By Barclay Bram Shoemaker
China has a terrorism problem. This year has already seen four major attacks, including the mass stabbing at a train station in Kunming which saw 33 killed, and just last week the bombing of a market in Urumqi which saw a further 31 dead. The attacks have been blamed on Uighur separatists, the Turkic-speaking ethnic group from the Western province of Xinjiang. This region, oft labeled “restive” in Western media accounts, has seen increasing violence between the native Uighur population, and the immigrant Han. The Han, who are the dominant ethnic group throughout China, have become the majority in Xinjiang through years of encouraged migration. Booned by lucrative business opportunities, government subsidies and the promise of a better life, the Han have displaced the predominately Muslim Uighur population.
It is this tension that has been responsible for violence across the region for the last two decades. What is different about the recent spate of terrorist violence is that it represents the first time that Uighur separatists have attacked outside of Xinjiang. Starting with the Tiananmen car explosion in October of 2013, and followed by the devastating attack in Kunming in March, it is clear that there is both increasing capacity and willingness to attack civilians throughout China. Just last month at a station in Guangzhou, in Southern China, a similar station stabbing cost the lives of seven people.
The Chinese government has often referred to unrest in Xinjiang as terrorism. In 2001 Jiang Zemin strategically broke from China’s typical condemnation of US military intervention, and lent support to the global War on Terror. In return the US and the UN Security Council bowed to Chinese requests to label four prominent groups of Uighur separatists as terrorist organizations-chief among them the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement. This has subsequently given China license to label any violent activity in the region as terrorism, and to sidestep criticism of its harsh subjugation of political dissent. Human Rights Watch and the US State Department have both noted the extremely broad definition of terrorism that China has wielded in the region to crackdown on a vast array of unsanctioned political activity.
There is a conceptual issue at play here. Terrorism has been defined by the US State Department as “politically motivated violence or the threat of violence against non-combatants by sub-state actors”. In this case the traditional Uighur attacks on Police stations, government buildings and indiscriminate-scale rioting are not terrorist attacks. It is only the recent spate of attacks that can be officially classed as terrorist in nature, though China has been labeling all acts of violent resistance in Xinjiang as terrorist for at least the past decade. Terrorism is currently classed as one of the “three evils” (san gu shili) of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism. This muddies the definition in the Chinese context and allows for a far broader range of activities to be labeled as terrorism.
Many scholars have noted that the definition of terrorism is political. The worn-out trope that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is a simplification of a broader truth. The definition of terrorism depends on standpoint-as Bruce Hoffman has argued “if one identifies with the victim or the target of the act, then the act is considered terrorism; whereas if one identifies with the actor, the act is not terrorism, although perhaps regrettable”.
Definitional issues aside, what is noticeable is that there has been a clear change in the tactics employed by the Uighur separatists. The number of regrettable acts is increasing, and they are no longer restricted to Xinjiang. This shows increased capacity and a clear intent to gain notoriety and spread fear throughout a wider audience. However it would be a mistake to take this too far. While the capacity of the attackers has increased, as noted in most of the Western media reports of the attacks, the attacks are still basically medieval in their undertaking. In the Kunming attack, which is the most severe attack ever seen outside of Xinjiang, the terrorists used knives to inflict their casualties. The same is true in the Guangzhou station and Urumqi station attacks (though the latter did employ a small explosive device, but it’s only casualty was the terrorist himself, and it’s primary aim was to force people to run towards the exit where the other knife wielding terrorists were poised to strike).
Aside from the low-tech weaponry employed, it is difficult to say concretely the extent to which their “capacity” to strike has really increased, as we do not have a control to measure it against. The Chinese government is incredibly tight-lipped and clear information about the nature of these attacks is not available. Other than reports in the state-operated media that occasionally blame the ETIM, information is not widely available. Thus we are left to speculate. Logically however it is unlikely that these attacks are coming from the ETIM. Recent reports suggest that some ETIM members were killed in raids in Waziristan by the Pakistani government. This would suggest that they are operating outside of China’s borders and would imply that they have the ability to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship and thus claim responsibility for their attacks. Even if they were headquartered somewhere in Xinjiang, with VPN connections and other technologies, it is inconceivable that a group organized enough to strike at multiple locations around the country would be unable to get their message out to claim responsibility for their actions.
If it is not the work of one group, then the attacks represent a different challenge for the Chinese government. Without a centralized hierarchy dictating the attacks, it is likely that they are the work of disparate cells that are socialized into violence after seeing the success of other attacks. This makes predicting and stopping future attacks much more difficult, but also renders the attacks less severe. This style of terrorism will not produce a Chinese 9/11, but it may well keep security forces throughout China guessing.
A question of course is why now? If these attacks are the result of socialized violence, then it is difficult to pinpoint an exact motive or raison d’être. The terrorist scholar Martha Crenshaw proposed that the causes of terrorist violence can be split into preconditions and precipitants, i.e. long term grievances that provide a base level of humiliation and anger, and the straw that breaks the camels back. In the case of the Uighurs the preconditions would be the influx of Han immigrants, the perception of relative economic disadvantage, the desire for self-determination, and the restrictions placed on religious expression. In terms of precipitants, on a Uighur-wide level the 2009 race riots loom large in the collective memory, though it would not necessarily explain why it took five years to mobilize such a low-tech response. On an individual level the precipitants could be anything from harassment by the police, specific economic inequity, or the deaths of relatives in circumstances deemed unjust.
Much as the Uighur context can be shoehorned into this framework, it does not seem overly compelling to explain such a dispersed and diffuse set of attacks. The biggest change in recent years is the rise of the Chinese internet, with social media allowing for limited expression. After the 2003 SARS fiasco, the Chinese government became aware that in the digital age complete control of the narrative would no longer be possible. After attempting to silence news of the SARS outbreak in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, news leaked via cellphone to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the liberal press brought the problem to global attention. Subsequently in the age of Renren, Weibo, and Weixin the government has ceded ever more control to the effervescent online community. In this context it would be impossible to completely ignore attacks and pretend that they have never happened. The news does get out, albeit sanitized and spun along party lines.
The fact that news of attacks can now spread across the Chinese internet and that people in distant communities can now be terrorized digitally is central to the terrorist cause. As the scholars Dingding Chen and Ding Xuejie have written in The Diplomat approximately 50 percent of Chinese in the wake of the Kunming attack thought it was “likely” or “very likely” that a similar attack would occur in their city. Xinjiang has risen to global prominence in a way it has not done since the 2009 riots. A year ago scholars were debating the ADIZ and worrying about a crisis in the South China Sea. Today attentions are shifting westwards and Xinjiang is the new flashpoint.
The question all of this raises of course is what should China do about this. A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine was boldly headlined “Should China Declare a War on Terror?” The answer is an emphatic no. What China faces currently is the epitome of Robert Taber’s “war of the flea”-a disparate, fast enemy that inflicts great aggravation, but little serious damage. The flea is victorious when the body overreacts, tearing at its own flesh in frustration and anguish. China must acknowledge that the scale of its terror problem is minute. So far this year there have been less than a hundred deaths from terrorist violence. In a country of 1.3 billion, in which well over 100,000 will die this year from air pollution alone, this is a drop in the ocean.
Speaking from a slum in Trinidad, the community organizer Hal Greaves noted that his country’s gang problem stemmed from the fact that “we see here as a sore, a diseased part, that we wish would go away. I tell people, if your left kidney is cancerous, and you ignore it, it will kill you. If you focus on the parts of your body that are healthy and you say, that left kidney is just a pain and a bother, you’re going to die. And the nation is dying because we’re treating a part of us as if it will dry up and go away one day.” The Chinese government for a long time has treated Xinjiang like a sore. It has subjugated its people, accorded them with the status of second-class citizens, and brutally beat down any sign of rebellion. The money that has poured into the province for development has accrued in the hands of the Han economic migrant class, and has been used primarily to build a resource extraction infrastructure, which has done little to improve the lives of the average Uighur.
The cancer in Xinjiang will metastasize. An interesting question is not why the Uighurs have resorted to terrorist violence, but why other minorities and immigrant classes within China haven’t either. If this violence is socializing, then we should expect to see a rise in terrorism from various segments of Chinese society, not just from Uighurs. Last year Ju Zhongxing blew himself up in Beijing airport, as a result of years of being ignored by government officials. That same year Chen Shuizong killed 47 people after setting himself on fire on a bus in Xiamen in response to losing eligibility for his government benefits. In a China riven between those who have benefited from the past three decades of rapid reform and those marginalized and shut out from the process, these types of attacks are sure to increase.
The counter-insurgency scholar David Kilcullen notes that insurgencies succeed when they leverage competitive control structures. Society abhors a vacuum, and thus in areas where formal governance fails to provide predictable rule, countervailing structures will emerge in their place. The Chinese government to date has been very adept in ensuring that governance (and by extension the CCP apparatus) extends to every level of the Chinese population. The risk however is that if it were to suspend the already limited rights of its citizens further in an attempt to brutally quash this terrorist threat, it would have the adverse effect of creating spaces in which the terrorists can mobilize and leverage public support. Moreover harsh retribution will play into the hands of the terrorists by justifying their grievance narratives, aiding in recruitment, and silencing the reasonable voices of moderates.
A famous Chinese idiom, (shan gao huangdi yuan) literally means “the mountains are tall, and the emperor is far away”. It refers to the difficulty the overly centralized government in Beijing has in projecting its power further afield across such a vast land mass. It is in this context that a disparate movement could potentially gain momentum, but only if the Chinese government unintentionally aids them in this endeavor. Currently they are too dispersed and their aims too variegated to pose an existential threat to the Chinese state. However were China to securitize the issue in sweeping terms, to declare a “war on terror with Chinese characteristics” and to increase Uighur persecution, the effect would be to elevate the cause, not diminish it. Declaring a “war on terror” accords terrorists semi-diplomatic status, and in a region of contested sovereignty, implies the existence of a separate state with which to go to war. This is the antithesis of what the Chinese government would hope to achieve in Xinjiang.
Thus far, the government has walked a tightrope in its response. Despite harsh rhetoric from Xi Jinping, for example proclaiming that terrorists will be seen “scurrying away like rats, while we give chase screaming ‘beat them!’” the actual response has been more measured. The Xinjiang Supreme Court on Wednesday presented what it claimed were 16 “model cases” for terrorism convictions, which saw 39 convicted in six courts throughout the region for various crimes associated with terrorism. This is encouraging. As the scholar Seung-Whan Choi has argued, one of the best remedies for terrorism is increasing the strength of the rule of law, as it allows for the non-violent settlement of differences.
Even more encouraging is the recent government push to send 200,000 government officials into the remotest areas of Xinjiang to work at grass-roots level for at least two years. The first 70,000 have already started in their posts, and this should make it harder for the grievance narratives necessary for widespread extremist violence to take hold. It will also help with winning hearts and minds. Less beneficial however have been calls from the government to encourage members of the Han community to report anyone they view as suspicious. Suspicious behavior in this context includes people planning violent attacks or hoarding guns and bullets, men growing long beards, women wearing veils or youths under 18 visiting a mosque. With rewards between 50 to 50,000 renminbi ($8 to $8,000) to anyone who reports, the incentive structure will surely be open to abuse and likely cause even higher tensions between Han and Uighur groups.
China is waking up to a new era. The scholar Paul Rogers argued that the next 30 years might well be defined “not so much as a clash of civilizations, more an age of insurgencies”. It would be a cruel irony after all the ink spilt on the imminent crisis in the South China Sea and the risk of confrontation with the US if China is undermined by a problem much closer to home. China needs to respond proportionately, and it must be very careful. Terrorists win when the state over-reacts and inflicts damage on itself. When the dragon has fleas, the solution is not self-immolation.
Barclay Bram Shoemaker is reading for an MSci in International Relations and Global Issues at the University of Nottingham.