Human rights, Middle East, New in Lobbying, US-China tensions

Turkish opposition emerges as key ally of Uyghur activists on US China policy

Turkey’s main opposition party has joined forces with US Uyghur activists in pressuring both Washington and Ankara to take a tougher stance against China over its ill-treatment of the ethnically Turkic Muslim minority.

The Washington office of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has emerged as a leading critic of what it deems to be President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s inadequate response to reports of mass detention and forced labor in China’s western province of Xinjiang, lobbying records show. The party’s US representative, Yurter Ozcan, recently wrote a report on the matter that caused a stir in Turkey.

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CHP report (click image to read in English)

“Turkey’s recent silence towards China regarding the Uyghurs can be explained by Turkey’s economy becoming more and more dependent on Chinese trade and investment,” the report states. “In recent years, the scope of economic relations between China and Turkey expanded with different investment projects such as speedy railway lines, bridges, and nuclear power plant construction.”

On Oct. 28, following the report’s release, Ozcan met in Washington with Uyghur American activist Rushan Abbas, the founder of the Washington nonprofit Campaign for Uyghurs, and her husband Abdulhakim Idris, the general inspector of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress. Abbas was planning to travel to Turkey the following month, and Ozcan ended up helping her with some of the logistics, which included meetings with officials from several parties, including the CHP.

Ozcan, who opened the US office in January 2013, told Foreign Lobby Report that the report was subsequently shared with his “extensive distribution list” of thousands of people, including US lawmakers and other officials.

“We are going to make sure that the voices of Uyghur Turks are heard in Turkey,” he said, “and also during our meetings in the US.”

He said the Uyghurs were also counting on the Turks to play a more active role given their religious and ethnic ties and Turkey’s close trade ties with China.

“They value Turkey as an important partner in terms of trying to lobby and leverage its relationship with China to have a more positive influence on China,” he said. “They are hoping that Turkey will serve as a channel to convey the situation and how they are mistreated in China. And they want us to lobby on behalf of them to China, not only to our western allies.”

Ozcan said Erdogan had once been a champion for the Uyghurs — even labeling what was happening in Xinjiang “genocide” back in 2009 — but had toned down his rhetoric in recent years as Turkey’s economic dependence on China deepened. The day his report was launched, he pointed out, Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund opened its first foreign office in China.

“This is a tough issue for a lot of countries to deal with — a lot of countries have been keeping silent,” he said.

“We are going to make sure that the voices of Uyghur Turks are heard in Turkey and also during our meetings in the US.”

Yurter Ozcan

Abbas for her part declined to criticize the Erdogan government’s approach, instead thanking Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for mentioning the Uyghurs during his speech on anti-Muslim discrimination at the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Niger last week.

“Our intention is not to criticize the Turkish government, because they have done a lot for Uyghur refugees,” she said. “But we do want to make the point that any government — including the Turkish government — that respects human dignity cannot continue to choose to appease China.”

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The Chinese Communist Party, she said, has become “a power able to strong-arm the world” into silence. “That’s why it is important for us to work together with all parties.”

In addition to the CHP, she said other allies include Jewish organizations in the United States and Canada that feel compelled by accusations that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs.

The Uyghurs hope to leverage those ties for its legislative priorities, which include passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that would ban imported goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang and legislation calling for transparency regarding sister-city partnerships with China. Abbas said her group would also press President-elect Joe Biden to officially label what is happening in Xinjiang genocide once he’s in office, as he did on the campaign trail.

Ozcan said the CHP publicly supports the forced labor bill but is not actively lobbying for it. The bill faces push-back from major US companies concerned about how it could impact their supply chains in China.

“This is what we are up against,” Abbas said. “That’s why we need to work together” with the CHP and other allies.