The Chinese government issued a warning to its citizens Tuesday urging them to “be wary and pay attention to their personal safety” while in Turkey, a response to the Turkish government’s condemnation of Beijing imprisoning up to two million of its Muslim citizens in internment camps.
China has implemented a policy of detaining ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other majority-Muslim minorities in what it calls “vocational centers” – internment camps where survivors say they are forced to renounce their faith, pledge allegiance to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, learn the Han Mandarin language, and work without pay. The camps are located in Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost province.
China’s Communist Party insists the policy is necessary to eradicate jihad in the country and promote racial harmony.
Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to criticize China’s Uighur internment camps on Sunday after its foreign ministry released a statement calling the camps a “great shame for humanity.” China immediately responded with attacks in state media and an official statement urging Turkey to not discuss the matter.
On Tuesday, China’s embassy in Ankara warned Chinese nationals that Turkish citizens may commit acts of violence against them because of the dispute in a short statement suggesting they remain “wary and pay attention to their personal surroundings.” The statement did not suggest that the Turkish government may prompt those attacks intentionally, nor did it warn Chinese citizens not to travel to Turkey.
Uighurs are ethnically a Turkic people and speak a Turkic language. Their ancestral ties to the Turkish people have triggered outrage among Turks over their treatment in China long before the establishment of the camps. Islamists defending the Uighurs have in the past attempted to attack Han Chinese people in their defense and failed. On one occasion in 2015, an angry Turkish mob attacked a group of Korean tourists to protest China’s treatment of Uighurs while burning Chinese flags, injuring and confusing the tourists. Angry Turks also attacked a restaurant called “Happy China,” mistakenly destroying a business run by an ethnic Uighur.
Defending the attacks at the time, then-leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahçeli said it was difficult for Turks to distinguish Chinese people from Koreans because “they both have slanted eyes.”
China’s criticism on the Turkish government’s statements this week were not limited to the travel advisory. The Global Times, one of the nation’s state propaganda arms, accused Turkey of making “irresponsible accusations” and threatened the nation with economic repercussions if it continued to question China’s violations of human rights. The Turkish Foreign Ministry statement, the article published Tuesday claimed, was “full of prejudice and ignorance,” reiterating the long-debunked claim that the Xinjiang camps “are useful for anti-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts.”
“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reshaping the country by placing religion at the heart of national life after decades of secular dominance and wants to position his nation as ‘the only country that can lead the Muslim world,'” the article concluded. “However, pointing an accusatory finger at China’s treatment of its Muslim ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang won’t add to Ankara’s credentials as a leader for the world’s estimated 1.8 billion Muslims.”
Erdogan himself appeared to respond to China’s criticism on Tuesday, though he did not name the country. In public remarks, he instead insisted that Turkish will continue to make enemies around the world because of its refusal to ignore human rights violations against Muslims.
“We illuminated our future by spoiling their plots, so they became our enemy. They turned into our enemies because we didn’t remain silent in the face of atrocities, because we threw their injustices in their faces,” Erdogan said, without defining “they.” “We strengthened our economy, so they became our enemy.”
A spokesman for Erdogan’s party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), said on Monday that Ankara merely hopes China will take a “transparent approach” to the issue.
While the Turkish government itself has yet to retaliate more specifically to China’s comments than Erdogan did, pro-Erdogan media in the country have taken up the cause. Yeni Safak, one of the most reliably pro-Islamist newspaper in Turkey, published a column Tuesday by Abdullah Muradoğlu accusing China of keeping Uighurs “enslaved in their homeland.”
“Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are being subjected to ‘assimilation’ in the concentration camps turned into prisons,” Muradoğlu wrote. “Uyghurs who have been enslaved in their homeland, have been rejecting assimilation for 70 years. They are forcing Uyghurs, whom they have been keeping in camps under the disguise of the fight against extremism, to live ‘Gulag lives.'”
Muradoğlu also rejected China’s claim that the camps are necessary for educating underprivileged people. “Most of the Uyghurs in the camps are professionals,” he wrote. “We have eyes, ears, a heart, we can distinguish between propaganda and an exaggeration. On the other hand, it is a fact that the truth will out.”