repression of Xinjiang Muslims as a campaign against terrorism and separatism and other tropes disseminated by the VP influence cluster in Turkey have also been circulated by CCP propaganda proxies elsewhere—such as the Czech platform Sinoskop (renamed Asiaskop in September 2020), which has received support from a subdivision of the PPF, a local corporation with extensive interests in China and throughout Asia more broadly (Hlídací pes, March 26, 2020; China Brief, January 17, 2020).
China’s Xinjiang-related propaganda and united front work involves bringing foreign journalists to Xinjiang to “attest to the accomplishments in de-extremification” (认可去极端化成就, renke qujiduanhua chengjiu) and overall Xinjiang policy (Xinjiang United Front, July 25, 2019). For instance, the reporter Erdal Kuruçay echoed CCP messages after a tour to Xinjiang in January 2019. Remarking that the visit had led him to realize how mistaken his understanding of the Xinjiang problem had been due to misleading Western reports, Kuruçay extolled the benefits of China’s rule in Xinjiang, including the “education centers” for Uyghurs allegedly prone to crime (CRI Online, January 15, 2019; Oda TV, January 17, 2019).
The CCP also stages press tours in Turkey. One example involved a “cultural exchange delegation” (文化交流团, wenhua jiaoliutuan) organized by the State Council Information Office in October 2018. The delegation included officials from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Chinese Borderland Research Institute, two top-ranking Chinese academic institutions that publish on Xinjiang policies. At a press meeting in Ankara, the delegation briefed Turkey’s media professionals along the main lines of Xinjiang-related propaganda: alleged economic development; the preservation of religious freedom; the struggle against terrorism, separatism, and extremism; social stability; people’s support for the actions of regional and central government against terrorism; and Xinjiang’s pivotal role in the BRI and Turkish-Chinese cooperation (Guangming Daily, October 25, 2018).
Along with Part One of this series, the above illustrates the wide range of actors involved in China’s Xinjiang-related work in Turkey, including entities from the foreign relations, military, propaganda, and united front systems (系统, xitong) of the party-state bureaucracy. This complexity reveals the high priority that China accords to mitigating the detrimental impact of its domestic Xinjiang policy on its image and interests abroad. Nevertheless, reputational blowback has so far not altered said policy in a substantial way. The Third Central Xinjiang Work Forum, held in September 2020, confirmed the maintenance of “social stability” (社会稳定, shehui wending) and “permanent order” (长治久安, changzhijiuan) as the main “general objectives” (总目标, zong mubiao) of “the party’s strategy for Xinjiang governance in a new era” (新时代党的治疆方略, xin shidai dangde zhijiang fanglüe) (Gov.cn, September 26, 2020). If China maintains its current policy course, its Xinjiang-related work abroad can be expected to continue along the lines outlined in this article series. As Turkey and China commemorate 50 years of diplomatic ties and the CCP celebrates its centennial in 2021, it will be crucial to watch how the two governments’ common interests impact Turkey’s troubled Uyghur diaspora.
This two-part article series summarizes findings to be published in a special issue on Xinjiang by Monde chinois – nouvelle Asie no. 62, edited by Vanessa Frangville and Jean-Yves Heurtebise. The author thanks Jichang Lulu for valuable comments. Research for this article was funded by a 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 contemporary China and Xinjiang politics.