The increase in activities of international terrorist groups in areas of China’s specific interest like Afghanistan and Pakistan and their potential to fan further violence in China’s already troubled Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) would be of concern to Chinese leaders. There is the possibility too that extant discontent in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) could erupt into violence. While China accelerated strengthening of its security architecture after the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) 18th Congress in November 2012, the apprehension that terrorist activity could spread across China was a prime consideration in enacting stringent counter-terror laws which came into force from 1 January 2016. China will additionally require cooperation from the international community to tackle the menace.
In an article in October 2015, Xue Li, director of the International Strategy Research Office, World Politics and Economy Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, identified “religious extremism” as a “big challenge that confronts Xinjiang and the central government”. Emphasising the Chinese government’s success in attacking “Xinjiang Independence” forces he, however, admitted that these are now spreading outside Xinjiang to other Chinese provinces and beyond China’s borders. Confirming that terror attacks have taken place in big cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Kunming as well as medium-size cities like Wenzhou, Xue Li said “splittist forces” have appeared in some Southeast Asian countries and the incidence of these elements leaving China for training and then returning to carry out terror attacks has increased. He regretted that China could not expect much cooperation from governments of other countries.
Meanwhile, there is increasing independent evidence of the involvement of Uyghurs with ISIS. Chinese officials estimate that 300 Uyghurs have joined ISIS. Credible reports reveal that ISIS is enlisting a thousand fighters from among Uyghur families it had helped escape from China to Turkey. Other reports state that “20,000 Turkistanis are being organised by Turkish intelligence” and that the Turkistani Islamic Party is preparing an army that will first fight in Syria and whose survivors will return to “Chinese Turkistan” some day. China’s state-run Global Times confirmed Turkey’s complicity and reported in July 2015 that Turkish embassies and consulate generals in Southeast Asia had “knowingly processed proof of citizenship and issued passports and travel documents to Chinese people from Xinjiang”. It disclosed that in 2015, police had arrested 10 Turkish nationals in Shanghai on suspicion of supplying fake passports to ethnic Uyghurs,
Early this August, the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region—described by Li Wei, expert on counter-terrorism at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, as the main battleground of China’s anti-terrorism campaign—adopted a new anti-terrorism regulation expanding the provisions of China’s Anti-Terrorism Law.
The concern of Chinese leaders appears set to grow as current leaders of Central Asian Republics (CARS), like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that border the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region and who are former Soviet apparatchiks, pass from the scene. They will be replaced by younger leaders, many harbouring Islamist views, who will be less inclined to enforce the border agreements with China or control the flow of men and material into Xinjiang.
There is increasing independent evidence of the involvement of Uyghurs with ISIS. Chinese officials estimate that 300 Uyghurs have joined ISIS. Credible reports reveal that ISIS is enlisting a thousand fighters from among Uyghur families it had helped escape from China to Turkey.
An Weixing, head of the Public Security Ministry’s Counter-Terrorism Division, recently said China faced a serious threat from terrorists, especially “East Turkestan” forces. He added that “Terrorism is the public enemy of mankind, and the Chinese government will oppose all forms of terrorism.”
China will, in the near future, increasingly need to cooperate with other nations to tackle terrorism. To do this it will need to address concerns regarding scope of the counter-terrorism law which permits the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and China’s security personnel to undertake anti-terrorism operations overseas. The International Campaign for Tibet along with the EU organised a roundtable in June this year at The Hague to examine these provisions. Concern that these could be aimed at Tibetans and Uyghurs residing abroad were heightened by reports of Chinese authorities bringing Uyghurs back to China from other countries and Chinese security officials being caught last year as they attempted to enter the US by posing as journalists to arrest CCP cadre Ling Jihua’s brother.
China will also have to discard double standards in defining terrorism. Examples are the holds placed by China at the UN Sanctions Committee on India’s requests: to list Syed Salahuddin of the United Jihad Council; to investigate the source of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed’s funds despite financial sanctions; and to ask Pakistan how LeT commander Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi posted bail and Pakistan let its courts set him free. So as not to dilute support to Pakistan, China again placed a hold on the case of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, despite India’s Prime Minister having personally earlier raised the case of Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi with Beijing. All the individuals listed by India are designated “international terrorists”.
As China’s involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan deepens, it will require increased international cooperation for combating terrorism and, for this, will require to conform to the international definition of terrorism.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.