In Xinjiang today, the recitation of prayers, wearing a beard and the traditional greeting "As-salamu alaykum" are deemed suspect. Anyone who prays regularly, does not drink alcohol or eat pork risks being branded a Muslim extremist or separatist and sent to a work and re-education camp to be trained to be a good Chinese citizen. "The Chinese authorities have effectively outlawed the practice of Islam within this region," confirms Farida Deif from the organisation Human Rights Watch.

For Ayup, Beijing’s policy is an "unforgivable mistake". "It’s impossible to reconstruct a culture once it has been destroyed," says the activist. His two sisters and his brother are in one of the camps. He has no direct contact with his relatives as it would be dangerous for them. All communication between the Uighurs is monitored, all movements are recorded by cameras and they are even subjected to observation in their own homes. Uighurs are also under pressure abroad and are to some extent forced to spy on their fellow citizens, says Ayup.

After his release from prison, Ayup came to Turkey in 2015 with his wife and daughters because he could no longer remain in his home town of Kashgar.

Turkey has granted asylum to tens of thousands of Uighurs since the Chinese occupation of Xinjiang in 1949, among them the leader of the Uighur nationalist movement, Isa Alptekin, who remained in Turkey until his death. Turkey has been the most significant champion of the Uighur people for decades and, during the unrest in Xinjiang in 2009, Erdogan accused Beijing of committing "genocide" against the Muslim minority.

What price "cultural genocide"?

However, following China’s new Silk Road Initiative, economic interests have become a greater concern to Turkey than pan-Turkic solidarity. On a visit to Beijing in July 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu affirmed that Turkey would not tolerate any anti-Chinese activities. During the economic crisis in Turkey last summer, Beijing granted Turkey a loan of 3.6 billion dollars. The government in Ankara has now broken its silence on the persecution of the Uighurs but it remains uncertain as to whether it will take further steps.

China has been quick to make clear that further criticism would come at a price. After Ankara’s announcement, Beijing called on its citizens to exercise special vigilance on their travels to Turkey. The Chinese ambassador in Ankara, Deng Li, also warned that public criticism among friends would "not be constructive" and could damage mutual trust and economic relations. Shortly afterwards, without stating a reason Beijing closed its consulate in the Turkish port city of Izmir, which was to be one of the end points on the new Silk Road.

"The closure of the consulate sent a clear political message to Turkey not to proceed any further," says policy expert Colakoglu. A further warning came in early March when four Turkish business people were arrested at a business fair in China for "tax offences".

"I am not expecting anyone to sever ties with China, but that does not mean that they can ignore cultural genocide," says Ayup. Now it is up to Erdogan to find a balance between his economic interests and the pressing matter of solidarity with the Uighurs.

Ulrich von Schwerin

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

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