China

Terrorism and Counterterrorism in China: The Other “War on Terror”

Written by Scott N. Romaniuk & Shih-Yueh Yang.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) comprehensive counterterrorism law that came into effect at the turn of 2016 brought with it waves of criticism from human rights activists, proponents of fundamental rights and freedoms, and liberal states around the world. Renounced by many Western governments, the CCP backed the necessity of the law, contending that the country finds itself in a more complex and dangerous security environment. That security environment, asserted the CCP, requires an accelerated response in the form of broad and comprehensive law that includes: new provisions regarding definitional problems of terrorism, preventive measures, intelligence procurement, investigations, emergency measures and responses, multilateral partnership and cooperation, among others.

China’s security problems have been linked to a larger and external narrative of terrorism in the new (post-9/11) global security environment, which provides much nourishment for anti-terrorism discourses within China. A latecomer in the “War on Terror,” China has joined the ranks of some 150 countries in the “age of counterterrorism” that have drafted and implemented counterterrorism measures. Nearly two decades following the 9/11 attacks on America, China is still able to draw on those experiences as the most powerful sources of anti-Islamic, Islamic extremist, and anti-jihadist discourse and practice.

The recent adoption of China’s law is related to Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang and takes aim at Muslims considered “radicals” or “extremists.” Though China’s approach to the Muslim community may not be all-inclusive, the connection between the so-called “Islamophobia” and China’s counterterrorism law is a useful domestic power instrument. China’s view of Muslims departs sharply from anti-Muslim, anti-Islam sentiments witnessed in the United States (US). This kind of relationship, however, can change or strengthen over time with relatively little effort, creating further divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in China, for example. In Xinjiang, divisions have deepened considerably between the Uyghur, Han (who have been increasingly settled in the region to displace or dilute the existing Uyghur population), and the CCP in just the past few years. Dr. Michael Clarke, the author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia, referred to the political and social rupturing between key actors in the province as the “Palestinization” of Xinjiang.”

The Muslim population within China’s borders – an estimated 22 million people – has provided a strong base for the formulation of its laws. The Uyghurs are the dominant Muslim group. They are a Sunni population speaking a Turkish dialect. The existence of that population is linked to the historical nature of separatist voices in the country. China plays host to several rolling separatist movements: the Inner Mongolian Independence Movement, the Tibetan Independence Movement, and the Uyghurstan Independence Movement (or East Turkestan as the Uyghurs would prefer to call it) in China’s Xinjiang (Uyghur) Autonomous Region.

The CCP has failed to encourage any real internal dialogue regarding its ethnic policies. This representation of the ruling party’s historical mentality is unlikely to change. Those policies combine with the government’s mindset and approach toward ethnic diversity and composition across the country to provide the opportunity for the state to establish an environment ideal for nurturing both the problem and the perceived solution. The relationship between these elements further facilitates the movement of political, social, and legal spaces within the country, establishing a new normal for government responses against emergency situations and extra-political threats to national security.

Such movement can take place in areas not directly associated with the stated threat and can thus have negative repercussions for basic rights and freedoms of all people and peoples. Social groups and proponents of human rights can also be subjected to re-categorization and during the process become closely aligned with threats to state power. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) become destabilizers of government authority and control, facilitators of terrorist activity, and people seeking more freedom can be recast as extremists or “human rights fundamentalists.”

Prior to the new law, China lacked a systematic policy with the exclusive aim of addressing the rise of terrorism and terrorist activity in the country. During the 1990s, when China was labelled a rising power, the country was undergoing rapid internal changes, with strategic visions about China’s future, while having been formulated, were always subject to change as the international political, economic, and security environment underwent rapid transformation. Seldom are terrorist acts in China reported on by Western media, however, the increase in terrorist incidents in China over the past several years was a principle driver in the formulation and implementation of this law.

The law also brought with it strict regulations about reporting terrorist incidents, curtailing the right of people to share information about terrorist acts without authorization. The counterterrorism law is a complement to the outline of a national security strategy that was adopted in early 2015. Challenges characterised as “unpredictable” and “unprecedented” have become common ground among China’s security doctrines. Subsequently, there is much room to interpret the law as a means of tightening the entire security environment in China. The CCP, under Xi Jinping, has taken major strides in the realm of national security consolidation – something of a weak point for the CCP under previous leaders. With China’s growing interests abroad and focus on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the portrayal of China’s vulnerability abroad and consequently calling for broader, deeper, tighter national security measures, has become relatively easy for the CCP.

The establishment of austere and overarching counterterrorism measures presents the long-term problem of stepping back from its counterterrorism measures, de-securitizing existential threats and restoring normalcy in and across society. Seldom, if ever, are counterterrorism measures retracted in any way. They set up new limits for government power not just within its own borders, but also well beyond where the government has interests.

China has imported and exacerbated existing tensions within its borders. Though it comes at a cost, it brings benefits as well. Because counterterrorism measures are rarely implemented neatly, there is always a chance that certain aspects of its implementation will be overlooked. The CCP’s “War on Terror” therefore acts as a useful channel between government and the exercise of power over its people even in the absence of imminent terrorist threats or urgent security needs. While the costs of its new counterterrorism laws and discourse on terrorism can come at the cost of individual and group radicalization, heightened violence extremist activity, anti-Muslim sentiments, and the recurrence of government resentment by ethno-nationalist groups, the CCP provides itself with more political reach into civil and private spaces increasingly linked to post-9/11 political challenges.

As jihadi terrorism and violent extremism continues to play out around Europe, North America, the Middle East, and in many other places, and with the continuation of groups like the Islamic State, the CCP is able to fall back on an endless source of justification for deepening its counterterrorism security framework. The events worldwide have become a quick and inexpensive validation for sweeping measures, able to attract more support than it would have in earlier years due to the spillover of anti-terrorism responses from one country to another.

The CCP’s response to ethno-nationalist groups within its own borders carries with it broader, global implications as its measures have the potential for displacing would-be extremists, causing them to relocate and take-up arms in other parts of the world. Nordirbek Soliev, at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), refers to movements of this type as an “alternative jihad” for Xinjiang’s militant Uyghurs. Governments that might decide to mirror China’s practice in neighbouring regions may also contribute to their displacement and the formation of new terrorist groups beyond China’s borders and counterterrorism reach. These events may suit the interests of the CCP but come at a cost to the international community.

Uyghur Muslims achieved independence during the early 1930s and mid-1940s with the help of the Soviet Union. As they continue to demand independence from China, more than 1,000 Uyghurs have uprooted themselves and moved to distant locations like Syria and Iraq, where they have joined other groups in jihad against government authorities. Afghanistan provides Uyghurs with an ideal training area after which real combat experience is gained in the conflict zones of the Middle East. After procuring both training and actual combat experience, China’s Uyghur jihadists have made their way back to China, bringing valuable experience with them.

The continuation of the complex and destructive war in Syria and parts of Iraq present model conditions for training, combat experience, radicalization and the cementing of religious extremist group think, and the means of building support from radicals inside and outside of China. If the war in Syria were to end with subsequent development project taking place, a second, reverse displacement could take place, driving violent extremist Uyghurs back to what they consider to be their “homeland,” where they could strive violently for the independence they seek.

As China’s interests in the Middle East continue to expand, its presence there will require augmented security measures and assurances. Punitive counterterrorism and anti-Islamic policies and practices at home can have dangerous consequences for China abroad. While importing security and terrorist threats that pre-date 9/11, the CCP has also turned to those that have been cultivated in the post-9/11 era. Mixed with its own indigenous ethnic, separatist, and terrorist antagonisms, the CCP’s domestic “War on Terror” has the potential for combining with and entrenching existing illiberal measures and practices under the rubric of countering a triple threat: terrorism, violent extremism, and ethno-nationalist separatism.

There is an obvious “dark” side to the CCP’s counterterrorism war that carries the risk of achieving opposite effects such as the radicalization of its own Muslim populations. Even though Beijing may agree to work in partnership with states all over the world in countering jihadists or violent radical Islam, the counterterrorism discourse together with policy put into practice, is an enabler of legally dealing with either non-conformists, dissenters, or troublemakers at home like those calling for autonomy within the country or separation from the country. The CCP has also been conspicuously silent in any formal capacity on Islam and cultural aspects of Islam. Having very little to say but going to great lengths to implement measures in dealing with potentially problematic Islamic radicals raises questions about the CCP’s ulterior motives. Governments, in other parts of the world, particularly Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, but also the US and the United Kingdom (UK), among other countries within the European Union (EU), have used counterterrorism policies to enhance their political powers and entrench their positions within their respective states.

Due to the omnipresence of the CCP, it is difficult to say where the public sphere ends and where the private sphere begins. The presence and influence of the CCP is explicit in all types of organisations throughout China and on all levels of Chinese society. The CCP’s influence is most apparent in the media field, where government censorship of television has been firmly established in the past, but there is room for government control over the Internet. The CCPs national security documents and the new counterterrorism law have made it easier for the Xi Jinping administration to take aim at political rivalry and legitimising external agents in China’s civil society with political and social interests discordant from those of the CCP. The counterterrorism law, specifically, is a grand objective that can serve the internal and external interests of the CCP for many years, if not decades, to come.

Scott Nicholas Romaniuk is a PhD Candidate in International Studies at the University of Trento, School of International Studies. Dr Shih-yueh Yang is Associate Professor in the Department of International and China Studies at Nanhua University, Taiwan.   Image credit: CC by jurgen.proschinger/Flickr.