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China’s Counterterrorism Experience

Jun 30, 2022
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

In fighting against global terrorism since 9/11, China and the United States have taken very different policy paths and achieved different results. However, to date, as news of the U.S. global war on terror goes on hitting headlines, the world has somehow become oblivious to China’s counterterrorism experience and achievements. Instead, there are misconceptions and bigotry toward China.

After 9/11, the U.S. mainly adopted a “war” posture in the fight against terrorism, combining global counterterrorism with the expansion of its global hegemony and conducting large-scale preemptive strikes worldwide, regardless of the cost. At the same time, it devoted limited resources to its domestic defenses against terrorism. This counterterrorism strategy appeared to be successful on the surface, but it has failed to achieve its intended results, especially given the enormous resource investment.

The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated that, as of the Afghanistan withdrawal in August last year, the U.S. counterterror war in that country alone had cost $2.26 trillion, and 2,442 U.S. soldiers had been killed in action. If casualties among allied soldiers, defense contractors, Afghan military and police and civilians are included, the number climbs to more than 170,000.

However, the prolonged war on terror in Afghanistan not only failed to eradicate the threat of transnational terrorists, such as al-Qaida and ISIS, but instead facilitated the decline of U.S. global hegemony and reputation. For the United States, while the threat of imported terrorism has been reduced by strict counterterror measures, it may be confronted with a new wave of homegrown terrorism triggered by the polarization between rich and poor, the intensification of ethnic conflicts and the demonstration effect of international terrorism.

For a while after 9/11, China also found itself in a dilemma between counterterrorism and economic development. However, in its subsequent fight against terrorism, after weighing the two sides, China devoted significant economic resources to socioeconomic development and poverty alleviation in key areas of the country, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the breeding ground — the social background — for terrorism through economic development and comprehensive governance.

For instance, according to the Department of Finance of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, from 2014 to 2019 subsidized transfer payments from the central government to the region increased from about $32.7 billion to $48.2 billion, with an average annual increase by 10.6 percent. Consequently, the share of subsidized transfer payments in Xinjiang’s general public budget expenditures rose from 60.5 percent to 62.6 percent. The huge investment significantly reduced unemployment and poverty rates in Xinjiang.

The great socioeconomic leap has largely neutralized a terrorist breeding ground. China suffered two waves of retaliatory backlash of terrorist attacks — 2007-08 and 2013-14 — that were caused by the demonstration effect in the post-911 period, when international terrorist activities, separatism and extremist ideologies spread via the internet. However, we haven’t seen another large-scale organized terrorist case like the 2014 Urumqi market bombing attack, which means a gradual decline of terrorism in China since 2015.

Unfortunately, because of bigotry or defamation by some Western media and politicians, China’s counterterror achievements have not only been ignored but also maliciously distorted into a so-called human rights matter.

In fact, compared with the American counterterror strategy, which focuses on the outside world by being preemptive, China has developed an approach more suited to its own conditions. Its counterterror policy may be described as the Chinese experience with three core elements.

The first is eradication of terror-breeding hotbeds. China sought to eradicate these through economic development, including eliminating poverty and improving people’s livelihoods. Because of constraints in geography, transportation and natural resources, some areas of China had been bogged down in poverty, and a relatively high incidence of terrorist activity in recent years happened to coincide with poverty-ridden areas.

Extreme poverty leads to poor education, widespread unemployment and organized crime, which in turn can create opportunities for the growth of radical nationalism, terrorism and extreme religious fervor. In southern Xinjiang, for example, the population living in poverty was as high as 2.68 million in 2013, accounting for 95 percent of the total living in poverty in the region. However, with China’s poverty alleviation efforts, the poorest population in the four southern Xinjiang prefectures was reduced to 166,000 by the end of 2019, and the poverty incidence rate dropped from 29.1 percent to 2.2 percent. The opportunities in economic development have instilled hope in many once-hopeless, jobless youth, helping them resist and shun various extremist ideas.

The second core element in China’s counterterrorism experience is preventive education. China takes a comprehensive preventive approach to address extremism and radicalization through education, culture and other areas. After the launch of its reform and opening-up policy in 1978, China was confronted with increasing infiltration of separatists, religious radicalism and extremist elements from beyond its borders which resonated with preexisting ethnic conflicts and was coupled with the rich-poor divide brought about by the market economy.

In response to this dangerous trend, the Chinese government launched a policy to dial back extremism. This policy is a joint effort that includes civic education for students, legal and vocational education for the public and dialogue between various ethnic and religious groups. These measures are fundamentally for educational, rather than punitive, purposes and have effectively reversed the terrorist social environment in many places and enabled the rise of modern social governance.

For instance, several years ago in some areas of southern Xinjiang, girls traveling alone in fashion dresses would often face verbal harassment or even violent attacks by hooligans or extremists. Today, such practices have vanished and are unacceptable in these areas.

The third core element in China’s counterterrorism experience is mobilization of the people. With the heritage of “people’s war” in its tradition, China put a premium on mobilizing the masses to uncover and eradicate terrorist organizations. Being only a tiny fraction of society, the terrorists often resorted to incitement, kidnapping and hostage-taking to achieve their illegal goals. In the summer of 2017, more than 10,000 people from nine townships in Moyu county, a Uygur-dominated county in southern Xinjiang, voluntarily participated in the hunt for Abdur Rehman’s terrorist group.

In short, China’s practice of improving people’s livelihoods through development, eliminating radical ideologies through preventive means and conducting counterterrorism throughout society by means of “people’s war” not only helps to maintain stability, development and prosperity at home but also has curbed the spillover of terrorism to other countries. Although its policy is not flawless and its experience may not be replicable by other countries, China’s approach has been effective in containing the terrorist threat. In this regard, we need to discard bias and bigotry. China’s counterterrorism issues deserve a more fair and in-depth assessment.

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