China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities, the Uygurs, will be a potential source of contention in any effort to build closer ties with Turkey and Middle East countries, experts at a conference said on Tuesday.
China was now one of the largest trading partners of Turkey, which is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Leaders of both nations have pledged to cooperate more on trade and investments.
But Altay Atli, of Istanbul’s Koc University, said there were still “serious differences” between the two nations over the treatment of the approximately 11 million Uygurs in China’s Xinjiang region, and this “undermines mutual confidence and trust between the two sides”. Until the issue was resolved, there would be “suspicion” by Turkey, he said.
Muslim-majority Turkey on Sunday condemned China over reports it had detained more than a million Uygurs in re-education camps, which Beijing claimed were for vocational training and helped people stay away from religious extremism. Ankara described the reports as a “great embarrassment for humanity”, a comment China said was “completely unacceptable”.
Serkan Yolaçan, of the Middle East Institute in Singapore, said China was “integrating the land (Xinjiang) but isolating the people (Uygurs)”.
Xinjiang was a key piece in the BRI and a gateway into Central Asia, the research fellow noted. But failure to integrate the Chinese Uygurs well could affect the mainland’s plans.
Even if the Uygur issue was not raised during trade negotiations, it could still be a “bargaining chip ... to get something else”, Yolaçan said. “China has to be more confident in working with Muslim movements which are keen to work with the government ... integrate the Uygurs on your own terms”.
The two experts were among more than 300 global academics, legal and policy analysts at a two-day conference on the role of China and the opportunities available in the BRI.
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Atli noted it was not the first time the Turkish government has criticised China’s treatment of Uygurs, and the aim was to register public concerns on the plight of fellow Muslims.
But he urged for dialogue, saying: “The Turkish government is right to express its concern but the key is to dialogue and find common solutions ... but without forgetting (the Chinese Uygurs) are still citizens of China”.
James Dorsey from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who had referenced to the crackdown on minority Muslims in Xinjiang during his talk at the conference, noted that China was leading the charge to change the norms of human rights.
The global technological race, where China has exported products to countries to make it easier to for surveillance and repression of free speech, could be seen as an expression of “Chinese norms on how technology should govern society”, he said.
Professor Wang Suolao from Peking University, however, said China had no intention to fill any vacuum or to act as a proxy for the Middle East.
Strategic partnerships with every country was the goal, said Wang, who is deputy director of the Institute of Area Studies.
“Give China a chance and time, it is a rising power in the Middle East but we want to bring peace and stability to all Middle Eastern countries”, he said.
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