Over the past few decades, china’s attempt to tackle the crisis of terror attacks from both domestic and international agencies has not been recognised as well as it should have been. Especially, the Xinjiang region has been showered with bombings and riots and other such activities, and the PRC government addressed the issue in whatever capacity possible. China’s campaign regarding war on terrorism has reshaped the whole perspective surrounding terrorism and extremism, and has been so effective that scholars and experts now debate that whether China genuinely does confront a terror threat or not.
This article provides valuable insights into this situation throughout its course of discussion on various levels.
TERRORISM – DEFINITION:
In order to define terrorism in context of the socio-politics of China, reference may be made to the characteristics of terrorism listed by academics and scholars across the world working in such area. An act may be considered terrorist if it has the following characteristics:
Any criminal activity that is intended to be violent or detrimental to human life or existence and is labelled as a crime by legislations other than those relating to anti-terrorism;
If such acts are committed with intentions of coercing or intimidating a ruling government into altering domestic or foreign policies, or doing so to the civilian population of a country, disrupting the functionality of vital components of society or social life, such as, the supply of electricity or water, or is interfering with the course of operation of a legitimately elected government by illegal activities such as mass destruction and assassinations and kidnapping.
Now, in respect of the above working definition of terrorism so widely used, it becomes slightly difficult to assess the nature and magnitude of terrorist activities in China. Several reasons may be pointed at for the same, such as, the definition of terrorism that is accepted by common parlance does not always fit well with the acts which are held accountable as terrorism in China, as also lack of transparency regarding such matters. Another key problem faced in this regard is near-absence of sufficient information regarding the details of terror attacks which are reported.
TERRORISM IN CHINA:
Since 1980s, China has been witness to occurrence of terrorist incidents due to disturbances between ethnic minorities and majorities surrounding their differences. Especially, the Uyghurs have been possessing grievances regarding the infringement upon their rights on the land and culture of Xinjiang. The harm has been inflicted upon them by various means such as imposition of use of Mandarin Chinese as a medium of education, limitations on religious practices and an ever-increasing economic equality. And, even though it isn’t exactly possible to quantify the rate of distress in the Xinjiang territory over the past years, the disaffection appears to have escalated with time.
In recent times, after 2010 China has suffered multiple terror attacks on a domestic level, with major incidents mostly centred in and on Beijing and other eastern cities, and targeted at high-traffic urban areas. Simultaneously, terrorist threats from abroad have been acknowledged by the Chinese Officials where Chinese nationals residing abroad have been targeted and harmed by terrorist organisations such as Islamic State, Al Shabaab, etc.
Instances of Domestic Terrorism in recent times:
There have been several instances of domestic terror attacks in China reported in recent time, some of which are as listed below:
On March 1, 2014, a group of Uyghur men and women launched an attack with knives on passengers at Kunming railway station. This resulted in the death of 33 citizens and 141 others were severely injured.
An explosion took place in the Urumqi train station, which is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and it killed one civilian and two attackers.
O the 22nd day of the same month, an outdoor market was attacked by four men with a car bomb in Urumqi, and resulted in killing 31 civilians and injuring almost 100 others.
Apart from these, there have been other incidents too, many of which have not been brought to our attention due to lack of transparency in respect of reporting of terror incidents in China.
Instances of External Terrorism in recent times:
Apart from instances of domestic terror attacks, Chinese nationals have been subjected to terror attacks abroad, some of which are as mentioned below:
On July 26, 2015, an attack was launched on the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu of Somalia, using a car bomb. As a result of this attack, at least 13 people were killed and more than 40 people were injured. This event is of significance because this hotel building houses the Chinese Embassy and its staff, and some of them were gravely injured as well as killed.
On August 17, 2015, the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, which is a Buddhist-Hindu establishment, was bombed and subsequently 20 people which included 7 Chinese nationals. Two individuals who were ethnically Uyghurs were caught by the Thai law enforcement agencies as culprits of the terror attack.
Two hostages were killed by the Islamic State militants in November, same year. This included a 50 years old Chinese national named Fan Jinghui, who had been held captive for past several months with the said terrorist organisation.
Like domestic terror incidents, even in case of external terror attacks there have been many more incidents of terrorism affecting Chinese civilians and nationals which have not been documented in the above mentioned list.
ASSESSMENT OF CHINA’S TERRORIST THREATS:
Over the past 30 years, the threat faced by China due to terrorist attacks has increased steadily. According to conventional definitions of terrorism, the inception of terror attacks in China took place with a group of six Chinese defectors hijacked a Chinese aircraft to Seoul in 1983. However, the Chinese government didn’t characterise this as a terrorist attack. It was only after 1999 that China started officially acknowledging and talking about terrorism in public domain.
Since then, the talks around domestic threats of terrorism have mostly remained limited to the Xinjiang Uyghur province. The Chinese media, on the other hand, have paid far less attention to the threats of transnational and international terrorism that they’re faced with. The security community of China focuses on monitoring threats of international terrorism. However, it has been observed that they mostly focus on the impact of activities of the jihadists and separatists have on the inhabitants of the Xinjiang Uyghur province. But, apart from that, this security concern has also explored the possibility of formal tie-up between the Al Qaeda and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement.
With time, Beijing’s perception of terrorist threat is evolving as a result of its increased trade related and other transactions with overseas elements. Due to such interactions, China is finally taking into cognisance various overseas incidents, thus inspiring them into developing cooperation with other nations and coming up with robust transnational counter terrorism measures.
COUNTERTERRORISM AND CHINA – WHERE IT STANDS:
On being faced with threats of terror attacks on both domestic and international front, the Chinese Government is gradually proceeding towards solidifying its anti-terror policies to combat these threats more effectively. And, even though they have not yet come up with an organised formal strategy document such as the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, they have undertaken a few crucial steps towards ensuring strict measure against such threats. The Chinese government has undertaken measures aimed at strengthening counterterrorism legislation and strengthening related bureaucracy, increasing law enforcement operations in Xinjiang and other disturbed territories, promote economic and development initiatives, ethnic integrity and unity, combating religious extremism.
As it is well known, China has been a nation which rendered open allegiance to terrorist entities at one point of time, disengagement followed by outright opposition is a major shift in China’s position in respect of terrorism. Faced with duelling concerns over domestic and international threats of terror attacks, they have come up with anti-terror policies, and this is a trade-off that has been identified by scholars as a competing element of a country’s foreign policy.
Fortifying counterterrorism legislations:
Post 9/11 attack on the U.S., the primary step undertaken by the Chinese government was to strengthen its domestic legislations dealing with terrorist activities. They amended their Criminal Laws to include ten additional crimes under the purview of terrorism, such as, funding of terrorist activities. The UN International Convention for Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism has also been ratified by China in 2006, and in furtherance of the goal of countering terror financing and money laundering enacted government initiatives to restrict the availability of funds for terrorists.
The Article 3 of the new Counterterrorism Legislation that has been introduced in 2015 defines terrorism as:
“advocacy or behaviour which is aimed at realizing political or ideological objectives through means of violence and destruction, intimidation or other methods or creating social panic, endangering public safety, violating persons or infringing property, or coercing state organs or international organisations.”
Before the finalisation of the Counterterrorism laws, certain amendments were brought about by the Ninth Amendment to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China. Some of the remarkable amendments are as mentioned below:
Article 120(3): Advocating terrorism or extremism through methods such as producing or distributing items such as books or audio-visual materials advocating terrorism; or advocating terrorism or extremism by giving instructions or releasing information; or inciting the perpetration of terrorist activities; is sentenced to up to 5 years of imprisonment, short-term detention, controlled release or deprivation from political rights and a concurrent fine; where circumstances are serious the sentence is five or more years imprisonment and a concurrent fine or confiscated property.
Article 120(5): Where methods such as violence or coercion are used to compel others to wear or adorn themselves in apparel or emblem promoting terrorism or extremism, it is punished by up to three years imprisonment or short-term detention or controlled release and a concurrent fine.
Article 120(6): Illegally possessing books or audio-visual or other materials the one clearly knows advocates terrorism extremism, where the circumstances are serious, it is punished by up to three years imprisonment or short-term detention or controlled release and/or fine.
Article 120(4): Using extremism to incite or coerce the masses to undermine the implementation of legally established systems such as for marriage, justice, education or social management is sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release and a concurrent fine; where circumstances are serious, the sentence is between three and seven years of imprisonment, and a concurrent fine; where circumstances are especially serious, the sentence is seven or more years of imprisonment and a concurrent fine and confiscation of property.
Expansion of Counterterrorism Bureaucracy:
After the September 11 attack, the People’s Republic of China formulated two national level organisations, viz. National Counterterrorism Leading Small Group and MPS Counterterrorism Bureau, which are aimed at fighting terror attacks.
Apart from that, in response to the ethnic and religious violence in Xinjiang, the security of that region has been tightened. It has been mentioned in PRC State Council Office’s white paper published in 2009 titled “Development and Progress in Xinjiang” that ‘plenty of human, material and financial resources’ had to be allocated to combat the crime situation in the said region. Furthermore, ‘strike hard’ campaigns were launched in this region as well as Tibet, and was aimed at confiscating illegal arms and ammunition which would in turn help in countering terrorist and extremist activities in the region. A rise in the number of terrorism-related convictions in China took place during the years 2013 and 14 due to proactive efforts and widespread campaigning for the same.
That apart, the general people of PRC through their conscious effort have helped the government in countering terrorism and other forms of extremism, as acknowledged by the government itself. They have played various roles such as passing useful information to the authorities, mobilising to support efforts of arresting terror-mongers, etc. These whistleblowers were in fact rewarded by the authorities for providing intelligence. Thereafter, in order to increase awareness amongst general public regarding terror activities, a handbook titled: “Citizen’s Counterterrorism Handbook” was distributed by the MPS in Beijing, Shanghai, Liaoning, Henan, Guangdong, etc.
During the last few years, intensive efforts on part of the Government of People’s Republic of China have been observed. Billions of RMB was spent on the economic upliftment of the Xinjiang province, developing its infrastructural facilities and helping in growth of its tourism industry. Efforts were also made to attract foreign investment in that region. All of this was done with an intention to elevate the living standards of the poorer regions of China and curbing separatist tendencies thereafter.
Initiatives targeted at fostering job skills, creating job opportunities and integrating the Xinjiang province with the rest of PRC has also been made. In 2013, the Silk Road Economic Belt project was one such effort which was aimed at broadening the trade and commerce aspect as well as cultural developmental aspect of the Xinjiang region. Subsequently, the economy of that region has significantly improved. However, the jobs that have been created in the process prefer to recruit individuals who are good at speaking Mandarin Chinese rather than those speaking Uyghur. So, despite job creation, the problem of unrest and discontent amongst the ethnic Uyghurs remain unsolved till now.
However, one measure that has been undertaken to solve this linguistic disparity is the introduction of bilingual education and helping linguistic minorities improve their grip over Mandarin Chinese so that they receive equal treatment in respect of language proficiency while job recruitments. While the Chinese government holds that this is a move towards securing jobs for children of minority communities, some see this as a weapon against them which is being used to destroy their ethnic and cultural identity.
Upholding Cultural Integrity and Promoting National Unity:
In response to the claims that has been raised regarding the disruption of cultural heritage due to economic upliftment, the government of PRC attempted to address the issue by various ways. The Chinese Government and the Communist Party took initiatives to spot and isolate extremists and separatists who attempted to incite violence on basis of diversification in religious or ethnic identities. Thereafter, the government tried convincing those individuals who believe in religious moderation and placed before them the cause of national integrity. The dangers posed by extremism based on religious affiliations ad beliefs was highlighted before the common public in order to convince them on the need for collective resistance against such threats.
Even though some practical policy-level interventions in areas of religious and ethnic identities in the Xinjiang region continues to trigger unrest, in recent years the need for more tolerant and inclusive approach towards counter terrorism has been felt by officers deployed in this function. In 2015, the Secretary of CCP branch of the Xinjiang region has been witnessed to have participated in feast and merry-making with minority community people during Ramadan, thus paving the way for religious tolerance in that region.
China has actively taken part in efforts to counter terrorism even on the international fronts. It has been functional in undertaking of initiatives of various kinds, such as enforcement, container and port security, countering of terrorist financing and exercising as well as lending support to military operations. After the attack of 9/11, PRC took part in a Join Liaison Law Enforcement Cooperation with U.S. to work towards cooperative effort in countering terrorism of various forms. They have also agreed to work together and expand in areas of law enforcement such as international flows of IED precursors, repatriation of fugitives, etc.
Apart from that, the governments have also become mindful about screening internet materials that might pose threat to peace and integrity, giving rise to terror activities in China and its partner nations. There have been efforts of installing equipments at ports to check concealed arms and ammunitions that could trigger a possible separatist movement or terror attack.
Beijing has been willing to work in areas of countering of terror financing too, and have developed an institutional and legal structure to help the process. In China, the MPS or the Ministry of Public Security has an Anti Money Laundering Division that responsible for controlling terror financing along with the Anti-Terrorism bureau which looks into the aspect of criminal investigation for the same.
While it has been observed that the separatist tendencies of residents of the Xinjiang province have been countered somewhat effectively, China still requires investing efforts in this to completely cure the problem. More importantly, even though the problems regarding domestic threats of terrorism have been addressed, more intensive effort in forming transnational alliances with other nations apart from the United States to adopt counterterrorism regimes that will effectively mitigate the crisis.