Developing a Chinese Counterterrorism Strategy

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President Xi Jinping visiting with local leaders in XinJiang for the first time since his presidency began in 2012. Image from Weibo.

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XinJiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region, stages some of China’s most violent separatist movements, the most violent of which are developing terrorist- threats. In April, President Xi Jinping visited the region and spoke specifically on the issue of combating terrorism. While China has not officially declared a counterterrorism program, it has developed a new National Security Commission designed to counter “unconventional security” threats. China has modeled much of its new commission after that of the U.S. and may, in the future, follow the U.S. model further by developing a comprehensive counterterrorism program. Given the escalating situation in various autonomous regions, the likelihood that China will develop a broader official counterterrorism strategy is high. This analysis takes into consideration two simplified factors: the development of separatist movements in a Chinese national context, and the evolving Chinese policy of dealing with regional security threats.

Within China, there are two main theaters that host the majority of the nation’s separatist outbreaks: Tibet and Xinjiang. Even though both areas have historically staged separatist protests, the two have displayed different tactics. Tibet, formally an autonomous region of China, owes its allegiance to the exiled Dalai Lama. Most notably, the world witnessed an array of separatist movements throughout the nation capitalizing on the publicity of the 2008 Olympics.   Beijing knowingly keeps a sharp eye on Tibetan movements because they have witnessed several attempted uprisings, most notably in the 1950’s.  This sharp eye has been criticized by the international community as repressive while Beijing views Tibet as a separatist threat and acts accordingly. Separatist movements staged during and after the Olympics were non-violent compared to recent displays in Xinjiang, where movements have turned increasingly towards traditional terrorist tactics. During the Chinese civil war, the Communist Party took control of the Xinjiang region from the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) in 1949. Previously the ETR had seceded under the auspices of anti-Han sentiment, Islamic solidarity, and ties to the Soviet Union.[1] Most of the country is ruled by ethnically Han Chinese, however Xinjiang is home to a largely Muslim population with current strong ties to Turkmenistan and other Middle Eastern nations. Differing in ethnicity, Xinjiang bristles under the rule of the communist party and responds violently to local leadership’s suppressing policies. Most recently, at least 31 people were killed and more than 90 wounded in an attack close to the center of Urumqi, Xinjiang.

New tactics in policing and anti-terrorism are currently being implemented. For example Beijing’s Tiananmen Square German Shepard police dogs  have been placed in major cities such as Beijing where many protests take place. Additionally, the Communist party has set up a complex system of volunteers that will serve as information collectors . There is even a reward system encouraging citizens to report suspicious activities, rewards can reach 40,000 Yuan ($6,404). This is a mass social movement in a new direction regarding national security. The tactics used reflect greatly the views of President Xi Jinping, head of the National Security Commission. However, Li Keqiang will serve as a deputy head of the commission, but will serve under President Xi Jinping. Xi and Li have not always seen eye to eye on issues of reform; their viewpoints may offer a balance to the commission but may also polarize to Xi’s viewpoints as the nominal head. Xi tends to view reform as breaking from China’s course and is less favorable to those offering tangential opinions.

members of Military

President Xi Jinping with members of the military. Image from Weibo.

This new program could be a major opportunity for the U.S. to deal directly with the Chinese PLA and the police force. In previous attempts to foster greater cooperation, the military has been the most difficult point to reconcile, mainly due to their regiment being deeply steeped in communist propaganda. Meng Jianzhu, head of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, stated that he wishes to increase international cooperation in developing new national security measures.  Thus, direct cooperation may be a possibility; if not, indirect cooperation—or even the U.S. proposal of cooperation—could make great strides to fostering military-to-military relations. If relations with Chinese military are delayed further, then it will only prevent future understanding of Chinese initiatives.

Future initiatives are likely to be centered on a Chinese understanding of “unconventional” threats, which differ greatly from a U.S. understanding. One example of this difference in definitions can be found in the reaction and interpretation to the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests in the Arab world known as the Arab Spring. While there is some debate in the U.S. as to whether or not the Arab Spring produced wholly positive results, many Americans are in agreement with the underlying principle behind it. Many Americans view the series of events as communities standing up for their desire to have representation in their government. The Chinese, on the other hand, established the new National Security Commission to prevent acts of “unconventional terrorism”, which implicitly include the Arab Spring movement and Western influenced ideologies.  Therefore, the benefits of working with the PLA on this issue seem to be preventative in nature, although there are proactive benefits for the U.S. as well. The increase in terrorist attacks in Xinjiang could be linked to regional jihadist organizations holding sway in Muslim communities by influencing separatist tactics. It is likely that this tangential association to jihadist regimes will increase both in China and the U.S. Consequently, the U.S. may lend support to China in combating this threat and may also gain a new view on the issue due to China’s relatively close geographic proximity to many regions of strategic interest to the U.S.

 

[1] Linda Benson. “The Ili Rebellion: The Moslem Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944-1949” (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1990), 88.

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