Turkish Social Media on Behalf of the Uyghurs

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak discusses the role that Turkish social media have in regards to the Islamic State.

As they were during Ramadan last year, Turkish social networking sites were again preoccupied this month with national struggles of an Islamic nature. Just as Operation Protective Edge dominated the headlines last July, this summer saw users focusing their attention on the struggle of the Uyghurs – who are considered part of the extended Turkic family of peoples – living under Chinese rule in Xinjiang province.

Throughout history, Xinjiang Province has been conquered by a number of forces, including the Huns, Uyghurs, and Chinese dynasties. After passing through several hands during an ongoing war for control of the area, the Chinese defeated the Mongol Principality of Dzungaria in 1759 and took control of the province, changing its name to Xinjiang. But that was not the final word. The Uyghur revolted in 1864, and Chinese Muslims (Hui), led by Yakup Beg, managed to expel the Chinese from the province. This did not last, and in 1884, the Chinese regained control. Again, the Uyghurs did not give up easily, and during repeated uprisings, twice declared the establishment of “East Turkestan,” in 1933 and in 1944. Yet again, Uyghur independence was short-lived, and the Chinese again took control in 1949, and have ruled the disputed province ever since, despite ongoing Uyghur struggles against the Chinese in Xinjiang.

In light of the ethnic and religious connection of the Uyghurs in China with the Turkish people, the current Turkish authorities attach great importance to their situation. In 2012, for example, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan made an unprecedented visit to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to see the situation of the Uyghur firsthand. Before and after the visit, and despite the status of China as a world power, Erdoğan did not hesitate to severely criticize the Chinese for their attitude towards the Uyghurs. In 2009, he even accused Beijing of committing genocide against the Uyghurs. However, these harsh statements were effortlessly abandoned in favor of Turkey’s vital interests when China and Turkey signed eight agreements for cooperation in various fields in 2010. Moreover, Erdoğan did not hesitate to use the Chinese and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India) as a bargaining chip in his dealings with the EU and NATO. Ankara has presented the Shanghai Organization as a possible alternative to the European Union, and announced plans to acquire a Chinese system for defense against ballistic missiles. These moves seem to be intended to reduce Turkey’s dependence on NATO and show that it has other alternatives, although the project was eventually canceled in response to NATO pressure.

However, the current turmoil that erupted around the Uyghur on social media,  and its reflection on the Turkish street,  hampers, at the very least, the government’s attempts at rapprochement between Turkey and China. Since the beginning of the month of Ramadan, rumors spread on Turkish social media that China forbade the Uyghurs to fast during the holy month, and force-fed them to prevent them keeping the commandments of Islam. In response to these rumors, a variety of cartoons were circulated, pointing to the heavy pressure that the Chinese government allegedly exerted on Uyghur believers.

As part of the online protest surrounding the Uyghur issue, users uploaded pictures showing the flag of East Turkestan (resembling the Turkish flag, but blue), awash with the “blood” of the red Chinese flag. Calls for demonstrations in Turkey and throughout Europe were also spread.[1] Interestingly, pro-Uyghur activists used hashtags and imagery familiar from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[2] This usage reflects the users’ command of techniques for disseminating information on social media, because it facilitated exposure for the Uyghur struggle to wider circles and the recruitment of additional supporters. Among users of this technique was the official Twitter account of the Mavi Marmara flotilla.[3]  This made the comparison to Israel an effective tactic for demonizing China and raising awareness of the Uyghur cause.

The anti-Chinese propaganda spread on online platforms also spilled out into the Turkish street. For example, groups belonging to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) raided a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul, causing significant damage. Korean tourists, who were mistakenly identified as Chinese, were attacked in the town square in Istanbul, and a mob of Turks in Balıkesir ceremoniously “executed” Mao Zedong in effigy. The flames intensified even more after the Thai government decided to deport 109 Uyghur refugees, who had fled to Thailand in hopes of reaching Turkey, to China. The Chinese authorities accused the refugees of involvement in jihadist activity against China as part of ISIS, and the case outraged Turkish social media users. Within a short time, crowds stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul and caused serious damage. The mood did not relax even after the Foreign Ministry announced that it has ascertained that Chinese Uyghurs were free to fast. The Turkish news agency Anatolia even sent a delegation to Xinjiang to evaluate the situation of Uyghurs. Although the article it published had a clearly anti-Chinese tone and emphasized that Uyghurs live under heavy repression, the agency also made it clear that they are permitted to fast and pray, and that the rumors to the contrary are unfounded. To cool the conflagration, President Erdoğan announced his intention to visit China on July 28, 2015, and promised that during his visit the Uyghur issue would also be raised for discussion. Unsurprisingly, the official media used the announcement for the political benefit of the president, and increase support from him among Turkish nationalists. In this spirit, a headline in the newspaper Yeni Akit read: “Erdoğan’s surprise visit to China! He is going to warn them.” [4]

In conclusion, the Uyghur issue highlights the sometimes destructive capacity of social media to spread false rumors that have direct influence on the street, and even on the political echelon and diplomatic relations. There is no doubt that this harmed relations between Turkey and China, and intensified the already negative public opinion towards China in Turkey. Even in 2013, when the two countries declared that Beijing would provide Ankara with a defensive anti-missile system, only 27% of Turks saw China in a positive light. Today, against the backdrop of rumors about the situation in Xinjiang, the rate of sympathy for China has dropped to 18%. [5]Turkey’s leaders understand that they cannot ignore the attitudes expressed online, and President Erdoğan tried to mitigate the conflict when he called for preserving the vital interests of Ankara in the Far East and around the world. However, the incident should also be seen in the context of Turkey’s desire to portray itself as a superpower, led by a president (Erdoğan) who is not afraid of confrontation with major powers, including China, and a defender of Muslim minorities beyond its borders.



[1] #DoğuTürkistan, #VarOlsunTürkMilleti, #turkestan, #genocide, #china, #katilçin, #doguturkistandakatliamvar, #doguturkistankanagliyor #doguturkistandaoructutmakyasak #kahhar #terroristchina #uygur #gökbayrak #uygurtürkleri #çin #eastturkestan

[2] #Gazze, #Filistin, #FreePalestine, #Gaza, #ihh, #killerisrael, #israel, #israelisterrorist, #babykillerisrael #özgürkudüs

[3] @mavimarmaratr

[4] “Erdoğan’dan sürpriz ziyaret! Çin’i uyarmaya gidiyor”, Yeni Akit, July 4, 2015.