A SOME MONTHS A few days ago, Istanbul commuters were treated to an unusual sight. Overnight, the names of some metro and tram stops, particularly in the city areas popular with foreign tourists, appeared in Chinese characters. Angry at China’s treatment of Turkish-speaking Uighurs in Xinjiang province, protesters tore up some of the signs. They covered others with stickers saying “Murderer China” or “Freedom for East Turkestan” (the name of Xinjiang preferred by Uighur separatists).
Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition mayor, said the signs were installed as part of an agreement between Istanbul and the Chinese embassy, and that the arrangement was temporary. The signs disappeared as quickly as they appeared.
China’s footprint in Turkey is increasing. The annual influx of Chinese tourists has increased from around 60,000 ten years ago to over 400,000 last year. China helped build Turkey’s first high-speed train segment, Huawei helps build 5g The mobile network and Chinese investors have recovered Turkish marble quarries to develop luxury apartments in their homes. Last year, the Chinese central bank provided Turkey with $ 1 billion as part of a currency exchange agreement. Rumors are circulating that Chinese money will soon be poured into the country as part of the Belt and Road initiative, a project to link the world to China by building roads, railways and other infrastructure. . So far, this has not been the case.
The oppression of the Uyghurs seems to be the main obstacle. Last year, Turkey was the only major Muslim country to complain that China has locked up perhaps 1 million of them for crimes such as growing beards or being devout Muslims. In response, China temporarily closed its consulate in Izmir, a large coastal city. Turkey has crossed one of the Chinese government’s red lines, says Guo Changgang of the Center for Turkish Studies at the University of Shanghai. Since then, Turkey has walked more carefully. Last June, after opposition MPs called for an investigation into the crackdown on Uighurs, the ruling party rejected the proposal. On a subsequent trip to China, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopted a milder attitude towards internment camps.
China will not stay away from Turkey for long. It is a market of 80 million inhabitants and a gateway to Europe and the Middle East. Someday, Chinese entrepreneurs keen to help rebuild war-torn Syria will also turn to Turkish ports and cement producers for help. “Turkey has the resources and the suppliers,” says Altay Atli of Koc University in Istanbul. “The Chinese just have to come here.”
Turkey has struggled to attract foreign investment in recent years, largely due to tensions with America and Europe, for reasons such as its friendliness towards Russia, the purchase of Russian missiles and human rights. Some members of the government advocate joining China as well as Russia. But China is unlikely to bail out the Turkish economy. Of the total stock of foreign investment in Turkey between 2002 and 2018, around 75% came from Europe; the Chinese share was around 1%.
In his newly opened Beijing hotel near the main shopping and entertainment district of Istanbul, Jackie Cheng watches a group of Chinese customers exit the main entrance, walk past a restaurant serving respectable Chinese cuisine, and in a tourist bus. Mr. Cheng arrived in Turkey two decades ago, made his fortune in the textiles and souvenirs business, and opened the first Chinese hotel in Istanbul last year. Business is going well, he says. He plans to open branches elsewhere in Turkey. Asked what could help attract more tourists and investors from the old country, he mentioned government support and simpler procedures for obtaining a residence permit. “But one thing that is really needed right now,” he says, “these are more signs in Chinese.” ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Bumps in the belt and road”