Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions

Kim-kwong Chan

This edited volume is a collection of eight papers from a conference by different experts of this field, including the editor’s own contribution. The editor, Michael Clarke, also wrote a comprehensive introduction to situate these eight chapters within China's sociopolitical context of terrorism.

This volume examines many topics: the social unrest of Xinjiang's predominate Uyghurs since China's ‘Peaceful Liberation’ of this region in 1949, China's joining of the Global War on Terrorism after 9/11, the formulation of anti-terrorism policies and regulations targeting the Uyghurs vis-à-vis domestic terrorists activities, the development of foreign policies to protect China's interest of the Belt Road Initiative, and the globalization of Uyghurs’ ‘terrorist’ involvements in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. This volume intends “(i) to map and understand the nature of the threat posed to China by terrorism; (ii) to provide an up-to-date account of how that threat is perceived, understood and responded to by China; and (iii) to provide insights into the effects of terrorism on China’s domestic and foreign policy” (p.13). It also makes suggestions for Chinese policymakers to rethink their current antiterrorism policies in light of the analysis made by the contributors’ chapters.

Chapter One discusses the evolution of China's anti-terrorism policy from a regional-domestic issue about social unrest into a national security issue with both domestic and international measures. It argues that China has institutionalized the provision of security and prioritized it over other function of the state. Chapter Two interprets the various security and surveillance measures in Xinjiang as an ideological struggle against religion, packaged them under the label of ‘antiterrorism.’ Chapter Three traces the legal development of China's anti-terrorist legislation, which has been shaped by the Party's perception on terrorism as a form of religious extremism with international links. Chapter Four studies the terrorist activities claimed by China and suggests that China has constructed a Uyghur terrorist narrative to suppress Uyghur dissent. This move effectively radicalized some Uyghur dissidents into terrorism, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the authorities. Chapter Five focuses on the increasing activities of Uyghur militancy beyond the border of China. This forces China to address this threat with neighbors like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many of the Uyghur military training camps are based.  Chapter Six looks into the appearance of Uyghur fighters joining jihadist groups such as ISIS and participating in military actions in Syria, which led China to take a more active role in re-orienting its Middle East policy. Chapter Seven explores further into the involvement of Uyghurs in the complex politics of the Middle East, from various Muslim extremist groups (e.g., al-Qaeda and ISIS) to sovereign political powers (e.g., Turkey and Syria), with implications beyond what the current Chinese policies on this region can address. The final chapter looks into the relations between Uyghurs and various Islamic extremist groups in Southeast Asia, as well as the challenges such alliances may pose to China.

Because there are not many Uyghur terrorist cases – neither in China nor abroad – a few cases are often repeatedly mentioned by various contributors in their respective chapters, with perhaps similar details released by state authorities or by experts with little verification. However, such redundancy in some of the chapters is unavoidable, as the primary data available for researchers are extracted from this limited batch. Several contributors also raise doubt about the authenticity of some of these cases – i.e., whether they are bona fide terrorist activities or just general grievances voiced and enacted by those who happen to be Uyghur. There is strong evidence to suggest that the authorities have exploited such cases to justify the establishment of a comprehensive ‘national security’ governance starting with Xinjiang. Furthermore, some contributors cast doubt on the ‘terrorist’ nature of some of the groups listed by the Chinese authorities. An interesting example is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which was officially unlisted as a terrorist organization by the United States in November 2020, as the group has had virtually no function for many years.

This volume has raised an important issue, one which speculates the intentions of Chinese policymakers: does the Chinese state develop antiterrorism policies to address the issue of terrorism – be it real or imagined – as stated in official documents, or does the Chinese state use the few seemingly terrorist activities as a rally point to launch comprehensive national security measures to deal with the long term sociopolitical grievances expressed by the Uyghurs? As for the former, the current policies seem unable to achieve their intended purpose; as for the latter, since the publication of this volume, the state has built more ‘re-education/vocational’ facilities in Xinjiang, allegedly with capacity for a million. The authorities have also implemented one of the most comprehensive personal surveillance and real-time biometric tracking system in the world, covering over 10 million people in Xinjiang.

Although this volume focuses on terrorism and counter-terrorism in China, the policies which China developed seem to have parallels with other policies against other dissident groups, such as so-called cults like Falungong or Church of Almighty God. There are similar ‘re-education/vocational’ schools specially built for those ex-cult members as well. These are meant to direct members away from religious extremism, just as similar schools in Xinjiang seek to eradicate religious extremism from the Uyghurs. Also, the Sinicization measures implemented in Inner Mongolia and Tibet – e.g., increasing the teaching of Han language as opposed to local ethnic minority languages – echo the language policy implemented upon the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. According to official justifications, this is all done to prevent possible separatism and terrorism for the goal of national unity. The National Security Law implemented in Hong Kong since July 2020 as a counter-measure against the prolonged social unrest movements by Hong Kongers – politically interpreted by the authorities as terrorism and separatism – also resembles regulations seen in Xinjiang. This volume raises important topics about the governance of China on national security and threats through the lens of terrorism, yet it also reaches beyond the theme of terrorism and counter-terrorism into a much wider field for further exploration. As such, this volume is a must for serious students of China's governance.