China’s instrumentalization of terrorism

In China too, people feel less uncomfortable when told that police on the streets are there to protect them from dangerous “others,” rather than to protect the state from them.

Michael Clarke
3 August 2016

Passengers ride a subway in Beijing, 2008, amid purported threats that Turkistan Islamic Party might target buses, trains and planes during the Olympics. Greg Baker / Press Association. All rights reserved.China’s long-simmering problem with Uyghur separatism and terrorism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has been increasingly connected to the broader regional and global dynamics of contemporary jihadism. While this has been driven by developing connections between small numbers of Uyghur militants with global and regional jihadist movements, it has also been precipitated by Beijing’s instrumentalization of terrorism in both the realms of domestic and foreign policy.

Domestically, the intense securitization of Xinjiang and the Uyghur issue over the past two years has provided significant ballast for Beijing’s focus on ensuring state or regime security. In the foreign policy context, the rise of ISIS to prominence, combined with increasing incidences of terrorism within or directly linked to Xinjiang, has permitted Beijing both to justify its hard-line repression of dissent in Xinjiang and assert its commitment to global efforts to combat terrorism.

China and ISIS

In 2013, China’s then Middle East envoy Wu Sike claimed that hundreds of Uyghurs were travelling to Syria, usually via Turkey to fight with various anti-Assad groups, including ISIS. Li Shaoxian, vice-president of the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) in Beijing, amplified these claims earlier this year, claiming that “many hundreds or thousands” of Uyghurs may be fighting with ISIS. The Chinese media has also been replete with reported ‘confessions’ of alleged Uyghur returnee militants detailing their recruitment and training by ISIS.

The view that the threat of ISIS to China extends beyond the issue of Uyghur militants has been lent credence by the caliphate’s own propaganda efforts. In 2014, ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, argued that China was on a par with states such as Israel, India and the US as an ‘oppressor’ of Muslims, while the release of a Mandarin-language propaganda video in August 2015 confirmed for some the group’s desire to actively target China and target its recruitment beyond Uyghurs to the Hui (ethnically Chinese Muslims). That such this was not mere bluster was brought home to many Chinese, and the leadership in Beijing, with ISIS’ execution of a Chinese citizen, Fang Lizhi, in Iraq in November 2015.

However on available open source evidence, official assertions of the scale of ISIS recruitment of Uyghurs are difficult to corroborate. While for instance it is clear that the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a group China has previously blamed for attacks in Xinjiang, has a small presence in Syria, it is in fact aligned with Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, rather than ISIS. And the alignment of the Uyghur presence to Jabhat al Nusra is significant as it reflects the ties established between Uyghur militants and Al Qaeda and associated groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), during the Taliban’s ascendancy in Afghanistan.

Uyghur terrorism and national security

But accurately reflecting such nuances is arguably not a core concern for China’s official narrative. Rather, Beijing is focused on cementing a “discourse of danger” around Xinjiang and the Uyghur for deployment both externally and domestically.

Beijing has long claimed that Uyghur separatism and opposition has been inspired and supported from external sources with, for instance, Beijing directing such charges during the Cold War at the largely secular Uyghur nationalist, “pan-Turkist” exiles based in Turkey and the Soviet Central Asian republics. However the 9/11 attacks transformed this narrative, with Beijing appropriating the lexicon of the ‘war on terror’ to label Uyghur opposition as manifestations of “religious extremism” linked to the influence of regional and transnational jihadist organizations such as Al Qaeda in order to generate diplomatic capital for the ongoing repression of Uyghur autonomist aspirations.

By framing China’s “Uyghur” problem through the discourse of the ‘war on terror’, “imbued with the fear of an evil and irrational Other”. Beijing has furthered a “perception of disorder and chaos” in the region that requires the more forceful intrusion of the state’s security apparatus.

After the inter-ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in July 2009 Beijing has rapidly increased Xinjiang’s counter-terrorism budget from an annual budget of 1.54 billion yuan (approximately $241 million) in 2009 to some 6 billion yuan (approximately $938 million) in 2014. A major component of this increased spending on public security in Xinjiang has included investment in the extension of China’s electronic surveillance system, “Skynet,” into the region. Authorities have “installed high-definition video surveillance cameras on public buses and at bus stops; on roads and in alleys; in markets and shopping centers; and in schools” that police monitor “constantly, searching for actionable intelligence”.

Perhaps the most potent symbols yet of Beijing’s instrumentalization of terrorism have come with the establishment of China’s National Security Commission (NSC) in 2014 and the passing of the country’s first counter-terrorism legislation on 27 December 2015. The establishment of the NSC and the identification of 11 broad areas of focus for the commission – ranging from “political” to “ecological” security – reflects President Xi’s effort to articulate a “holistic” approach to national security that encompasses traditional and non-traditional threats to security.

Significantly, of the 11 areas of security concern identified, “political” and “homeland” security top the bill. Prominent Chinese analyst Shen Dingli has noted here that “political security has been long phrased as institutional security or ideological security” while “homeland security…refers to anti-terror related security, which is different from national defense against foreign aggression”.

Here, then, ‘national security’ becomes synonymous with state or regime security. This, as David Lampton has argued, betrays the intensification of the long-standing linkage between ‘external and internal security in Chinese thinking’ under President Xi’s leadership.

China’s new counter-terrorism legislation meanwhile provides a legal basis for the country’s various security organs, including in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP), to identify and suppress individuals or groups deemed to be “terrorists”. It requires internet providers and technology companies to provide technical assistance and information, including encryption keys, during counter-terror operations. 

The new law has been hailed by some Chinese commentators as an “unambiguous legal document” that “conforms to the new developments in the global fight against terrorism” and as a tool to “help fight terrorism at home and help maintain global security”. From this perspective China is simply following in the footsteps of many other states in establishing a clear legal basis for the counter-terrorism activities of its national security agencies.

The law formalises counter-terrorism as a national security priority for Beijing through the establishment of a “national leading institution for counter-terrorism efforts” and provides a legal basis for the country’s various counter-terrorism organs, such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP), to identify and suppress individuals or groups deemed to be “terrorists”. It also requires internet providers to provide technical assistance and information, including encryption keys, during counter-terror operations, and includes a provision by which the PLA or PAP may seek approval from the Central Military Commission (CMC) to engage in counter-terrorism operations abroad.

State security ascendant

While official pronouncements may thus stress that the law’s primary purpose is to strengthen Beijing’s ability to ensure the security and safety of the country’s citizenry and interests both at home and abroad, a closer examination suggests that ensuring the security of the state lies at its heart.

Since coming to power President Xi Jinping has expended a considerable amount of energy on two core domestic security issues: Xinjiang and wenwei or “stability maintenance” campaigns. The former has been driven by nationally and internationally prominent terrorist attacks by Uyghur militants such as the March 2014 Kunming railway station attack and the latter by rising numbers of violent incidents by “ordinary” Han Chinese related to personal gripes, local political grievances or corruption.

The new law’s definition of “terrorism” as “propositions and actions that create social panic, endanger public safety, violate person and property, or coerce national organs or international organizations, through methods such violence, destruction, intimidation, so as to achieve their political, ideological, or other objectives” would appear to be broad enough to apply to events as distinct as the March 2014 Kunming attack and the series of mail bomb attacks in Liucheng County in Guangxi in September 2015 that killed 10 people. Yet, these acts, in contrast to those in Kunming, have been labelled “criminal” rather than “terrorist” in nature by the authorities.

Under Xi Jinping, the threat of terrorism in Xinjiang has been instrumentalized nation-wide to assist the CCP’s efforts to maintain “stability”. The “mobilization of the Uyghur terror threat”, as Tom Cliff has recently argued, is “not simply about preventing terror attacks on Han civilians—it is primarily about rapidly or even pre-emptively ‘harmonising’ potentially unstable elements of the Han population itself. People feel less uncomfortable when they are told that the police on the streets are there to protect them from dangerous “others,” rather than to protect the state from them or other Han”. Under President Xi two of the CCP’s core interests - the security of the one-party state and “stability” in Xinjiang - have thus increasingly intersected.

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