March 29, 2019
IntelBrief: Making Sense of China’s Counterterrorism White Paper
On March 18, 2019, China released a white paper titled ‘The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang.’ The primary purpose of the document is to defend the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) counterterrorism policies which have been targeting ethnic minorities, particularly Uighur Muslims. The paper states, ‘It is indisputable that Xinjiang is an inseparable part of Chinese territory,’ which serves as the foundational logic of the CCP’s right to pursue any policies it deems necessary to ensure ‘ethnic and social harmony.’ The paper also identifies Chinese culture and language as fundamental components for the ‘prosperity and development of ethnic cultures in Xinjiang.’ Throughout the document, Chinese counterterrorism policies are equated with ensuring human rights and it goes to great lengths to stress that all policies are in accordance with the rule of law. The paper also presents the solution to eradicating terrorism as economic development and integration into Chinese culture and society—a mindset that disregards other key drivers of radicalization and extremism.
The paper serves as a justification for the government’s policies in Xinjiang, policies which the international community has heavily criticized Beijing on the basis of human rights violations. It also makes claims that the CCP’s counterterrorism and de-radicalization programs have been effective, although there are no metrics or data to support this conclusion. The most championed counterterrorism policy described in the document is ‘offering education and aid through vocational education and training centers in accordance with the law,’ which ‘adopt a boarding school management system' where education and religion are separated so that ‘trainees may not organize and participate in religious activities.' An estimated 2 million people are being held in these camps, which can be more accurately described as detention facilities. Xinjiang has a history of political violence, and the global Salafi-jihadist movement has indeed co-opted some elements. It is hard to fathom, however, that the 2 million individuals currently detained in the ‘re-education' camps across Xinjiang are all hardened terrorists or even passive adherents to a violent ideology.
Not only are many of the counterterrorism policies implemented in Xinjiang ineffective, but also counterproductive in the long-run. The detention and ‘re-education’ of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang may temporarily quell political violence, but it has also created a rallying call for militants worldwide. Salafi jihadist groups frequently cite China’s treatment of its Muslim minority population as justification for committing acts of terror. Indeed, Chinese interests and citizens are increasingly targeted abroad, which has led analysts to believe that the most significant terrorist threat facing China stems from transnational terrorist groups rather than domestic ones. Moreover, the police state China has created in Xinjiang—where DNA sequencing, facial recognition technology, and electronic surveillance is widely practiced—only serves to exacerbate societal grievances and may make more people susceptible to extremist narratives.
It is essential to understand the significance of Xinjiang to the Chinese government to place these counterterrorism policies in the proper strategic context. The CCP’s definition of terrorism is broad and also incorporates religious extremism and separatism—commonly referred to in China as ‘the three evils.’ As such, political opposition can be targeted under any of the counterterrorism laws. Xinjiang serves two important purposes to Beijing: as China’s gateway to the Eurasian continent and a pivotal piece in realizing the ‘One China’ dream. Without access to Xinjiang, China’s energy supply would be threatened and Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy the Belt and Road Initiative could never be realized. In addition, the integration of Tibet and Xinjiang is a pre-requisite for the ultimate goal of reunification with Taiwan. In short, the CCP sees any calls for Xinjiang’s independence as directly threatening Chinese sovereignty. Although the white paper attempts to position China’s policies within a broader framework of global counterterrorism efforts, what is currently ongoing in Xinjiang is much better understood through a domestic lens: the CCP ensuring its continuing power.
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