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Sino-US Anti-terror Cooperation Needs to Transcend Prejudice and Misunderstanding

May 29 , 2014
  • Wang Zhen

    Director of Security Studies Program, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Another terrorist attack struck Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, on the morning of May 22, leaving 39 people dead and 94 injured as of this moment. This is the second terrorist attack in Urumqi in less than a month. No terrorist organization has so far claimed responsibility for the latest attack. Not long ago, the “Turkistan Islamic Party”, active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, released a video clip claiming responsibility for the attack at the Urumqi railway station on April 30. Chinese police authorities have also confirmed that the prime culprit in the April 30 attack, Ismail Yusup, is a member of the “Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)”, and issued an arrest warrant via Interpol. [①] In fact, these have only been the two most serious terrorist attacks in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Shortly before them, there had been similar attacks in Beijing, Kunming, and Aksu of Xinjiang. Such terrorist attacks have largely confirmed the Chinese government’s allegations of terrorist crimes by the ETIM. 

In recent years, many Chinese have criticized United States anti-terror policies, whereas many Americans disparage Chinese anti-terror policies. Such criticism not only reflects the two parties’ disagreements on the fight against terrorism, but also embodies their perception gap, even prejudices, regarding terrorism. Such divergences exist in different definitions of terrorism. Although the Chinese government and scholars do not support US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have never criticized the US’ fight against terrorism. Their criticism has concentrated on the approach to the war on terror, such as unilateralism and unwarranted expansion of anti-terror initiatives. On the one hand, the Chinese believed it was the US government’s own internal affair; on the other hand, China basically agreed with the US on the main features of terrorism, such as its political nature, violence, harm to innocent civilians, and sensational effects. 

However, the US doesn’t accept China’s definition of terrorism. Such disagreement has resulted in the US government’s unwillingness to label violence in China as terrorist activities, which the Chinese authorities and public have perceived as an out-and-out “double standard”, and an embodiment of the US’ egoist diplomacy. The US’ reluctance to acknowledge the terrorist nature of some violent crimes in China is in sharp contrast with the Chinese authorities’ unequivocal attitude in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the Boston marathon attack. One angry Chinese netizen wrote: “If you call the March 1 incident in Kunming a ‘horrible and senseless act of violence,’ then the 9/11 attacks in New York would be ‘regrettable traffic accidents’!” In fact, Chinese legislative authorities standardized the definition of terrorism by law in 2011. Even prior to that, anti-terror documents issued in China had reached beyond terrorism per se, highlighting the need to differentiate extremism, separatism, and terrorism. This is all evidence that China doesn’t want to confuse terrorism with the political separatism and ideological extremism. Of course, such differentiation may lack operability in law enforcement. For example, what is extremism? It is usually very difficult to make distinctions in law enforcement. But at least it shows that China has been trying to make distinctions. 

The two parties have also disagreed on the origin of terrorism in China. American scholars and media tend to believe that terrorism in China derived from national and religious “suppression”. But the Chinese government and most scholars don’t agree. These Chinese scholars argue that there are more than 50 nationalities in China, and most of the world’s religions can be found in China, yet terrorist activities have only been related to an extremely small number of ethnic groups in Xinjiang, so the theory of national and religious “suppression” is obviously untenable. In mid-March, shortly after the March 1 attack in Kunming, this author visited Kashgar at the local government’s invitation. Kashgar is located in the southern part of Xinjiang, where Uygurs concentrate. I discussed population and unemployment problems in southern Xinjiang with local friends on multiple occasions. But nobody associated such issues with suppression. Since the inception of family planning policies in China in the late 1970s, each ethnic Han couple living in cities in Xinjiang has only been allowed to give birth to only one child, yet ethnic minorities, including the Uygurs, in Xinjiang’s cities have been allowed to have at least two children, and rural residents can have even more. As long as one takes a look at the price tag of the fines for having a child that is considered “outside the plan”, one will know how costly it has been to have an additional child in China over the past decade. In reality, out of the Chinese government’s concerns about ethnic relations, family planning policies have never been thoroughly implemented in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, Xinjiang included. In rural areas, many couples have had three or four children. However, such a relaxation of policy in minority areas has brewed new social problems. Bigger family sizes have distracted families from their children’s education, creating the present trouble of youth joblessness in southern Xinjiang. Take religion as another example, there are around 13.7 million Muslims and 24,300 mosques in Xinjiang. [②] There is one mosque for every 560 Muslims. More than 4,000 of the existing mosques were built in the past 30 years. The buildings of some major mosques, the ID Kah Mosque in Kashgar, for instance, have been renovated and expanded with funds from local governments. In comparison, Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population (about 207 million, 13 percent of the world total), has only 239,497 mosques, with one mosque for every 864 people.[③] Simply attributing terrorism in China to national and religious policies has obviously ignored such basic facts. It is thus neither accurate, nor appropriate. 

The origin of terrorism in China is a more complex question that entails discussion in another article. However, such ostensible prejudices and misunderstandings have resulted in persistent discord between China and the US in recent years in their cooperation on the fight against terror, preventing the two parties from deepening cooperation, and even from promoting international anti-terror collaboration on higher levels. What I want to emphasize here is that terrorism in China is no longer the simple problem of purely political, national separatism. It is no different from the terrorism facing the US. The terrorist activities targeted at both countries share the same anti-modernization, anti-secularization, anti-society features. They are an integral part of the global Islamic Jihad movement, which pursues an extremist religious commonwealth that transcends national and ethnic boundaries. We must acknowledge that, although we have defeated al-Qaeda, killed such terrorist leaders as Bin Laden and Hasan Mahsum in the global war on terror in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we are far from winning the war, and terrorists are still capable of launching attacks against us from different locations in the world. Neither the US, nor China has emerged from this war on terror as a “winner.”[④] In the face of the international terrorist organizations’ threats to the international community, China and the US need to assume responsibilities, and join hands in a new round of cooperation. Now is the time for China and the US to begin a new chapter of anti-terror cooperation. Future Sino-US anti-terror collaboration calls for us to begin with overcoming the afore-mentioned prejudices and misgivings. The two countries must work hard to enhance strategic mutual trust, continuously expand common interests and consensus in the fight against terrorism, and join hands in the exploration for a new approach to fighting terror. Otherwise, we will miss another opportunity for anti-terror collaboration in a new decade. In an era of globalization when interdependence is continuously deepening, it is difficult to imagine that any country could stay immune as terrorism goes global. 

Dr. Wang Zhen is Associate Professor at the Institute of China Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, and Council Member of the ShanghaiCenter for Anti-terrorism Studies.

[①] Qiu Yongzheng: “ETIM Claims Responsibility for Terror at Xinjiang Rail Station, China Responds”, Global Times, May 15, 2014.

[②] State Council Information Office White Paper: “Development and Progress in Xinjiang”, People’s Press, Beijing, 2009.

[③] (May 20, 2014)

[④] Leon T. Hadar, “The War on Terrorism Ends, and the Winner Is… China,” The Huffington Post, November 9, 2009.

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