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China seeks further engagement from Turkey in Xinjiang region
In a visible shift of policy in the last decade, the Chinese government has turned to Turkey to bolster its grip over what is often described as a restive province, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in northwestern China that accounts for one-sixth of China's land and is home to about 22 million people from 13 major ethnic groups.

The relatively new policy is devised to complement long-running economic and social development schemes for which the central government has been pouring billions of dollars into the region to eradicate the discontent that mostly exists between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Covering an area more than two times the size of Turkey, the Xinjiang region is home to 8.8 million Uyghurs and 7.7 million Han Chinese, comprising 45 percent and 39 percent of the population, respectively, according to a 2004 government survey. Though there are also Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Mongolians, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Tatars and Russians among some 10 major ethnic groups in the region, the largest minority group, the Uyghurs, who are ethnically, linguistically and culturally Turkic, feel very close to Turkey.

"It is very natural for Turkish people to be attentive towards Uyghurs because they share culture, history, and folklore," said Xiaodi Zhang, deputy director general at the Foreign Affairs Office and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the Xinjiang People's Government. "We feel very comfortable on exchanges between Turkey and Xinjiang, and it would be welcomed by the government here," he emphasized.

In fact, China has been accommodating the Turkish government's requests to visit the province in recent years in order to show that there is no major problem between the two countries on Uyghur issues. "Uyghurs are playing the role of a friendship bridge between China and us. This role will make a contribution to carrying our relations to much higher levels," President Abdullah Gül said while visiting the province in 2009.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who also visited Urumqi and Kashgar in the province in October 2010, stressed that better relations between Turkey and China will help Turkey increase its contribution to Turkic Muslim Uyghurs living in XUAR. Now, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to make an appearance in Urumqi on April 7 and 8 before proceeding for an official visit to Beijing. Out of security concerns, Chinese officials are not making Erdoğan's visit public here in Xinjiang.

The growing relations between Ankara and Beijing in the last decade have softened Beijing's security-oriented approach to solving problems faced by Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the province, while the Turkish government has taken a hard line against any separatist and terrorist activities aimed at establishing an independent "East Turkistan" in the province. Turkey's commitment to a "One China" policy and strong emphasis on the "territorial integrity and sovereignty of China" lifted relations to a "strategic partnership" in 2010. There have been high-level exchanges at the most senior leadership levels in recent years.

But the road to increased convergence between Turkey and China on a number of regional and global issues proved to be bumpier than was originally expected. First came the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009, with Uyghurs protesting what appeared to be the government's harsh policies just days after Gül's visit, followed by a violent crackdown by Chinese security services, leaving nearly 200 dead, according to official Chinese data.

Though both countries were caught at the moment of elevated emotions under strong reactions from their respective public opinions for a short period, they were quick to realize that the tension might have escalated to a level that would damage the national interests of both countries. While Turkey immediately toned down the rhetoric, China rushed Turkish reporters to the scene in Urumqi to show it has nothing to hide and that it is doing its utmost to punish the perpetrators. Suspicion has also emerged that a third country's meddling was aimed at derailing ongoing rapprochement between Turkey and China, which may have very well played a role in fanning tension between the two large ethnic communities in the province.

Both sides scrambled to put a set of measures in place to safeguard what they have been trying to accomplish on bilateral relations for some time. Beijing moved to replace long-time dictator Wang Lequan, who had been criticized for his handling of the ethnic riot in 2009, and appointed Zhang Chunxian, who is known to be a reformist with a liberal character as Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang. The appointment was seen as China's determination to see a more restrained approach to easing tensions in the region.

China is also working to insure that the province has further ties cemented with Turkey in every field. It invited Turkish companies to conduct trade and investment in the region. The local government has even allocated a large track of land for a Turkish industrial zone in Xinxiang where some Turkish companies operate. For connectivity, China Southern Airlines started direct flights between Urumqi and İstanbul earlier this year.

At the cultural level, there is some cooperation already in the works between the two countries. Officials at the Chinese Xinjiang Art Theater told Today's Zaman that they had sent their Song and Dance Troupe this year to Turkey for the first times as part of the China Culture Year 2012 program. The group of 40 artists returned last week from Turkey after holding a series of concerts in various Turkish cities. Theater officials said they wanted to show Turks that the Xinjiang Song and Dance Troupe reflects Xinjiang's different ethnic groups, such as the Uyghurs, the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, the Uzbeks, the Hui and the Mongols, working to produce art collectively.

Muslims in Xinxiang look up to Turkey

The same can be said of Muslim practices in the province as well. China is not comfortable with militant teachings that obscure mainstream Muslim practices in the region, whether it comes from neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan or the radical Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia. They see the Turkish version of mystic, inner-oriented and peaceful Islamic teachings as a bulwark against extremism.

Ebubakr Yaqub, director of the Yang Hang Mosque in the old city, an Uyghur himself, says the Muslim community has the respect of others in the neighborhood. Membership in the mosque, which is also home to a large hall in the basement for funeral prayers and Ramadan iftars (fast-breaking dinners), mostly consists of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Chinese Hui Muslims. "Some 300 people attend daily prayer services," Yaqub said, adding that the number goes up to 3,000 for the Friday prayer. "The prayers on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha see the courtyard as well as adjacent streets fill up with over 10,000 worshippers," he noted.

The mosque is just one of 400 in Urumqi and one of 24,000 across the province. Huseyn Ahmad Hagi, the imam on duty at the Yang Hang Mosque, explains that the government provides some funds for the living expenses of the imams and staff, while the community also raises funds to supplement that. Yaqub remembers that Davutoğlu prayed in the Yang Hang Mosque in 2010 during a visit and attended a funeral prayer held there. "That was a memorable event," he recalled.

Uygur community leaders in the province emphasize "patriotism" in their comments to the press, denouncing violence and terror. Sheikh Abdul Rakib, deputy director of the China Islamic Institute in Urumqi and standing member in the Chinese Islam Association, said social stability and ethnic unity in Xinjiang is very important for their teachings. "There is a noticeable increase in living standards here in the province," he said, acknowledging that social and economic development helped soothe tension. He also praised the local and central governments' help in supporting Islamic education in the province. Over 800 students with BA equivalent degrees have graduated from the institute since it was established in 1987; most were employed in towns and cities across Xinxiang. According to institute officials, the number of Muslim clergy, which includes those that received short-term training in another center supported by the institute, exceeds well over 26,000 today.

The curriculum at the institute is determined by the association, which allocated 30 percent of the courses to culture and social studies, while the rest is for religious teachings. "Patriotism and being pious" are the core values taught at the institute, Abdul Rakib noted. The institute sent 35 students to al-Azhar University in Egypt and hopes to have students in Turkey as well. The agreement signed in 2011 between Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate and the association may provide that opportunity in the future. With the agreement, students from China, where 23 million Muslims live, will return to their native land after studying in Turkey, with Chinese imams receiving in-service training.

When Erdoğan makes an appearance here in early April, he is expected to emphasize Turkey's wish that China improve living conditions for Uyghurs, a wish that has been pursued by Beijing as well. His message to the Uyghur community will be the same one delivered by Davutoğlu, who assured the Uyghur community while speaking in Kashgar on Oct. 28, 2010, during his visit to China. "Improving relations between the two countries will also bring relief to our Uyghur brothers," he said in a message that the Chinese government has no apparent problem supporting.

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