China is very afraid of terrorism perpetrated by its Muslim Uighur population.
High level Chinese counterterrorism experts warned, “With Uighurs in conflict zones with motivation, skills and networks directing, inspiring and instigating attacks in Xinjiang, the potential for a spike in extremism and terrorism in China in the immediate to the mid-term is high.”
One facet of China’s antiterrorism campaign was its first comprehensive antiterrorism bill that came into effect on 1 January.
Pushed through by President Xi Jinping, it contains 97 articles in ten chapters.
The law defines terrorism as, “Any advocacy or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, aims to create social panic, undermine public safety, infringe on personal and property rights, or coerce a state organ or an international organization, in order to achieve political, ideological or other objectives.” Significant is the word “advocacy”.
In the first draft of the law, it listed “any thought, speech or activity…” Western commentators severely criticized the word “thought”, and while it was removed, “advocacy” remains vague enough to cover nearly any eventuality.
Uighurs have been blamed for a number of high-profile attacks in China. Recent examples include an altercation in Lukqun in June 2013 (35 killed), a deadly knife-wielding assault in Kunming railway station in March 2014 (33 killed), and an attack at a coal mine in Aksu last September (50 killed).
Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told ANI that, “The challenge China faces is not from the Uighur community as a whole, but from a tiny segment of politicized and radicalized Uighurs.”
The contemporary origins of Uighur nationalism and, later, Uighur Islamism can be traced back to conflicts in two theatres – Pakistan-Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria.
“Uighur participation in conflicts emboldened and empowered them to fight for their own Muslim, and later an Islamic, state,” Gunaratna documented.
Gunaratna informed ANI, “A greater understanding between China and the West and the rest of the world is essential for China to better manage the extant and emerging Uighur threat. As escalation in violence in Xinjiang has implications for other countries hoisting Turkic territorials and diaspora.”
There are large Turkic populations in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and spreading Uighur extremism and terrorism could affect all these, as well as Europe and North America.
Gunaratna said “the Chinese are aware of the dangers” from Uighur extremism.
He noted, “While it is essential to preserve the traditional Uighur culture and religious traditions, China should protect the Uighur community from extremist influences from the Middle East and South Asia…While remaining in the shadow, Beijing should co-opt the existing and emerging Uighur leaders in Xinjiang and empower them to manage their own community.”
The counterterrorism expert acknowledged that the challenges Beijing faces in Xinjiang and Tibet are “daunting”.
He continued, “The unity of China depends on the ability and willingness of Beijing to work with the minorities in China. The current relationships Beijing builds with the Uighur elite will determine the future security of Xinjiang and beyond.”
However, the kind of restrictions laid upon the Muslim community in the current holy month of Ramadan will likely do more harm than good. Muslim members of the Chinese Communist Party cannot openly follow Islam, while all are encouraged to eat in daylight hours during Ramadan.
In Xinjiang, the government’s strict rules forbid anyone under the age of 18 from following a religion. Indeed, parents face stiff fines if their children are found studying the Quran or fasting during Ramadan.
It is reported that security staff are installed inside mosques 24 hours a day to monitor adherents, and the sermons of imams must be preapproved by censors.
Such draconian measure seem at odds with a White Paper on religious freedom in Xinjiang released by the State Council on 2 June.
It stated, “No organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. No citizen suffers discrimination or unfair treatment for believing in, or not believing in, any religion.”
Gunaratna continued, “To maintain security and stability in the long term, China should integrate its minorities with the other communities.”
The professor believes China does not have the option of allowing minorities to do as they want, as this would lead to a breakup of the country.
Going into more detail, he advised, “To limit the spread of foreign ideologies and extremist practices, China should continue to maintain a security platform in Xinjiang…If China relaxes the security measures in Xinjiang, the threat will grow and spill over to other parts of China.”
“Today, China should develop strategies to fight the operational threat, counter ideological extremism and promote coexistence between Han, Uighur and other communities in Xinjiang,” the Singapore-based expert advised. A key part of the counterterrorism effort is the public.
Article 8 of the new counterterrorism law tells authorities to establish joint coordination mechanisms to mobilize grassroots organizations, Article 74 directs them to set up formal forces/community volunteer groups, and Article 44 encourages civilians to act as informants.
The law also contains provisions that require telecommunications and internet providers to give the Chinese government “backdoor” access to their systems for investigation purposes.
Another proviso restricts how terrorist incidents are reported, including reporting on response agencies and personnel.
Such an approach could backfire, however.
Dr Zunyou Zhou, head of the China section at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, explained, “This is because public ignorance of the true state of terrorism affects people’s ability to cooperate with the government in its counterterrorism efforts. Further, freedom of the press is not only a fundamental human right but also a major foundation of democracy.”
The new counterterrorism law gives the government and agencies powers above and beyond those it already possesses.
Zhou assessed that, “These new powers will inevitably affect fundamental human rights,” something for which the legislation does not really provide any specific protection. Beijing vigorously blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for its terrorism ills.
It is known that several hundred Uighurs traveled from Xinjiang to join ETIM, a group molded by the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The nationalist ETIM also morphed into the politico-religious Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), both organizations fighting the US-led coalition in Afghanistan from 2001 onwards.
Gunaratna told ANI, “Xinjiang continues to be affected from the spillover effects of the Afghan and now the Syrian conflicts. Today, several hundred Uighur foreign fighters from Xinjiang are active in Asian and Middle Eastern conflict zones. The blowback to China is in the form of a sustained campaign of terrorism in Xinjiang, a region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
He believes probably nearly a thousand Uighurs are actively linked to terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State (IS).
“China faces an imminent threat from Uighur terrorist and extremist networks,” he warned.
Western governments, media and academics often focus on human rights abuses in China’s prosecution of its war on terror, but Gunaratna believes this aspect has been exaggerated.
“Human rights are a political weapon used by Western powers against their enemies. As such, China should not worry too much about Western governments, Western public opinion or lobbying by NGOs [non-government organizations], including human rights organizations.”
What then should China do about the problem of Islamic-inspired terrorism?
Gunaratna summarized the best approach as follows:
“The Chinese strategy should be threefold. First, to detect, disrupt and dismantle the threat structures. Second, win over the Uighurs both in China and overseas. Third, protect its interests at home and overseas.”
However, it is clear that China has overreacted to the problem, causing the threat to grow.
Chinese antiterrorism methods often appear heavy-handed or disproportionate, and Gunaratna agreed that Chinese strategy “has lacked sophistication and finesse”.
He advised, “China should abandon the dominant and overwhelming use of kinetic and lethal force and embrace strategies to reach out to the Uighur community. China should adopt a smart counterterrorism doctrine, the integration of hard and soft power.”
This would ideally be 5% kinetic/lethal measures, and 95% engagement strategies.
Such a “hard on the inside and soft on the outside” doctrine calls for a range of measures, according to Gunaratna.
He listed a three-pronged methodology.
First, use intelligence-led tactical counterterrorism units to hunt terrorists, including those overseas.
Interestingly, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now allowed to conduct antiterrorism operations overseas under China’s new law.
Second, Beijing needs rehabilitation programs to de-radicalize captured terrorists and extremists.
Third, the authorities need to engage and empower communities to counter the spread of extremism and promote moderation, toleration and coexistence. China is attempting to improve its methods.
For example, the Northwest University of Political Science and Law in Xian is planning to open an antiterrorism school to teach “the latest antiterrorism theories and practices”.
University president Jia Yu added, “The purpose is to develop specialized talents for antiterrorism.”
Gunaratna assesses that Chinese expertise in fighting terrorism has improved since 9-11 but it still remains limited. “The strategy of harsh measures alone will not work in the long term,” he warned.
“China has much to learn from global counterterrorism good practices.” Problems include “competition between the different services, and there is no coherent effort to tackle the problem”.
Gunaratna concluded his interview with ANI, “Beijing should as quickly as possible develop a comprehensive national strategy to contain, isolate and eliminate the terrorists and engage the Uighur community.”