Turkish President’s ‘happy Xinjiang’ comments ‘mistranslated’ in China

(SCMP) – Ankara has sought to distance itself from Chinese state media reports suggesting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supports Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, according to diplomatic sources.

At a closed-door gathering of diplomats at the Turkish embassy in Beijing last week, Turkish officials said Erdogan’s comments about the troubled region in China’s far west were mistranslated and Beijing refused to correct them.

According to a report by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Erdogan told Chinese President Xi Jinping during a trip to Beijing on July 2 that people in Xinjiang “live happily”.

“It is a fact that the peoples of China’s Xinjiang region live happily in China’s development and prosperity,” the report paraphrased the Turkish leader as saying.

But Turkish officials at the embassy meeting last week said the comment was mistranslated by the Turkish side and Beijing refused to correct the statement once the error was detected, according to people with knowledge of the meeting.

The officials said the Turkish president should have been quoted as saying that Turkey “hopes the peoples of China’s Xinjiang live happily in peace and prosperity”, according to the sources.

During the meeting with Xi, Erdogan also sought to focus on other bilateral issues including trade, while the Chinese side tried to concentrate attention on Xinjiang, the sources said.

The Turkish embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

Beijing has come under intense international pressure over what activists and United Nations human rights observers say is the detention of at least 1 million Uygurs and other Muslims in centres in Xinjiang.

China says the centres are education facilities set up to stamp out religious extremism and offer training.

Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries to have spoken out about the detentions, with the Turkish foreign ministry in February describing China’s treatment of Uygurs as “a great embarrassment for humanity”.

But on his trip to Beijing this month, Erdogan struck a more positive note, saying that “we can find a solution to the issue, taking into account the sensitivities of both sides”.

Turkey also avoided taking sides two weeks ago when 22 ambassadors to the UN jointly called on Beijing to halt its mass detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang.

China responded by issuing a letter of support signed by 37 ambassadors to the UN, including envoys from several Muslim-majority states such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Erdogan’s trip to China came after his party suffered a major political defeat at home, and his administration faces an uphill battle to support Turkey’s ailing lira, which has roughly halved in value against the US dollar over the past two years.

Earlier this year, Chinese ambassador to Turkey Deng Li said that many Chinese companies were looking to invest in Turkey, including the country’s plans for a third nuclear power plant.

But Deng added that economic ties with China could be at risk if Ankara continued to criticise Beijing’s treatment of Uygurs.

Selcuk Colakoglu, director of the Turkish Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies in Ankara, said there was a lot of public support for Uygurs in Turkey, making a pro-Beijing policy on Xinjiang unsustainable for Ankara.

“If there is no democratic system … [other] governments [in the Middle East] can manage their pro-Beijing stance without informing their public, but a pro-Beijing policy over the Uygur issue can barely be sustained in Turkey,” he said.
“Turkey is still a functioning democracy and total control of the public is not possible. Besides, there is a very strong Uygur lobby and public sentiment towards the Uygurs in Turkey.”

But Guo Xiaoli, from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at Australian National University, said the economy was the Erdogan administration’s primary focus.

“It is important to note that Turkey’s current economic crisis and national security are two top priorities of the AKP’s government,” Guo said referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party.

“The Turkish electorate is more concerned about the deteriorating economic situation, including rising unemployment rate and diminishing value of the lira.”