The Terrorist Threat in China

The Diplomat has published a four-part series by scholars from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) on rising violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, and central authorities’ “war on terror,” launched in response last May. Each entry is accompanied by an interactive map of nationwide incidents since 2010 and general statistics for each. Part one is a general overview of the origins and changing nature of terrorism, the central government’s controversial counterterrorism policies, and the international media’s reluctance in using the label of terrorism to report on , where government-sanctioned opacity obstructs understanding of the situation. From MERICS’ Marc Julienne, Moritz Rudolf, and Johannes Buckow:

[…] The current tensions have a long history. Since China’s western expansion in the 18th century and the annexation of Xinjiang, the region and the central government have had a troubled relationship. The have long been fighting for the preservation of their culture against the perceived Han invasion. After a decade of resurgent expression of Uyghur culture and religion, 1989 marked a turning point for both Chinese authorities and the Uyghur population, as well as a new rise of separatist ideas. From Beijing’s perspective, the Tiananmen Square incident and the increasing local (student) protests reinforced the need for tighter control of the population and the crucial establishment of stability. From the Xinjiang separatists’ perspective, the defeat of the Soviet Union by the mujaheddin in Afghanistan was a source of hope and fueled radical Islamism in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, it is crucial to distinguish between the general Uyghur population (Uyghurs who are politically active in favour of more autonomy) and others who would go so far as to take part in terrorist activities.

Although Western countries have been very reticent to talk about in China, facts show that in recent years the PRC has been facing a genuine threat. However, it remains difficult to ascertain the nature and source of all alleged terror incidents that occur in Xinjiang. Very little official information is released and there are very few independent journalists on the ground. Moreover, information relayed by Chinese media and officials’ statements provide hardly any evidence or verifiable figures. It is therefore a fundamental challenge to differentiate between acts of social insurgency, state repression, and within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In fact, the overall social and ethnic situation in China’s Western region blends into a broader conflict between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research even labeled the situation in Xinjiang a “limited war” in 2014.

Still, it is indisputable that major terrorist attacks have occurred recently in Xinjiang (Urumqi 2014) and elsewhere in China (Beijing 2013, Kunming 2014). […] [Source]

Part two looks closer at the changing nature of terrorism in China and how it relates to shifting global trends:

[…] Terrorist attacks have been spreading out of Xinjiang in recent years. From the 1990s to the late 2000s, the vast majority of terrorist acts were limited to Xinjiang, while the Chinese Uyghur terrorists were known to be based in Xinjiang and in relatively unstable neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in Central Asia. Recently, however, China has suffered attacks in several cities all over its territory. In the most symbolic attack, a car loaded with explosives crashed into a group of tourists under the portrait of Mao Zedong in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on October 28, 2013. The most brutal attack occurred five months later, in March 2014, at Kunming railway station (in the capital city of Yunnan province) followed by two attacks at Guangzhou railway station (in the capital of Guangdong province) in May 2014 and March 2015. While the first attack obviously targeted China’s symbols of power, the following ones might be explained in relation to the failed attempts by Uyghur extremists to leave China via the southern borders and join terrorist networks abroad.

[…] For years, terrorist acts in Xinjiang targeted symbols of Beijing’s authority, mainly local Communist Party of China (CPC) headquarters and police stations. In recent years, terrorist acts have increasingly targeted civilians — regardless of ethnic origin — in crowded public places. This was the case with the Beijing, Kunming, and Guangzhou attacks in 2013 and 2014. Other attacks in 2014 further confirm this trend: the attack on the Urumqi railway station in April killed three and injured 79; a car bomb attack on an open-air market in Urumqi the following month killed 31 and injured 94. The number of civilian casualties has increased dramatically. [Source]

Part three focuses on Beijing’s changing responses to mounting violence and its underlying causes:

[…] In politics, anti-terrorism is currently a higher priority than it has ever been before. In August 2013, the State Council established the Leading Small Group on Counter-Terrorism (反恐怖工作领导小组), which is a top-level body in charge of advising and implementing counter-terrorism work, led by the minister of Public . Along with the establishment of the National Security Commission (中央国家安全委员会), which is headed by Xi Jinping himself, in January 2014, this has led to the centralization and prioritization of anti-terror policymaking at the highest level.

[…] In order to fight the perceived socio-economic roots of terrorism, China has launched a number of development initiatives. Beijing is trying to stabilize the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by improving the living standards of Uyghurs, creating jobs and integrating Xinjiang with the Chinese economic heartland. These efforts intensified with the proclamation of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative in 2013. While some of these efforts have shown positive results, others have been criticized as attempts to assimilate Uyghurs into the Han majority, or to eradicate local languages, cultural goods, or religious life.

[…] China is currently working on a new law that is to lay the legal basis for engaging terrorist threats and suspects and to create an operational legal definition of terrorism. The National People’s Congress published the first draft in November 2014 and a second formal round of deliberations on the law was held in February 2015. So far, the draft law condemns as terrorist acts “any speech or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, generates social panic, undermines public security, and menaces government departments or international organisations.” This very vague definition opens up the possibility for arbitrary applications and abuse. [Source]

Read more about concerns surrounding proposed counter-terror and national security laws.

Finally, part four looks at Beijing’s recent efforts to rally international cooperation in its fight against terrorism—regionally through widening the scope of multilateral forums and forging new treaties, and globally by seeking to align its goals with those of Western nations:

China still focuses on bilateral cooperation to fight terrorism as a transnational phenomenon, including extradition treaties and police and intelligence exchanges. So far China has signed 36 extradition treaties (for instance with Pakistan, Thailand, and Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan) to facilitate the exchange of prisoners and suspected terrorists. The latest treaties, with Afghanistan and Iran, came into force in December 2014. In January 2015 Afghanistan extradited to China several Uyghurs suspected of having been trained in terror camps in Pakistan.

[…] The (SCO) serves as the main multilateral body for China’s commitment to fight against terrorism. The SCO was initiated by China and formally established in 2001 together with Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to coordinate efforts to fight “terrorism, religious extremism and separatism” in the region. Besides joint military drills (so called “Peace Missions”), which often have a counter-terrorism focus, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) provides the SCO’s anti-terror efforts framework. RATS serves as a meeting platform for SCO member states’ counter-terrorism agencies and facilitates intelligence sharing in the form of a joint database and blacklists of individuals and groups linked to terrorism.

[…] As China and the West face a similar threat from trans-regional Islamist terrorist networks, areas of cooperation should be identified and actively pursued. Apart from exchanges of information on terrorist groups, many European countries also have their own experiences to share with regard to fighting terrorism, emphasizing milder forms of policing and surveillance as well as cultural and educational methods of prevention.

However, there are limitations to substantial cooperation with China on anti-terrorism. […] [Source]

Last month, Chinese state media heralded the success of the ongoing security crackdown, claiming that authorities have disbanded 181 terrorist groups since the campaign launched. In addition to heightened security measures, religious and cultural practices have become highly regulated in parts of Xinjiang.  In a blog post for the London Review of Books, author of the recently released book “China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State” Nick Holdstock notes that the declaration of success—common from state media regarding central policy—appears to be aimed at assuaging anxiety among Han residents in Xinjiang, and highlights the view that policies further marginalizing religious and ethnic minorities will likely do little to help the situation:

[…] It’s routine for the Chinese authorities to trumpet the success of their policy initiatives. In this case, the aim is to reassure the growing population of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang that the situation there is stable. The regional authorities in Xinjiang are far more sympathetic to settlers’ concerns than those of the local Uighur population. After the riots in Urumqi in 2009, which officially led to more than 200 deaths, several large protests by Han Chinese in Urumqi were treated with remarkable leniency, even though some of the protesters singled out Wang Lequan, the regional party secretary at the time, for vilification and even death threats.

[…] Prominent voices in China are calling for a reassessment of economic policy in Xinjiang. But China’s new draft security law suggests that Xi Jinping’s administration is committed to criminalising dissent, even the moderate criticism offered by the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who was jailed for life last September for ‘separatism’. Until Uighur communities in Xinjiang are given equal access to employment and education, and allowed the freedom of religious expression guaranteed by China’s constitution, the cycle of resentment, violence and repression will continue. [Source]