Chinese media are lauding the results of the first six months of a year-long campaign to crack down on terrorism. The campaign touts “extremely tough measures and extraordinary methods” – methods some activists say are harming the rights of ordinary Uyghurs in the region.
In late April, Xi Jinping urged a “strike-first” strategy against terrorists during an inspection tour of Xinjiang province. Only a few days later, a bombing at a railway station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, sparked an even more urgent official response, leading to the announcement of a year-long anti-terror crackdown in late May. According to Chinese media reports, the crackdown specifically targeted four groups: those who use the Internet to disseminate terrorist videos or materials calling for holy war; key figures involved in terrorism and religious extremism; those who have been charged multiple times with lighter crimes relating to public security or violence; and those who join terrorist or religious extremist groups beginning in 2014. The crackdown will run through June 2015.
According to China Daily, state media in Xinjiang are reporting that 115 terrorist cells have been eliminated since the crackdown began. Around 40 percent of those cells “were found through the clues that authorities got during intensive inquests of detained suspects,” China Daily reported, citing officials in Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism office.
Most of the cases outlined in the report don’t involve actual terrorist attacks or even the planning of attacks. Instead, Chinese media describes shutting down 171 “religious training sites” and detaining 238 people responsible for arranging “training facilities.” An additional 294 cases involved “the distribution of violent audiovisual materials.” The Chinese government stresses the role Internet videos play in the recruitment and training of terrorists. By more strictly policing the spread of extremist materials, China hopes to prevent terrorist attacks before they start. Indeed, Xinjiang media boasted that its security measures had the effect of “stopping most terrorist attacks before they could be undertaken.”
Such preemptive measures, however, lead to the potential problem of casting the net too wide and bringing in ordinary Uyghurs. The Xinjiang government has already been accused of banning traditional Muslim practices (including fasting during Ramadan and, in one city, the wearing of headscarves) in an apparent conflation of Islam and radical extremism.
The nature of previous prosecutions has also raised questions, as local governments have a habit of turning legal proceedings into a public spectacle. Terrorist suspects have been sentenced in large groups in mass rallies, such as the sentencing of 55 suspects in a packed sports stadium in late May, just after the anti-terrorism crackdown began. The central government, by contrast, emphasizes the role legal systems play in high-profile cases, in keeping with Beijing’s new focus on promoting the “rule of law” in China.