Expert Commentary

Much Remains Unknown

Lauren Dickey
PhD Candidate, King's College London and the National University of Singapore

Over the last several years, China has learned that its borders and people are not immune to the threat of terrorism. This is particularly true as the low-level separatist insurgency led by Uighurs linked to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, formerly known as East Turkestan Independence Movement) against Beijing has been given new life through the rise of the Islamic State. This shift within the global web of terrorist activity has much higher costs for China, as it increases the likelihood of internal and peripheral instability and threatens the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. 

In response, Beijing passed its first counterterrorism law, which took effect in January 2016. Chinese officials rationalized the law as a necessary step to fight terrorism at home and abroad; an important legal framework in which to prevent and punish terrorist activities and safeguard national and public security. But for rights activists, it is seen as a law that enables even tighter control of the Muslim Uighur population. The counterterrorism (CT) law gives central government bodies authority over the perceived and actual threat of terrorism – from regulating capital flows and mass media to inspecting goods and people along and within Chinese borders. It further requires county governments to establish local apparatuses for conducting counterterrorism efforts. Importantly, the law gives Beijing the purview to establish CT cooperation with other nations, regions, or international organizations on an equal, mutually beneficial basis.

With nine months of implementation now under Beijing’s belt, the CT law has so far seen mixed results, catalyzing capacity-building at home and abroad. Recent joint CT exercises in Shanghai took a whole-of-government approach in mobilizing multiple branches of the municipal government alongside the People’s Armed Police, special operations forces, and hazmat teams. At the regional level, China has recently taken over a one-year tenure as chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) anti-terrorism council, a position that will allow Beijing to better align the short-term trajectory of regional CT coordination with its own strategic interests. Beijing has even put political differences with Turkey over the treatment of Uighur migrants aside, agreeing instead to nurture greater CT cooperation.   

Domestically, several provinces and municipalities have passed their own localized versions of the national counterterrorism law. In Xinjiang, Chinese officials are quick to point to the need to punish religious extremism as the ideological basis of terrorism while balancing religious and cultural rights. The local CT law prohibits the spread of “distorted” Islamic ideas and makes it illegal to encourage any resistance to government policies, to destroy national identification cards, household registration (hukou), marriage certificates, and even renminbi. It further emphasizes a public reporting mechanism; a “see something, say something” approach to counterterrorism that hearkens back to the baojia system of law enforcement in dynastic China.

In addition to localization of the CT law, authorities have also endeavored to further promote cultural cohesiveness through Chinese traditions. Where such efforts cloud the ability to counter Islamic extremism is when assimilation is forced – such as in the recent campaign for Uighurs to dress in traditional Chinese tunics and perform taichi in a public square in Kashgar. Elsewhere in China, public awareness campaigns in Hunan and Shaanxi provinces have disseminated the core principles of the CT law through social media, cartoons, and other similar activities. The law has also given police in Nanjing the purview to punish hotels that do not register their guests’ names and identification details, regardless of whether there is a tangible link to terrorism.

Even after the initial months of implementing the CT law, there is much which remains unknown about the actual reach of Islamic extremism within Chinese borders. Beyond Chinese borders, both TIP and al-Nusra are competing to recruit Uighurs from across southeast Asian human trafficking networks – a route commonly taken by those Uighurs fleeing from China. The Islamic State has boosted its Mandarin-language recruitment. More recruits would add momentum to the missions of these terrorist cells within China or elsewhere in Asia. This is likely what U.S. Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harry Harris had in mind when recently commenting on the Islamic State’s rebalance to the Indo-Pacific – and it is this worst-case scenario that Beijing is trying to prevent through its implementation of the counterterrorism law.

Beijing is rightly concerned about the possibility of Uighurs undergoing radicalization abroad before returning to Chinese soil. Those radicalized abroad will likely seek combat experience as necessary preparation for waging jihad on Chinese soil – few are likely to survive. But not all Uighurs have been (or will be) radicalized, nor do all harbor malicious intentions. Many, in fact, actively condemn terrorism. The greater terrorist threat to Beijing comes from the non-Uighurs, those within or beyond Chinese borders that see Beijing’s policies as an enemy of Muslims. For Beijing, the challenge of applying its counterterrorism law accurately and effectively is thus twofold: it must discern between Uighur separatists, terrorists, and the broader community; as this judgment is made, Beijing must concurrently develop a more nuanced understanding of the terrorist threat, targeting sources of terrorism within and along Chinese territory that looks beyond a single ethnic identity. 

The Author is Lauren Dickey

Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King's College London and the National University of Singapore, where her research focuses on Chinese strategy toward Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.

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