August 2, 2018

IntelBrief: China’s Counterproductive Counterterrorism Policies

SWAT members of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (AP Photo/Andy Wong).
  • Recent reports outline how the Chinese security apparatus has ramped up its campaign of blackmailing ethnic Uighurs to spy on others living in exile from China.
  • This is but one of the controversial counterterrorism policies that are employed by the Chinese Communist Party.
  • The threat posed by terrorism to Chinese National Security, both at home and abroad, has been increasing in the 21st Century but largely stems from transnational terrorism.
  • The majority of Chinese counterterrorism policies and strategies are not only controversial and disregard human rights, but can also prove counterproductive in keeping China and its nationals safe in the long-term.


The Chinese security apparatus is employing increasingly aggressive surveillance of minority populations in the name of counterterrorism. Recent reports detail how Uighurs and other minorities living abroad, often under political asylum, are forced to spy on fellow exiles with the threat of family members back in China being sent to ‘re-education camps’if they refuse.

Blackmailing minorities living in exile is but one of the controversial counterterrorism policies the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employs in its fight against the ‘three evils:’terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. Other examples include iris scans, DNA collection and sequencing, and cellphone surveillance, all of which almost exclusively target minorities. In May 2018, member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) agreed to an extradition treaty on the basis of terrorism charges. Such a treaty enables the Chinese security apparatus to target minorities living in exile in SCO member states, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The Chinese surveillance state is not a new concept and has been heavily employed in China’s most western Xinjiang province. Xinjiang is home to many of China’s Muslim minorities, including the Uighurs, and several movements calling for independence from the Chinese government as well as religious freedom. The CCP views Xinjiang independence as an existential threat; it would severely challenge China’s westward trade expansion into Central Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative, which is also crucial for China’s energy security.

Looking at recent trends, however, the threat posed by terrorism to Chinese national security appears to come from transnational terrorism, not domestic. Estimates suggest around 1,200 Uighurs have traveled to conflict zones to join terrorist organizations, though the majority are believed to be Turkish citizens, not Chinese. Chinese nationals are being increasingly targeted abroad, for example in the 2014 Erwan Shrine bombing in Bangkok and the 2016 Bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The latter attack was perpetrated by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which currently operates out of Syria and Afghanistan and has strong affiliations with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Still, the CCP frequently tries to paint to Xinjiang and separatism as the root cause, although little evidence exists to link local grievances with transnational terrorist organizations.

Consequently, many of China’s counterterrorism policies do not only disregard human rights, but also prove counterproductive in keeping Chinese nationals at home and abroad safe. The TIP capitalizes on the CCP’s mistreatment of its minority Muslim population in propaganda and recruitment material. Beijing’s foreign policy in Syria, which supports the Assad regime, arguably exacerbates the threat posed by TIP as Assad’s refusal to relinquish power has produced the power-vacuum in which TIP thrives. Chinese-led counterterrorism policies put forth in the SCO are often perceived as targeting political opposition, both at home and abroad. Terrorism and counterterrorism policy do not operate in a vacuum. China will have to weigh its domestic as well as geopolitical security interests in relation to the growing threat of transnational terrorism.


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