Against the backdrop of a rising number of domestic terrorist attacks, which bear significant human, political, economic, and social costs, China is confronted with the challenge of balancing its domestic and international obligations to protect its citizens, whilst balancing to manage and maintain effective human rights and international relations with the west.
This paper seeks to place the recent significant increase in domestic terror attacks throughout China in a broader context by presenting a range of evidence that highlights China’s fragile history with its own Muslim population, its own views on terrorisms, it’s control over media reporting of attacks, and it’s reluctance to engage with the western community in the fight against Islamic terrorist groups.
One of the difficulties with this report is that the Chinese Government clearly manipulates the media and information about its domestic terrorism threats and consequently, to suit its own domestic and international policy objectives.
While terrorism is well known throughout the world with the 9/11 attacks against America and subsequent attacks in the United Kingdom, and other western allied countries, China doesn’t receive the same international attention. Recent incidents of political violence are not an anomaly for China, as terrorist violence has been threatening the middle kingdom long before 9/11 and it has experienced a rising increase of terrorism incidents over the past decade with more than 200 attacks from 1990 to 2001.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, China launched its own war on terror against “terrorists” fighting for an independent state in the north western autonomous region of Xinjiang Uyghur where the ethnic minority Uighur people are predominately Turkic-speaking Muslims and have long desired to have their own national ambitions separate of China control. This massive region of land is one-sixth of China’s total territory.
On December 15 2003, China’s Ministry of Public Security issued a list of what it considered terrorists threats to its establishment. The list included the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the World Uyghur Congress, and the East Turkestan Information Center.
The ETIM is a Muslim separatist group based in China’s Western region that shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has also been identified as a terrorist organisation that demands an independent fundamentalist Muslim state for the Uyghur ethic minority in northwest China.
After 9/11 the Chinese Government warned the United States that ETIM had links to al-Qaeda. In August 2002, after months of pressure from Beijing, the Bush Administration decided to list the ETIM as a terrorist organisation and froze the group’s United States based assets. Since 2002, the United States has placed the ETIM on two terrorist blacklists-one for finance and one for immigration-and lobbied for its inclusion on a UN blacklist, but refrained from adding the group to the State Department’s high –profile list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs). The Australian Government does not include ETIM on its list of terrorist organisations, however; it has listed the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, which has links to Xinjiang in Western China and its members include Uyghur’s.
Some international observers have questioned if the ETIM remains active, or even if it has ever existed at all. In 2006, the United States captured over 20 Chinese Uyghur fighters in Afghanistan on suspicion they were fighting with Al-Qaeda. They were imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay (GTMO) Accused ETIM members detained at GTMO provided information that supported claims of the organisations existence, in part by volunteering the names of known ETIM figures as the leaders of their training camp in Afghanistan including ETIM leader Abdul Hag. After being reclassified as No Longer Enemy Combatant a panel of judges ordered their release, however; due to the China’s history of human rights and the uncertainly of their safety if sent back to China, the Uyghur’s were eventually resettled in Palau, Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador and Switzerland.
Although Beijing claims there are harmonious ethnic relations between the Han and Uighur people, underneath this smoke screen China maintains a pervasive structured system of ethnic discrimination against the Uighurs. Many Uighurs complain that Beijing imposes discriminatory policies, curbs religious and cultural beliefs, and has increased Han immigration in an attempt to dilute the indigenous population. Like many Muslim minority groups living under non-Islamic rule, Chinese Muslims have faced problems of identity. Raphael Israeli, in his book, Islam in China Religion, Ethnicity, Culture, and Politics states that Chinese Muslims face acute problems of identity, so acute in fact that their survival has often hinged upon the clarity of their identity boundaries, their relationships with their host, and even the fabrication of myths to supplement their history of uneasy coexistence throughout their millennial existence in China.
China’s links between its Muslim population and its stance on its war on terror stems from its own policy of involvement in international conflicts. Professor Rohan Gunaratna reports that at the height of the Cold War, China trained Muslim Uighurs to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, fearing that the old Silk Road along the Karakoram highway could come under Moscow’s domination if the Soviet Union was not dislodged from Kabul.
As China’s footprint on the world stage continues to grow rapidly, so too is the threat that it will experience unprecedented terrorism over the next several years and into the unforeseeable future. Americans have been the most popular terrorist target because of its position as a superpower around the globe which has caused resentment and mistrust with other nations. Professor Robert Page of the University of Chicago has found that foreign meddling is highly correlated with incurring suicide terrorist campaigns. Until the recent IS and Al-Qaeda threats against China, it has elicited less violence among foreign terrorists due to its insular foreign policy.
China is dominated by the Han ethic group; however in the north western region of Xinjiang, the ethnic minority Uighur people are predominately Turkic-speaking Muslims. Although Beijing claims there are harmonious ethnic relations between the Han and Uighur people, underneath this smoke screen China maintains a pervasive structured system of ethnic discrimination against the Uighurs.
Many Uighurs complain that Beijing imposes discriminatory policies, curbs religious and cultural beliefs, and has increased Han immigration in an attempt to dilute the indigenous population.
Example of Attacks
The 1980’s and 1990’s witnessed horrendous acts of violence in Xinjiang including riots in April 1980 and the Uyghur Provincial Committee members dissented against the Chinese authority in 1981. In May 1989, Muslim students in Xinjiang University protested against the imposition of Chinese policy of birth control on non-Han people.
On February 28, 1991, an explosion at a video theatre in a bus terminal in Kuqa Country, Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang, caused the death of one person and injuries to another 13 people.
In 1996 the official Chinese Xinhua news agency reported Public Security Ministry Communist Party secretary, Luo Feng as saying that since 1993, more than 300 police officers had been killed each year in China in the line of duty and that kidnapping, hijacking of planes, ships and cars, explosives, robbery, murder, smuggling and drug trafficking as among the more serious crimes that are on the rise in China.
In February 1998, Hasan Mahsum, a leader of the ETIM based outside China had sent 150 terrorists into China and that approximately a dozen training bases had been established in Xinjiang and inland regions. Chinese authorities’ reported a number of years later that Hasan Mahsum, who by then was at the top of its wanted list, had been shot dead in Pakistan, where he had allegedly been operating near the Afghan border.
Following the June 2004 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan where approximately 20 armed insurgents attacked a Chinese workers compound, killing 11 Chinese nationals and injuring four others, Chinese President Hu Jintao reinforced China’s condemnation of terrorism. “China has always been firmly opposed to terrorism and strongly called for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism” Hu, said China “will not give up our responsibility in the fight against terrorism just because our citizens were attacked.”
In July 2009 Xinjiang was shocked by some of the worst inter-ethnic violence seen in China, resulting in reports of 150-200 people killed and the arrest of thousands and a security crackdown. The Chinese Government blamed the United States based Uyghur activist, Rebiya Kadeer and other hostile external forces for attempting to separate Xinjiang from the People’s Republic of China.
In June 2013, nine members of the police and security forces were killed when armed attackers stabbed them to death and set police cars alight during attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Lukqun, a resource -rich region of Xinjiang.
On October 28, 2013, two tourists were killed and 38 others were injured in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, when an SUV crashed into a crowded bridge outside the Forbidden City. Chinese authorities suspected that the attempted car bombing was carried out by Uighur separatists and that the vehicle, registered in Xinjiang Province, contained a container for petrol, two knives and a flag with extremist religious slogans on it. Chinese police arrested five people in connection with the attack.
Several weeks later a series of explosions rattled the provincial Communist Party headquarters in the northern province of Shanxi, killing one person and injuring 8 others. According to China state media reports, ball bearings were scattered at the scene which indicates that the explosions were the result of improvised explosive devices. The ETIM claimed responsibility for the attacks and threatened Beijing with similar attacks in the future.
Just before 6am on June 26 2013, nine members of the police and security forces were killed when a group of Uyghur men armed with knives stabbed them to death and set police cars alight during attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Lukqun, a resource -rich region of Xinjiang. Media reports indicated that 24 people had been killed and that police killed 11 of the attackers.
On March 1, 2014, a group of eight assailants dressed in black and armed with daggers, knives and meat cleavers unleased a brutal stabbing spree at a railway station in the south-western city of Kunming resulting in the deaths of 29 people and wounding 143 during the attack which was later referred by Chinese state media as “China’s 9/11”.
On April 30, 2014, assailants armed with knives and explosives carried out an attack at a railway station in Urumqi, killing one person and wounding 79.
On May 22, 2014, at least 39 people were killed and more than 90 injured after two SUV vehicles drove into a busy street market in Urumqi, Xinjiang and one of the vehicles exploded. According to Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, five attackers were responsible for the blasts; four were killed in the subsequent explosions, and a fifth person arrested. All attackers were identified through DNA testing.
Use of the Media and the Internet
The media use the word terrorism as a term that will persuade people to read newspapers and watch television news programmes. Just as the Chinese Government manipulates the media and internet for its reporting of domestic terrorism in China, so too does the terrorist groups with a vested interest in establishing an independent fundamentalist Muslim state in Xinjiang. Whilst the Chinese Government is creating electronic cyber measures to prevent internet exchange of information and communication with the free world, terrorist groups have increasingly utilised both media and the internet to reach out to a wider audience in its attempts to radicalise and spread its own propaganda. In the October 2014 edition of Al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine Resurgence, it describes China’s restive Xinjiang region as an “occupied Muslim land” to be “recovered into the shade of the Islamic State”. The magazine also features an article titled “Did You Know? 10 facts About East Turkistan, “referring to the name for Xinjiang used by those who advocate independence from China.
The ETIM has utilised the media with its own media organisation called “Islam Awazi” in Uyghur, which means “Voice of Islam” in English and “Sawt al-Islam” in Arabic. The ETIM has also published online statements in English, Arabic and Uyghur in an effort to reach an international audience. However, just as the Chinese state media controls its media and uses propaganda in an effort to stigmatise ETIM and other Uyghur, it is highly likely that ETIM uses the same tactics.
The threat from International Terrorist Organisations
In early 2014, Iraqi military forces reported that they had captured a Chinese terrorist fighting with the Islamic State (IS). Further reports from Baghdad indicated that the captured terrorist was a Uighur from China. Iraq’s Minister of Defense posted photographs of the captured militant and stated that it was the first sign that Chinese nationals are answering the call of jihad and going into Iraq and Syria to fight for the Sunni group to establish an Islamic Caliphate. According to Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, China suspects that this alleged militant is but just one of an estimated 100 Chinese citizens from Xinjiang, who may be fighting with Islamic State.
Al-Qaeda is not the only jihadist organisation to criticize and threaten the Chinese Government and its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. In July 2014, the self –styled Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi spoke out in relation to Muslim rights being forcibly seized in China in a call for Muslims around the world to pledge allegiance to him. He also stated that “Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades”. Al-Baghdadi mentioned China as the first country on the list and shows a map that reportedly highlights the territory that IS plans to occupy in the next five years-which includes a portion of Xinjiang.
Historically, western nations including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union have been the preferred target of terrorist attacks both internationally and domestic. Whilst China has been spared internationally, the Kunming attack and Tiananmen attacks are symptomatic of new trends in domestic terrorism throughout China and militants may be inspired to conduct future attacks, especially at symbolic sites that attract large numbers of people including international tourists and western media.
Whilst the ETIM itself represents no serious challenge of Beijing’s power, the group will continue to use violence against the Communist Party to provoke China into harsh anti-terrorism and security crackdowns that violate human rights, incite further disharmony and ethnic tensions, and to increase further violence in Xinjiang and other regions of China.
China will continue to experience unprecedented terrorism over the next several years however the international community needs to exercise caution when analysing terrorism related attacks occurring in China. It is a well-established fact that Chinese state media in conjunction with state censors are deliberate in their attempts to dissimulate information that suits a particular political objective and what information is released to its own public as well as the international community.
Foreign diplomats and journalists are restricted in their attempts to independently research and verify information pertaining to terrorism related attacks. This in itself creates uncertainly to the accuracy of reporting by state run media outlets regarding terrorist attacks and activities with China. China’s openly denounces terrorism, however; its reluctance to join other countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia in its fight against IS detracts from its international stance, it is anticipated that as the threat of domestic terrorist attacks on Chinese territory rises, the support from western countries will decrease.