As heads of state convened in the Turkish capital to sign the deal, reports of new clashes and killings from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region in western China, added to the heightened sense of concern about the future of the Uighur Turks. The events that started on July 5 and continued for three days left 158 (according to Uighur sources, 184 or more) people dead and over 1,000 wounded. The brutal crackdown by the Chinese police was severely criticized around the world. As everybody was expecting some degree of normalization, two more Uighurs were killed. Tension remains high.
Uighurs are Muslim Turks and make up the largest ethnic minority in China. They live in the “autonomous” region of Xinjiang, which means the “new front,” alluding to the later annexation of the region to the Chinese mainland. The Uighurs themselves call it Eastern Turkistan as it has historically been their homeland for hundreds of years. The region was first occupied in the late 19th century and then officially annexed to China in 1949. Ever since, the Uighurs have been struggling for their cultural rights. The problem is that Chinese officials present this as separatism. In many ways, this is no different from the Chinese position on Tibet, which demands nothing more than a reasonable degree of cultural and religious freedom.
The Uighur case has revealed the downside of two Chinese claims: ethnic harmony and economic development. In a country like China, ethnic harmony is crucial for the peace and stability of the country. The Chinese officials are right in treating it as a major priority. The problem is that their policies of assimilation do not bring about any harmony or integration. The vast majority of Uighur Turks have accepted China as their homeland and do not demand independence. It is the policies of oppression and assimilation that create the danger of separatism.
Secondly, the events in Eastern Turkistan show that there is no cost-free economic development. The Chinese economic development has been a remarkable story, and it has inspired many developing nations. Chinese products dominate world markets, turning the global economy into a virtual Chinese Wal-Mart. But this success story has not come without a cost. The impact of Chinese industrial development on the environment and low income families in China is a major source of concern. The long-term impact will be even worse.
In the case of China, it is clear that economic development does not guarantee political liberalization. The Chinese government maintains a tight political control over the country while encouraging capitalist modes of production. For the first time in modern history, a communist, authoritarian political system has been coupled with a semi-capitalist economy. It remains to be seen how far this system will work.
The Turkish position on the Xinjiang region has been clear from the beginning: recognize the cultural rights of Uighur Turks and distribute the economic wealth fairly. As long as these conditions are met, there will be no danger of ethnic separatism and social unrest in China. But the killings of over a hundred peaceful demonstrators in the name of teaching them a lesson cannot be tolerated. Voicing one's concerns over the life and safety of these people is not interfering in China's internal affairs. It is raising the principle of justice regardless of one's religion and ethnicity.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his outrage over the events of July 5 and called it a major “atrocity.” He did not call it genocide in the technical sense of the term, i.e., the systematic and mass killing of a group of people because of their race, ethnicity or religion. In L'Aquila, Italy, where he was attending the G-8 summit, Erdoğan said that he cannot turn a blind eye to events that verge on genocide if the killings were to continue. It was a strong message to the Chinese and a plea to restore peace and order in western China. But he did not charge the Chinese with genocide. Don't be fooled by some media hype. He knows how sensitive this word is.