China's Anti-Terrorism Challenge


In the wake of another deadly terrorist attack in Urumqi, Chinese leaders are repeating their assurances that China will “severely punish terrorists” and increase its security measures.  “The Chinese government has the confidence and capability to crack down on the audacious terrorists,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. Unfortunately, after three coordinated attacks in public places since March, such promises are beginning to ring hollow.

Generally, China’s response to terrorist activities has been to step up patrols and increase the readiness of its police and paramilitary forces. Last week, China sent officers to train Xinjiang police in gun use and combat training. Police are also stepping up armed patrols in crowded public areas. But increased security measures can only go so far in addressing terrorist attacks, as China well knows. Despite a heavy security presence in Xinjiang, violent clashes have become routine in the more restive areas. The two recent attacks in Urumqi show that, even in areas where security is tightest, terrorists are able to find and exploit opportunities for violence.

In addition, duplicating the intense security presence at work in Xinjiang for the rest of China is not feasible. As Philip Potter, a University of Michigan professor and researcher under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative, told the New York Times, there is a huge discrepancy in security forces in the western and eastern regions. China has fostered openness in eastern, coastal regions to encourage economic development while keeping a tight grip in Xinjiang and Tibet. This approach, Potter say, “incentivizes militants in the west to conduct attacks in the eastern population centers, where the targets are less secure and the rewards are higher.” Potter was speaking after the October 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square; the most recent attack in Kunming also lends credence to his theory.

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Beijing recognizes that an increased police presences is only part of the equation. As a result, China has ramped up its crackdown on what might be termed “soft” terrorism—what China calls “inciting ethnic hatred”—including the dissemination of videos and other online material encouraging terrorism. Earlier this week, the Xinjiang Higher Court announced that 39 people had been sentenced to prison for such crimes. “We must eliminate from the root the soil where violent terrorist thoughts should grow by severely cracking down on the criminal activities of spreading terrorism audios and video,” the court said.

Yet human rights advocates say that China’s anti-terror crackdown is tantamount to a crackdown on Muslim practices in general, which alienates the Uyghur population. And this could have the unwanted effect of actually encouraging terrorism by increasing anger against the state.

Finally, China’s terrorism problem is an international issue, not simply a domestic one. Even the Uyghur terrorist groups (believed to be relatively small in number) have cross-border operations.  Just before the latest deadly attack in Urumqi, Xinhua released new details about the April 30 train station attack. Xinjiang authorities say that the attack was planned by an East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) member named Ismail Yusup. Yusup reportedly planned and coordinated the attack from outside China’s borders, then ordered operatives within Xinjiang to actually carry out the attack.

The details on last month’s attack reveal the complexity of China’s anti-terrorism challenge. Groups such as ETIM and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), considered by some to be an offshoot or successor group to ETIM, are believed to operate mostly outside of China’s borders. According to Reuters, which held an interview with TIP leader Abdullah Mansour earlier this year, TIP is based in the mountainous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, an area where many terrorist groups have found shelter. Pakistan has so far proven unwilling or unable to entirely secure this area. As long as terrorists groups have a haven close to Xinjiang’s borders, it will be incredibly difficult for China to end terrorist attacks.

There have also been reports that groups like ETIM might seek to target Chinese businesses, embassies, or citizens located in third countries, which would allow terrorists to harm China without ever setting foot within the country. No amount of domestic security initiatives will be able to fully prevent such attacks; it will take a global intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism initiative.

Unlike the U.S., China has shown no inclination to take matters into its own hands by conducting anti-terrorism operations (including drone strikes) on foreign soil. Such a move would be anathema to Beijing’s golden rule of non-interference in other country’s domestic affairs. Instead, China has been emphasizing joint anti-terrorism activities with its neighbors, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Russia and Kazakhstan. But so far, Beijing lacks a separate strategy should these countries’ capabilities or determination to combat terrorism not meet China’s standards.

Preventing the next terrorist attack is at the top of Xi Jinping’s agenda—just as it was after the Kunming attack and the Urumqi railway station attack. To make progress, China will need to create and implement a new strategy rather than increasing its efforts in the same areas.

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