Turkey needs China’s support and tourists. The government is covering Istanbul with signs in Mandarin, something Uyghur refugees regard as offensive.
by Ruth Ingram
It is 2am. The nighttime melee in downtown Istanbul is drawing to a close. But amidst the ones and twos still waiting for transport to take them home, a small band of Uyghur and Turkish youths are busy moving swiftly down the tram line pulling off signs, filming themselves as they go.
As they rip off bilingual suburb names in the Mandarin language that have recently appeared around the city, they are defiant in their protest. Having scraped off the signs they replace them with the East Turkestan and Turkish flags, only differing in the color of their background, and stickers denouncing the killings in their homeland.
Their actions posted on the local “Fatih TV” channel website show local Turkish residents in solidarity with their Turkic brothers scraping off the Chinese signs and denouncing their government for pandering to the Chinese.
“How can our government turn a blind eye to what is going on in East Turkestan?” complained a Turkish youth, as he peeled off the Sultanahmet sign, saying that Turkey should be supporting their Uyghur brethren who have taken refuge under its protection and not simply pandering to the Chinese tourism market. “We are selling ourselves to Beijing,” he said.
Uyghurs involved in this act of civil disobedience said they feel betrayed by Turkey and are increasingly afraid at the implications of the two countries cozying up.
Recent statements by the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan have worried Uyghurs. In his recent guest op-ed for China’s Global Times he praised Beijing saying that his country and China “share the same vision of world peace, global security and stability, as well as multilateralism and free trade.”
This attitude has infuriated Gulnur, who runs a shop in the Sepakoy area of Istanbul who despairs utterly at the hypocrisy. “My best friends without exception are now languishing in camps, my own brothers have disappeared, the Chinese government has confiscated my factory and frozen my bank account. I have done nothing wrong and Erdogan is praising China for promoting world peace.”
Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Ersoy, detailing recently his country’s plans to increase tourist revenue said their focus was beginning to be more on China, India, South Korea and Japan. “These are considered resource markets fueling world tourism growth,” he said. “We expect the number of tourists coming from the Asia Pacific region to increase by more than 30% between 2018 and 2023.”
Already Chinese airlines are resuming their flights to the country three times a week from Beijing and new routes are entering the Turkish market from most major cities in China. “The two countries are working to increase the number of tourists to 1 million,” he said.
But this has infuriated Uyghurs, who having felt overrun by Han Chinese in their own province are now experiencing identical feelings of panic as they see large groups of Chinese tourists flooding the bazars and ancient sites in Istanbul.
“Tour guides are learning Chinese, shopkeepers are yelling out ‘ni hao!’ Chinese signage is appearing, and we are beginning to hear Mandarin all around us,” said Nurgul, whose husband is in a camp and whose small business empire has been requisitioned by Beijing. “I know this is Turkey and they have every right to make their own laws. We of course are only guests,” she said. “But I am living like a pauper here and my people are going through the most unimaginable terrors while Han Chinese come here in their droves to play and our so-called Turkish brothers welcome them with open arms.”
One small hidden Mandarin sign remains intact at Gülhane. Other small telltale vestiges of sticky tape sit where the offending pieces used to be. East Turkestan flags and offensive anti-Chinese stickers have been removed but feelings still run high.
The local government has yet to replace the signs in Chinese. But still the relentless march of Chinese tourism is set to continue, with what implications for the 30,000 Uyghur refugees in Istanbul, only time will tell.