External Affairs

Why China Doesn’t Get Terrorism

The arrest of twenty foreign tourists in China on unspecified terrorism charges stems from the country’s inability to tell apart legitimate dissent from terrorism

Scene in old Kashgar, Xinjiang, western China. Credit: Zerega/Flickr CC 2.0

Scene in old Kashgar, 1992, Xinjiang, western China. Credit: Zerega/Flickr CC 2.0

After over a week of what must have been a harrowing experience, 20 foreign nationals arrested in China on July 10 on undisclosed terrorism charges – among them South Africans, Britons, and an Indian – were finally all sent home. At the same time, a sparse first official account of the matter appeared on state media. Unlike other terrorism cases, the government had been unusually quiet on this issue; it even failed to mention the laws that the foreigners were booked under – as some claimed, it was Article 120 of China’s Criminal Law that carried a jail term of up to 10 years. Considering China’s severe line against terrorism, the statement was uncharacteristically soft – claiming that the “police imposed a lenient sentence,” as “all the detainees admitted to their illegal acts and repented.”

The issue was first brought to light by a South African charity organisation on July 14. Their statement detailed the number of people arrested, their nationalities, and the fact that they had been neither allowed to get in touch with their families nor their embassies. Even the specifics of what they had been charged with or were suspected to have done, were unavailable. All that was offered was a vague assertion that the accused were watching “propaganda videos” in their hotel rooms.

In the hours after the news broke, details began to trickle in. Some sources claimed the tourists were ‘guilty’ of watching a documentary on Genghis Khan, a day after visiting his mausoleum. Later accounts from the government specified that arrests were made not for the documentary that all 20 watched, but for other videos that a smaller group of 9 watched. In the meantime, the relevant embassies began getting phone calls from the authorities, and preparations for repatriation began to be made. The embassies also noted that they had been told very little. By July 18, all 20 tourists were on their way home.

China, like most other major powers, has made the right sounds against terrorism and promised support to all attempts to eliminate it in. At the United Nations, it has supported attempts to choke the financial pipeline for terrorists. In a particularly memorable comment in 2014, President Xi called for “walls made of copper and steel” and “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to defend against terrorism.

Xinjiang syndrome

Domestically, this has translated into more stringent laws and a greater clampdown, largely in Muslim-majority Xinjiang, which takes centre-stage in Chinese thought on homegrown terrorism. The hardening of stance began after 2009 Urumqi riots, continued when “Xinjiang terrorists” drove a SUV into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in 2013; and expanded when 29 people were killed in Kunming by knife-wielding terrorists, again, from Xinjiang in 2014. Soon after, the state launched its “Strike-Hard” Campaign in the province, which, nearly doubled arrests within the year.

China has also been creating mechanisms that put maximum power in the hands of the authorities. The State Security Committee was set-up in November 2013, to coordinate between different government organs in responding to terrorist threats. Earlier this year, a voluminous draft counter-terrorism law was released for public discussion and immediately criticised for overreach, vagueness and potential loopholes for human-rights abuses. A slightly altered version was eventually brought into effect in early July.

Alongside harsher laws, for years now, the government has imposed restrictions on Xinjiang’s residents, stopped issuing passports at will, and even recalled them in some cases. Authorities claim this helps prevent disaffected youth access training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or foment trouble in other parts of China. Some teenagers have been transferred to schools in other part of the country to distance them from their roots. Beards on men and veils for women were banned last year citing security concerns; this year, government employees were barred from fasting during Ramadan, and restaurants were asked to stay open during the day.

The real issue is China’s definition of terrorism, and what it encompasses. The recent draft defined it as “any thought, speech or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, aims to generate social panic, influence national policymaking, create ethnic hatred, subvert state power, or split the state.” Though the words “thought,” as well as “create ethnic hatred” were later dropped, it is unlikely that underlying official attitudes have changed. Xinjiang has a long history of being China’s problem province. In the 1930s and 1940s it declared independence under the banner of “East Turkestan.” Since the 2000s, China has blamed organisations like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) of colluding with Al Qaeda.

Unlike other major powers, China’s approach to terrorism is much more insular. The country only concerns itself with  ‘international’ terrorism when it believes that the problem can affect domestic law and order. It claims that Islamic State is a menace because Uighur terrorists are connected to them and hundreds of Chinese extremists are fighting alongside IS terrorists. This assertion has been contested by analysts, but China believes that projecting Xinjiang as part of a global problem helps justify its actions and garner support.

This approach has worked so far, as the primary targets for terrorist organisations are usually the United States and its allies. Though the IS has called out China on its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, the country does not feature as a major target yet. Moreover, China believes that as its sphere of influence spreads to affected regions, it can bank on the fact that fighting terrorism will remain a US priority which, by extension, will keep Chinese interests safe.

In safe Hans

China’s insistence on approaching domestic terrorism only through the Xinjiang lens embodies its inability to accept diversity in a deeply homogenous country. The country’s population is made up of 92% Han Chinese, while the remaining 8% comprises 55 ethnic minorities including the Uighurs. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Communist Party tied Han pride to growth of the PRC. Even now, concepts like the “China Dream” for “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” assume a monolithic society that moves in unison. Mao united the country under one dialect of the language – Mandarin or “Putonghua,” so the same undistorted message could reach everywhere. Concepts like “century of national humiliation,” used to rally people against “western hegemony” operate on the notion that all Chinese people are one, and the insult of one is the insult of all.

The Uighurs find themselves outside this umbrella of cookie-cutter nationalism. They are marginalized in the Han dominated society that looks with suspicion at their way of life. Han settlers have been encouraged to move to Xinjiang to dilute the Uighur identity, increasing the province’s Han population from 6% in 1949 to around 40% in 2011. After 9/11, those opposing Beijing and called “splittists” were suddenly termed “terrorists,” to reorient to global developments. In one fell swoop, the line between legitimate political dissent and an act of terrorism disappeared, and Xinjiang became a law and order problem.

China’s problem with acknowledging dissent comes from a worry about how the one-party model will take to it, considering that is not built for opposition. The fear is more acute today, as Xi believes economic and military greatness is within reach, and is afraid that any domestic interruption can set China back by years or worse, threaten the party’s grip. Tackling the problem of a slowing economy and social unrest is the priority; an autonomous Xinjiang promised since 1955, will have to wait.

The other reason is a likely belief in the superiority of Han over non-Han people. It is difficult to pin down the extent of ethnic prejudice, but years of discrimination and restrictions against the Uighurs suggest disdain and distrust among ordinary Han of their brethren from Xinjiang. This is complemented by the state’s insistence on the superiority of the Han identity, marginalizing non-Han people as fringe players in nation-building.

As the recent incident with foreigners in Inner Mongolia demonstrates, this is true not only for the non-Han Chinese. For a country that believes it is now time to take on the role of a preeminent global power, China seems surprisingly incapable of understanding others’ perspectives. Slapping terrorism charges on tourists watching videos points to this paranoia.

Till China learns to acknowledge that dissent is separate from terrorism, it will manage neither to bring peace to Xinjiang, nor curb terrorism. Greater policing and more effective intelligence monitoring may help prevent some of the terror attacks. But that is unlikely to be a long-term solution. Unfortunately the systemic reluctance for change from a monolithic state is too high, and there seems no sign of any transformation any time soon.

 Deep Pal is a PhD student at the University of Washington, Seattle. He can be followed on Twitter: @DeepPal_