Written by Oana Burcu.

A decade after 9/11 focused attention on terrorism, there is still no common understanding or definition of what terrorism is. To add another layer of complexity, the use of language in media and political discourses further increases misunderstandings and creates misperceptions. For instance, western media outlets came under criticism from China when they avoided using the term “terrorism” in relation to violent events in Xinjiang, the western Chinese province populated by a Turkic speaking Muslim population. This case is particularly relevant within the framework of the western discourse which seems to construct the narrative of terrorism in Xinjiang holding at its core the concept of “China threat”.

In the attack of November 29, 2014, BBC and Yahoo opted for the “terrorist” terminology (using the quotation marks) when describing bombings and mass stabbings of civilians in a food market. More controversially, the Telegraph reported “Eleven ‘mobsters’ are gunned down by police in Xinjiang after they allegedly launched a ‘terrorist’ assault on civilians with knives, explosives and axes” (emphasis is mine). Other media outlets, such as CNN clearly stated “Xinjiang is no stranger to attacks on civilians”, but when naming the actors they preferred to use the term “assailants” in order to avoid the wider debate. Similarly, Washington Post, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Reuters and Huffington Post despite recounting the use of explosive and knives which clearly left 15 casualties, those who committed the crimes are referred to as “assailants” or “attackers”. But where does one draw a line between “assailant” and “terrorist”? A coordinated attack, targeting innocent civilians, underpinned by political or ideological purposes and aimed at intimidating or influencing a government’s policy, is according to most definitions an act of terrorism.

The debate over the usage of “terrorism” in media narratives is not a new trend. It previously stirred significant controversy in March 2014, in light of the horrific mass stabbing outside Kunming train station which left 29 dead and over 100 injured. This was described by the BBC, New York Times and Washington Post as an “attack” and as a “terrorist act” only when quoting Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. The Obama administration initially took a similar stance, but was quickly accused of double standards on terrorism by the Chinese Government and Chinese netizens. Only then, he labelled for the first time the attacks on civilians in China as “terrorism,” a term that he has previously avoided. Despite this, the media outlets fell behind and without providing a justification they continued to employ a questionable language. Whereas their reasoning is not often publicly shared, at least several informed guesses are worth discussing.

Some sources claim that “strict restrictions on journalists, limiting access and information flow, have made verifying claims about terrorism incidents difficult”. Yet, there are numerous sources including official Chinese and international sources, making such evidence available. The US Department of State labelled East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the group founded by Uighur militants, as a terrorist organisation in the wake of the “war on terror”, in 2001-2002. As the years passed and the war on terrorism faded, the US became increasingly reluctant to use the term “terrorism” in relation to Xinjiang, despite an increase in attacks. But yet again common political interests brought the two states together. Last month, during a state visit to China, while calling for strong US-China anti-terrorism co-operation to fight the Islamic State, Obama warned once again that terrorist groups like ETIM should not be allowed to establish a safe haven in China’s periphery.

The US also took concrete measures in 2008. The ETIM leader Abdul Haq, accused of having planned attacks targeting the US Embassy inBishkek, Kyrgyzstan and the Beijing Olympics, was targeted and killed by a US drone. In other instances, the ETIM has even claimed responsibility for detonating two bombs on public busses in Kunming, South China. The more recent attack on Tiananmen Square in October 2013 has been also claimed by Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), another radical Islamist group potentially affiliated with the ETIM. The group released a short video which was posted on the Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute (SITE) website, an organisation partly subsidised by the US.

The other argument is that the Xinjiang case is a domestic issue and hence, it does not necessarily fall within some definitions of terrorism which imply the existence of a terrorist network which conducts attacks on foreign states. Yet again, the US Department of State reports: “ETIM has a close financial relationship with al-Qaida and many of its members’ received terrorist training in Afghanistan, financed by al-Qaida and the Taliban”. ETIM is actually believed to be the third most powerful foreign militant group operating and training in Pakistan’s tribal areas. It is further documented that the TIP is also connected to this region, and was actually formed in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2006.

What’s more, Xinjiang and the central Chinese Government share a long history of animosity and violence that goes back to at least 1865, when the first demand of independence was recorded. Undoubtedly, the game of blame in Xinjiang is powerful and sinuous. The Uyghurs, on one hand, accuse the Government in Beijing of cultural and religious oppression, of economic non-integration and of social discrimination due to an influx of Han Chinese settlers who now make up around 40% of the region’s population. On the other hand, the Government accuses the Muslim minority of acts of terrorism and separatism aimed at creating an independent state of East Turkmenistan. Under these circumstances it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between domestic unrest and counterterrorism. However, it should not be as difficult to differentiate between domestic unrest and terrorism. The lack of civil rights and even oppression, does not give one the right to employ arbitrary and deadly violence against innocent civilians.

In no way am I trying to explain or justify the Xinjiang conflict, I am concerned primarily with the language used in diplomatic and media discourses regarding terrorist acts. Media discourses influence perceptions, while diplomatic discourses can create hostility between states. In order to attain some degree of journalistic objectivity, I believe the usage of specific terminology should be justified. Moreover, mutual misperceptions unevenly upheld and not accounted for, will only deteriorate the already eroded relations between China and the West. The fact that the Uyghurs have legitimate complaints about Chinese policy should not deter one from condemning terrorism and the elusive usage of “terrorism” risks doing just this, while even worse, taking sides.

Oana Burcu is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham researching Chinese nationalism and foreign policy. She tweets at @OanaBurcu. Image credit: CC by John Martinez Pavliga/Flickr.