Turkish opposition lawmakers accuse country of selling out Uighurs for vaccine

The Associated Press detailed allegations Turkish lawmakers are making against the country's government of selling out Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, in exchange for vaccines from China, which has been cracking down on the group within its borders. One of the authors of that article Dake Kang joined CBSN AM to talk about the accusations and the vaccine.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Turning to Turkey now, where opposition lawmakers are accusing the government of bowing to pressure from China. According to the Associated Press, the legislators say Beijing is leveraging shipments of COVID-19 vaccine doses in exchange for Ankara cracking down on Uighur Muslims living in Turkey. The US has accused China of committing genocide against Uighurs in that country.

So Dake Kang is one of the authors of the Associated Press piece exploring these allegations. We want to bring him in to talk more about this. Thank you so much for joining us.

I got to say, this was very illuminating for me. I have read about at times the Chinese government reaching beyond its borders to limit the voices of Uighurs who have already left China. Usually it's in the United States. I never even considered Turkey.

So let's talk of what-- about what the opposition lawmakers are saying. What evidence are opposition lawmakers offering for these allegations? And how are other Turkish and Chinese officials responding?

DAKE KANG: Yeah, that's a great question. So this is, obviously, a very, very serious allegation. Basically, opposition lawmakers are saying that China is pressuring Turkey to sign an extradition bill, which would mean that it would be easier for China to get Uighurs in Turkey back to China. And that has a lot of Uighurs in Turkey worried, because they fear that if they deported back to China, they face certain detention and possibly death.

Lawmakers so far don't have any solid evidence that this kind of pressure is happening behind the scenes. But what they do point to is that there is a curious series of events that have surrounded the rollout of the Chinese vaccine in Turkey. Turkey is almost entirely reliant on a vaccine made by one Chinese company. And those vaccine shipments have been delayed repeatedly, weeks at a time. Even now the shipments have started coming in, but they're not delivering-- being delivered as large a quantity as they had promised initially.

And that is being coupled with China suddenly ratifying this extradition bill on their side in December. And this extradition bill has been sitting around for years. So people are questioning what's going on? Why is there this delay with the vaccines at the same time that the extradition bill is getting ratified in China?

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So periodically we have discussed sort of the growing influence of China around the globe through infrastructure, through business investment, through technology. What is the relationship like between Turkey and China? How has it evolved? Has Turkey ever been critical of China's crackdown on the Uighurs in China?

DAKE KANG: Absolutely, yeah. So turkey and the Uighurs, actually, have close cultural connection, because Uighurs are actually a Turkic, largely Muslim ethnic group in China's far west. So there's historic kind of cultural and linguistic ties between Turkey and the Uighurs. And that means a lot of people in Turkey are very sympathetic to the plight of the Uighurs.

And President Erdogan of Turkey has-- he's kind of a nationalistic, sometimes firebrand kind of president. And he used to fashion himself as kind of the protector of the defender of the Uighurs. And so back just over 10 years ago, he actually called China's crackdown on the Uighurs as a genocide many, many years before other countries were even paying attention to the situation there.

But that all changed with the coup in 2016. Erdogan-- attempted coup, sorry. And Erdogan actually in response to that initiated a crackdown on civil society, which led turkey to kind of move away from Western governments because of censure from them and move towards China, because China was offering loans and investments that other countries were not willing to offer Turkey. And now the tone that Erdogan strikes is very kind of dull and diplomatic. He's praising China for its investments and for its help. And he's not saying really much of anything about the situation in Xinjiang anymore.

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ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Many observers have sort of said that China is in this kind of unique position, having dealt with the pandemic ahead of the rest of the world, initially kind of-- particularly when you look at the previous American administration, being blamed for the pandemic. But now if they have a vaccine that really works, they could almost be sort of the heroes of the pandemic to certain countries, for sure. How is China using vaccine distribution? Are we seeing sort of a vaccine diplomacy coming out of China when it comes to countries like turkey and other countries around the world?

DAKE KANG: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think that China is one of the world's largest producers of vaccines. It's developed some of the first vaccines for COVID-19. And it's clearly going to-- it's clearly kind of promoting the fact that it's going to be delivering a lot of these vaccines to developing countries around the world as part of its diplomatic efforts.

We have to give full credit to China. China has fully-- more or less fully controlled the coronavirus within its own borders. And so it doesn't-- there isn't really an urgency for the Chinese government to be injecting lots of its own people, because the situation here is just not that urgent.

Things are basically fine. Daily life continues as usual. And so it gives the Chinese authorities an opportunity to export these vaccines to developing countries that really need it. And that's, obviously, a diplomatic boost for them.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Mhm. Well, it's all really fascinating. Great work on the story. Thank you very much.

DAKE KANG: Thanks so much for having me.