China’s Soft Power, Counter-Localisation, and the Role of Stateless Uyghurs in Turkey
[Some people are saying that they cannot contact their relatives in Xinjiang. They are demonstrating in front of our embassy. They also spread fake news on social media. Several Turkish Ministers of Parliament and the Vice-President of the World Uyghur Congress were also involved in endorsing this fake news. It seems it was an organised and well-planned activity. Their purpose is to make up lies regarding Chinese policy in Xinjiang, casting China in a bad light. They are using Xinjiang to ruin the relationship between Turkey and China.
China’s Xinjiang policy is clear and consistent. We hope our Turkish friends won’t be deceived by this. We treasure our friendship.]
—Press release by Chinese Embassy in Ankara, 2021
This 2021 press release from the Chinese Embassy in Turkey highlighting the ‘deception’ of ‘some people’ offers a glimpse of the power of stateless Uyghurs abroad in countering Chinese soft-power strategies. Criticising the protest activities and social media campaigns of Jevlan Sirmehmet—a Uyghur man in Turkey whose family has been targeted by the crackdown in Xinjiang—and other Uyghurs in Turkey, the notice marked one of the first written acknowledgements of the way in which protests led by these individuals has damaged China’s public image in the country. It came after months of campaigning by Sirmehmet and others in front of the Chinese Embassy to demand the release of relatives interned in reeducation camps back in the Uyghur homeland, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
We describe these Uyghurs, who were born in China but now live in Turkey without legal documentation other than expired passports and visas, as ‘stateless’. They live in a durative liminal condition of hunted-defiance, hiding behind the tenuous extralegal goodwill of the Turkish State while simultaneously protesting a nation that treats them as minor or petty ‘terrorists’ who should be interned just as their family members have been imprisoned back in China. They are protected by the Turkish public and the current configuration of the Turkish political system, permitted to stage protests and advocacy campaigns on behalf of detained family members, but not provided a path to legal refugee status or citizenship in the country. Yet, despite the vulnerability of their position, stateless Uyghurs in Turkey play a significant role in countering the deployment of Chinese soft power in the country and in much of the rest of the world.
In an important recent book, communications scholar Maria Repnikova (2022) demonstrates that Chinese global soft power is expressed through the establishment of cultural institutes, the manipulation of mass media, academic exchanges, and diplomatic spectacles. A key element, she argues, in the long-term success of these strategies is the degree to which they are ‘localised’ by receiving communities. This process of building soft power depends a great deal on the ability of Chinese state and non-state actors to include local citizens in taking ownership of the initiative in question. Soft power, after all, as defined by Joseph Nye (2004; see also Loubere 2022), is the ability to influence or adopt, rather than coerce. In other words, soft power involves shaping the norms and desires of targeted people through attraction and friendship. And, importantly, Repnikova points out that Chinese overseas populations—ranging from students to diasporic communities—are often utilised as a ‘bridge’ to boost China’s soft power, especially where there are large populations of overseas Chinese, such as in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Yet, Repnikova (2022: 57) is careful to also point out that the role of diasporic communities cuts both ways, as these groups ‘can also serve as a hindrance for China’s image work’.
In this short essay, we draw on the case of China’s relationship with Turkey to examine what happens when a group of former or alienated Chinese citizens such as the stateless Uyghurs actively attempts to counter China’s soft power by building cultural institutions of their own. More specifically, we argue that the case of the Uyghurs in Turkey demonstrates how large populations of marginalised former Chinese citizens who have both material and fictive kinship relations with populations in receiving states can deeply damage the efficacy of China’s soft power. Drawing on ethnographic interviews conducted by Sadia Rahman in Uyghur communities across Turkey in 2021 and an analysis of scholarship on Chinese soft power in Turkey, using critical discourse analysis, we show how in the Turkish case stateless Uyghurs have utilised what we call ‘counter-spectacles’ in front of the Chinese Embassy in the Turkish capital, Ankara, to elicit a response from Chinese officials and bring attention to the plight of their relatives and other Uyghurs back in China. Ultimately, we show the way affinities between the community of stateless Uyghurs and Turkish citizens worked to undermine Chinese soft power through the establishment of Uyghur education institutions, even as a more transactional production and consumption-oriented relationship between China and Turkey deepened. They also have intervened in the global deployment of China’s soft power.
Ties That Bind
In 2011, Jevlan Sirmehmet arrived in Turkey from Ghuljia, a city near the Chinese border with Kazakhstan, to pursue a degree in legal studies. Because his native language and faith resonated so deeply with Turkish society—the Uyghur language shares 60 to 70 per cent of the same grammar structure and lexicon as modern Turkish—he hoped to find a job as a paralegal or attorney and provide for his family, in what he expected to be an easy transition. He never imagined his effort to achieve economic security would be taken as an excuse by the Chinese authorities to shatter his family six years later, in 2017, when his mother and father were taken to an internment camp due to their ties with him.
The ethnographic research of one of the co-authors of this article, Sadia Rahman, shows that Jevlan’s situation is typical of many of the stateless Uyghurs who form a significant proportion of the approximately 50,000 Uyghurs in Turkey (Tavsan 2021), nearly all of whom are missing a relative or friend to the camp system. During Rahman’s fieldwork in Ankara, Istanbul, and Konya, numerous families from across the Uyghur region described how they had lost contact with family members in China. Rahman observed how stateless Uyghurs in Turkey tried repeatedly to reconnect with their families by resorting to friendship networks and scouring Chinese media, only to learn, inevitably, that their relatives had disappeared into reeducation camps or been sentenced to prison.
In many cases, the reasons given for these internments and imprisonments had to do with religious practice, but accessing unauthorised knowledge via the internet, or charges of travelling to ‘sensitive countries’—such as Turkey or Egypt, where Uyghurs have religious and cultural affinities—or supporting a family member who travelled abroad were also quite common. In nearly every case, the ‘crime’ with which the person was charged was not a crime when they committed it. The activities were criminalised after the fact, especially after 2017, when the Chinese State and private corporations started building a massive internment camp system that targeted Uyghur community leaders and regular citizens.
For example, in Jevlan’s case, his mother, Suriye Tursun, was detained due to her fully legal, state-approved visit to see her son in Turkey in 2013. At the time, Suriye was an accountant in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Huocheng County. As a state worker, she was assigned to work for the ‘Becoming Family project’ (防护局), a program initiated by the government in 2014 at the start of the ‘People’s War on Terror’ (人民反恐战争) to monitor rural Muslims suspected of extremism or potential terrorism. Over the next year, her job was to visit or stay with a rural Muslim family as their ‘adopted’ family member. On his last visit back to Xinjiang, Jevlan accompanied his mother during her surveillance and teaching work with Uyghur families. At first, she and other Uyghur civil servants did this work without direct Han supervision, but by the end of 2016, Han officials were tasked with living in Uyghur homes, inserting themselves into their private lives, discerning their activities, and categorising their level of risk using a software system installed on their smartphones.
Jevlan viewed this as a systematic attempt to root out Uyghur traditions and destroy community structure. Practising Islam was one of the flagged activities, but not the only reason to be taken away. ‘It wasn’t possible for my mother to do anything religious at all, since party officials and state workers were not allowed to be religious,’ he recalled to Rahman. ‘Yet still, she was interned in the concentration camp.’ Jevlan surmised that his family was targeted because his mother visited him in Turkey in 2013. Like Malaysia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey is included on a list of ‘sensitive countries’ for Uyghurs to visit. Jevlan never imagined that pursuing higher education and a better life would result in his mother being deemed a ‘terrorist’.
Breaking the Silence
Desperate to know his mother’s whereabouts, Jevlan decided to break his silence and appeal to both the Chinese authorities and the Turkish public. As per his training as a student of legal studies, he first attempted to follow the formal legal route in 2020 by contacting the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul to ask the whereabouts of his mother. At first, consulate staff did not respond. Then, about a month into his petitioning, he received a call from the consulate threatening him. According to his recollections, they told him to remain silent and stop his public activities or he would never see his family again. He was told to act as a good citizen and stop any activity criticising China. Only if he maintained his silence would he receive any information about his family.
Refusing to be intimidated by these threats, he first began to use Turkish and English-language social media platforms to organise a public campaign for the release not only of his mother but also of the relatives of other Uyghur families in Turkey. He and others in similar circumstances then began staging daily, and later weekly, protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Istanbul. Finally, hoping to build a greater mass media presence, he and his fellow Uyghur Chinese citizens began creating a multilingual ‘Where is my family?’ video campaign to foster awareness among Turkish citizens (Kashgarian and Sahinkaya 2021). This again attracted the attention of Chinese officials and, finally, six months into his campaigning, he received a phone call from his father, who, it appeared, had temporarily been transferred to a police holding cell to place the call.
His father told him that he was calling from a police station. He confirmed that Jevlan’s mother was in a ‘school’—one of a number of euphemisms used to discuss the Concentrated Closed Education and Training Centres (集中封闭教育培训中心) that are often referred to by Uyghurs in private as ‘reeducation camps’ (Uy: qayta terbiyilesh lager) or simply ‘concentration camps’ (lager)—but asked him to stop his petitioning in Turkey. This resonated with the case of many other Uyghurs in Turkey. As relatives confirmed to Rahman, they were told that their loved one had been taken to be ‘treated for mental illness’. Another Uyghur interviewee who also came to Turkey as a student noted to Rahman that she talked to her mother through WeChat before she was taken to a reeducation camp. During one of their final conversations, her mother told her that ‘if you do not hear from me for a long time, understand that I have been taken to a hospital for treatment because the local police say that we are sick’.
In the following years, Jevlan and his modes of appeal—media campaigns and diplomatic counter-spectacle—became the most prominent among the Uyghur diaspora community in Turkey. He and many fellow Chinese Uyghur citizens have developed tactics in opposition to global China’s soft-power strategies in Turkey.
Uyghur Cultural Reproduction in Turkey
In January 2021, Jevlan and his fellow protesters decided to take their diplomatic counter-spectacle campaign from the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul to the Chinese Embassy in the capital, Ankara. In his account, he and the other Uyghur petitioners were informed by Chinese Embassy staff that ‘if they confirm that they are separatists doing activities against the Chinese Constitution, express their regret and become a good Chinese citizen, only then would a diplomat meet them’. Faced with the denial of the constitutional rights they should have as Chinese citizens—even as they were in the process of disavowing this citizenship—Jevlan and the other Uyghurs vowed to continue their own counter–soft power efforts and also establish and support Uyghur cultural institutions that would protect the culture and history of their people from being erased.
This shift in strategy was because Jevlan and his fellow protesters had come to believe that what had happened to his family was part of a systematic campaign to destroy the Uyghurs as an ethnicity, ranging from religious and cultural restrictions to a complete ban on the Uyghur language and the imposition of Chinese language in Uyghur society. In his view, this erasure of knowledge production in Uyghur language risked eliminating Uyghur social reproduction altogether.
Over two months of fieldwork in different cities across the country, Rahman learned that a great number of Uyghurs in Turkey had similar experiences and feelings. Nearly all members of the Uyghur refugee population in Turkey face immediate and intimate everyday state violence directed towards them and their families. Many in the Uyghur community live under threat of both extradition and violence towards their families, particularly those who have neither a Turkish residence permit nor Turkish citizenship.
In one of Rahman’s visits to the Zeytinburnu District, a sizeable Uyghur neighbourhood in Istanbul, a Uyghur man told her that Uyghurs in the area live in a state of constant anxiety and moral tension. ‘Our conscience does not allow us to be silent and if we raise our voices for our family members they disappear,’ he said. To make matters worse, the presence of Chinese and Uyghur informants has increased distrust and suspicion within the community. Every public action taken by Uyghurs is monitored and reported to the authorities in Xinjiang. So, Uyghurs live with the knowledge that whatever happens in Turkey has consequences back in their homeland.
Both despite and because of this, Uyghurs in Turkey are trying to hold on to and use their traditional cultural and religious practices to both protect themselves and foster support from the Turkish public. They understand they are the ones who can renew and cultivate Uyghur culture among the next generation. Over the course of Rahman’s fieldwork among Uyghur families, she witnessed how suffering and belonging were shaping the identity of the Uyghur diaspora. In her interviews, she explored how the emotions associated with pain and suffering are expressed through a sense of bereavement, which is thoroughly grounded in Uyghur identity, culture, history, and faith.
This shift in strategy led to the establishment of Uyghur schools such as the Satuk Bugrahan Science and Culture Foundation at the training centre in Konya and Ibilik Primary and Middle School in Zeytinburnu. These schools have formed a central pillar in attempts to create futures for the new generation of Uyghur children, traumatised as they are by the disappearances in their families. In addition, groups such as the Nuzumgum Culture and Family Association provide help to Uyghur widows and single mothers whose husbands are in internment camps.
The success of these schools is driven by shared empathy and communal belonging with the Turkish public—something that is lacking relative to the four existing Confucius Institutes in the country (Koçakoğlu 2021). As the president of the Nuzumgum Kültür ve Aile Dernegi (Nuzugum Culture and Family Fund), Munevver Ozuygur, put it: ‘Turkish civil society and local people support Uyghurs because we are of the same lineage, so whatever help we receive, we try to support poor families in need every month.’ The ‘shared lineage’ to which she refers is the common notion in Turkish popular culture that Uyghurs are the source of Turkic identity, a kind of ‘ur-Turk’ indigeneity connected to Uyghur land-based identity and geographic location near Mongolia where Turkic people are thought to have originated. This commonality, along with similarities of faith and language, provide a powerful hedge against Chinese soft power in the country.
These institutions, along with the passion of disruptive and charismatic advocates like Jevlan, are what give Uyghurs the grace and courage to refuse to forget or give up. Together, their diplomatic counter-spectacles, social media presence, and institutions counterbalance the dehumanisation produced by the Chinese State and settlers in Xinjiang in northwest China. Among large segments of the Turkish public, these schools and spectacles, combined with the widespread idea of an at least partially fictive or imagined ‘common lineage’ between Uyghurs and Turkish citizens, have deeply damaged the success of Chinese soft-power localisation (Koçakoğlu 2021).
Yet, for all this support from the Turkish public, the Uyghur cause is not well supported by Turkish political elites. Instead, Turkish leaders speak publicly about the ‘shared friendship’ described by the Chinese Embassy (on the bilateral relations between China and Turkey, see Gürel and Kozluca 2022). The value of Chinese trade with Turkey has risen sharply to about US$27 billion (Nuroğlu 2019), and when it comes to goods and services—from phones to internet service—the price point and quality have proven to be powerful tools in maintaining a strong China-made presence among the Turkish public. Turkey, along with Ethiopia, has become one of the largest producers of Chinese phones for the Middle East and African markets (Biçer 2021). Taken together, it appears that the most effective form of soft power is the quasi–hard power of soft infrastructure and consumer goods.
Yet, with new bans on goods and services connected to Xinjiang in large markets such as the United States, the counter–soft power of Uyghur narratives and their amplification through mass media—as well as national and international legal bodies—have inflicted lasting damage on China’s soft-power prospects. Chinese Uyghurs in Turkey just like Chinese Kazakhs in Kazakhstan and stateless Uyghurs elsewhere, have told the world what is being done to their communities back in their homelands. Ultimately, they—hunted yet defiant Turkic Muslims without citizenship protections—are the ones who play a significant role in preventing the localisation of Chinese soft-power initiatives around the world.
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