Beijing-backed Drawing Contest in Turkey Backfires as Students Submit Depictions of Xinjiang Abuses
2021-05-14 -- A drawing competition launched by the Chinese Embassy in Turkey to promote interest in China among students appears to have backfired after several submissions depicting state-backed policies of repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) were posted online.
The "China in my Dreams" contestâ€”which Turkey's International Science and Culture Foundation, the country's Ministry of National Education, and the Chinese Embassy launched in 2016â€”rewards Turkish high school students whose artwork best depicts the theme of ties between Beijing and Ankara.
Students are required to submit their entries between May 3 and June 13 and winners are presented with trips to China, where they visit Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an. In order to mark the 50thanniversary of ties between the two nations, this year's trip is set to feature tours of mosques in Xi'an, an ancient city traditionally viewed as the eastern end of the Silk Road trading route that linked China with the West.
But while the competition is generally welcomed for highlighting the strength of bilateral relations and cultural connections between Turkey and China, it has also drawn condemnation from members of the public who believe that the country's government has no right to support China amid widespread reports of abuses in the XUAR.
Turkey is home to more than 50,000 of the world's nearly 12 million Uyghurs, who historically have viewed their fellow Turkic nation as a refuge and advocate for their religious and cultural rights.
Ahmet DavutoÄźlu, Turkey's former prime minister and the head of the country's opposition Future Party, is leading a group of politicians, intellectuals, and officials from nongovernmental organizations in combatting China's soft diplomacy narrative and working to hold Beijing accountable for its rights record in the XUAR. Reports suggest that authorities in the region have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.
DavutoÄźlu recently called on students in Turkey to instead submit artwork to the Ministry of National Education for an "East Turkestan in my Dreams" competition, using the name many Uyghurs prefer for their homeland, as part of a bid to highlight China's tactics of persecution in the region.
"Dear young people! Draw pictures of your brethren in the homeland being saved from the oppression and send them into the competition," he tweeted, accompanying a picture drawn by Faruq Nazmi that depicts a young girl saluting the blue star-and-crescent flag of the short-lived Uyghur republic.
SelĂ§uk Ă–zdaÄź, vice president of the Future Party, also tweeted a message to Turkish Minister of Education Ziya SelĂ§uk urging him to "ask the Chinese Ambassador in Turkey about the issue in this drawing and then share his answer with the Turkish people," referring to a drawing of a young girl holding a sign that reads, "Where are my relatives?"
"Let's see what a scholar and politician you really are," he added.
Social media movement
On social media, critics of the competition have shared since other drawings, including one of Chinese President Xi Jinping surrounded by Uyghur skulls, and another that shows a man dressed in clothing made of the Chinese flag putting his hand over a Uyghur's mouth, expressing the idea that Uyghurs have no freedom of speech.
Other social media users posted drawings on various themes, including Uyghurs hanged by nooses made from China's flag; Uyghurs killed while China and Turkey carried on "friendly relations;" and Chinese [state representatives] demolishing mosques and imprisoning Uyghurs.
A drawing by a girl named Aisha Zawki depicts Chinese police imprisoning Uyghurs and hanging them from trees, while other images depict Chinese-language slogans including, "Let's invade and assimilate Uyghurs in every way [possible]."
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the facilities as "boarding schools" that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA's Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
Reports also suggest that Uyghurs being subjected to torture, forced labor, state-enforced birth control including forced sterilizations and abortions, and cultural eradication. These practices amount to a policy of genocide, the U.S. State Department determined in January.
Call for access
The Turkish Writers' Union recently issued a statement calling on the Turkish Ministry of Education to immediately cancel the "China in my Dreams" contest, calling it "unacceptable" that it would support the competition given the current situation in the XUAR.
"It is impossible to explain why Turkey would be looking the other way and holding such a competition today, when some governments have recognized the policies of repression China is carrying out in the Uyghur region as genocide," the statement said.
"Today, when the entire world is rejecting what China is doing to Uyghurs, when all Uyghurs, whose religion, language, and culture as the same as those of the Turks, are facing China's oppression, what can one even draw in a competition called 'China in my Dreams' other than the tears and blood that are flowing?"
The Writer's Union added that if China is rejecting reports of repression in the XUAR, it should allow international observers into the region to investigate the claims.
China in 2019 organized two visits to monitor internment camps in the XUARâ€”one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Thailandâ€”during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as "slanderous lies."
During the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September last year, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told the gathering that these trips and the China-friendly accounts they produced were "Potemkin tours in a failed attempt to prove" that the camps were humane training centers.
Osman Oktay, a well-known journalist in Turkey, recently spoke with RFA about the competition, calling the Turkish government "blind and deaf" for its involvement.
"It is shocking that they would hold this while the Uyghurs are facing such oppression," he said. "We must express our dissatisfaction with this."
Hidayetullah OÄźuzhan, head of the Union of East Turkistan Associations, told RFA that he had written to the Ministry of Education as well as to some public organizations in Turkey to condemn the competition, and said that protests against the contest are growing.
He also noted that his organization plans to hold a poetry writing competition alongside a drawing competition called "East Turkistan in my dreams."
"Many in Turkey, including both [political] parties and famous individuals in the social media space alike, have expressed very urgent protest against this," he said.
"Inshallah, we will not give way to the plans of Sinophiles and the Chinese Embassy to minimize the activities of the East Turkestan cause here in Turkey."
Reported by Erkin for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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