China’s Post 9/11 Terrorism Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 8

The September 11 terrorist attack on the US inevitably had a strong impact on China, both in terms of its domestic politics and its foreign policy initiatives. In a way, Beijing’s smooth policy adjustments have allowed China to achieve many unexpected gains.

The Roots of Terrorism in China

China has not been free from transnational terrorist acts, with some Chinese minorities spurred into armed protest against the central government by ethnic separatism, Islamic fundamentalism and al-Qaeda’s networks. In China’s northwest provinces, especially in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, insurgents for Xinjiang independence (Jiangdu) have launched successive attacks to destabilize Chinese rule since the late 1980s. From the very beginning they sought international financial and military support; this during a time when al-Qaeda was trying to expand its influence in the region. Jiangdu (Xinjiang independence) and al-Qaeda shared similar political motivation and ideological orientation. The over 100 million Muslims in China, many of whom maintain strained relations with central authorities whose chauvinist tendency in the past planted seeds of discontent among minorities, proved a major attraction to bin Laden and his terrorist networks. The confluence of al-Qaeda and the ethnic independence fighters within China was natural to some extent. Indeed, Jiangdu insurgents later became an integral component of terrorist networks throughout Central Asia.

According to the Chinese characterization, terrorism in China had matured long before the 9/11 tragedy, with February 5, 1997 marking the beginning of active terrorism in the country. These activities have three separate yet interrelated dimensions. First, the insurgent movement has a well-defined political program, aimed at achieving independence through ethnic struggle. More concretely, this program contains a mixture of ideas including the Pan-Turkic movement that spread to Xinjiang at the beginning of the last century. In the 1930s, when Xinjiang was at the height of turmoil, the Uighurs established an East Turkistan Islamic Republic. Although it existed for only three months, its legacy died hard. In the early 1980s, the spirit of independence based on Turkish ethnicity was rekindled, inspiring many Uighurs who resented Chinese domination of local affairs. Ethnic self-determination works in tandem with Pan-Turkism as another motivating factor. Under the banner of human rights and equality, the dissidents use both peaceful means of lobbying in the international arena and violent means by way of protest within China. The movement has generated sympathy from a range of Uighur communities in remote Xinjiang.

Second, Jiangdu activists have built base networks both at home and abroad, with extensive foreign connections revolving around three centers of activity, each of them interconnected: Activists launch anti-China campaigns under the name of promoting human rights and ethnic equality in the West. Dozens of Islamic organizations comprised of Chinese exiles were legally registered in Central Asia during the mid-1990s, such as the East Turkistan Liberation Movement in Kazakhstan. Although most of them were later outlawed, they continued to engage in covert operations that pose a security threat to Beijing. The third center used to be in Afghanistan, where Xinjiang insurgents received indoctrination and military training from Al-Qaeda. One Chinese source revealed that more than 50 known terrorist organizations existed in Central Asia, and that more than 500 Xinjiang insurgents had been trained in Afghanistan. The insurgents were directly behind the February 5 incident in Yili. Trainees returning from Afghanistan established bases in Xinjiang and taught hundreds more how to make and use bombs, according to the source.

The third dimension of Xinjiang terrorism is the level of popular response to the call made by separatists from various ethnic groups. Han Chinese are the minority in Xinjiang (38.6 percent of the 18 million provincial population in 1998), a region historically at odds with the central Chinese authority. Perceived inequality and religious conflict have caused tensions between the indigenous residents and the Han cadres. These tensions have only been contained through tight political control, leading some ethnic groups to resort to extreme means. Any incident, such as a riot, presents the potential for many people to participate as a way of expressing a variety of grievances.

In sum, terrorism in Xinjiang is deeply rooted and takes the form of violent struggle for independence, with armed insurgent activities serving as the chief mechanism for promoting the cause; religious fundamentalism serving as the main source of inspiration; and foreign support serving as the driver that deepens the struggle.

China’s Post-9/11 Effort against Terrorism

In July 1999, Jiang Zemin, gave shape to China’s anti-terrorist policy in order to address his growing concern over the spread of separatism across the borders from Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Asia to Xinjiang and Tibet. The policy had two components prior to 9/11. The first was a preventative strategy, emphasizing tough measures against insurgents at home. Internationally, China tried to enhance cooperation with its neighbors to better position itself in a struggle against terrorism. China took the initiative to propose to the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) that a joint anti-terrorist center be established for exchanging intelligence, training special anti-terrorist troops and tightening border control. Inside China, the local governments were put on a higher level of alert. Military preparedness was strengthened to deal with any insurgent activities. And a mass informant system was also created to monitor suspects.

The second component was a policy guideline of minimum contact with Afghanistan until September 11, 2001. The aim of this effort was to contain Xinjiang terrorists through influencing their chief supporters. In the early 1980s, China maintained ties with anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, some of whom were the central figures of the Taliban. However, in April 1993 China terminated its diplomatic office in Kabul and was thus deprived of any useful channels of communication with the old contacts. Limited contact with the Afghan government was designed to let the Taliban rein in the Jiangdu fighters who were dependent on bin Laden for financial and military assistance. Understanding that a regime change in Afghanistan would not come easily, China maintained some communication with the Taliban for its own purposes, while exploiting Beijing’s strategic relation with Pakistan for the endeavor.

However, the 9/11 attack provided an opportunity for China to resolve the insurgent problem much more firmly than in the past. Beijing tried to squeeze Jiangdu by joining the international coalition against terrorism led by the US. Limited contact with Afghanistan suddenly became not only unreliable but a potential liability vis-à-vis the West.

Jiang was among the first state leaders to telephone Bush expressing China’s deep shock and sympathy to the American people. Beijing also took concrete measures to support the US counter-attack on terrorism. Immediately after 9/11, China sent a team of 32 anti-terrorist experts to the US, unconditionally providing intelligence about the Taliban. It closed Sino-Afghan and Sino-Pakistan borders to prevent bin Laden and his followers from fleeing into China. It persuaded Pakistan and some Central Asian countries to adopt a cooperative response to US requests for help. It promoted further cooperation against terrorism among the Shanghai Group of Six through institution-building and joint military exercises. All this was done in opposition to China’s usual stance on national sovereignty and non-interference with another country’s internal affairs.

At the home front, Chinese leadership took a number of measures to step up the anti-terrorist campaign. Immediately after the 9/11 tragedy Beijing set up a top office coordinating all matters related to the war against terror, an anti-terrorist research center in the Ministry of State Security, and a number of special anti-terrorist fast response units in sensitive cities and regions. In Beijing and Shanghai, closed-door workshops sponsored by various state agencies were organized with such intensity that many researchers had to hurry to attend one after another in the same day. They were required to provide policy recommendations to the top leadership.

In Xinjiang, a three-month clampdown campaign was launched in mid-October 2001 to chase insurgents and smash their networks. By the end of November the same year, 20 bases were destroyed and over 250 arrests were made among whom at least one hundred were said to have received training in Afghanistan. China claimed that Xinjiang insurgents assisted terrorists in Russia, Central Asia and Afghanistan. To eliminate them amounted to a major contribution to the US-led coalition against terrorism. In his visit to Turkey former Premier Zhou Rongji informed his hosts that many Xinjiang insurgents fled to Turkey either from China or from Afghanistan, and they intended to use Turkey as the replacement of Afghanistan. Zhou proposed measures of cooperation in combating these terrorists with the Turkish government.

There is no doubt that China has taken advantage of the world campaign against terror in order to serve its domestic politics and foreign pursuits. For the first time, China felt unconstrained in using force to eliminate the very source of insurgence on its borders. This would not have been possible without the US initiative of coalition building. From almost all angles the benefits of participation in the coalition outweigh any possible backlashes. On the one hand, China’s options were limited given Bush’s statement: “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” On the other, the opportunity of giving Xinjiang insurgents a fatal blow was unprecedented. In responding to the call of the US positively, the Chinese leadership quickly formulated the strategy that served its best interests.

In sum, 9/11 has brought about a complicated international situation for China. There are short-term gains and long-term uncertainties. Nor can the impact of these changes be adequately assessed at present, as new developments are still unfolding. However, it is safe to say that China’s relations with the Americans, Russians, Japanese and Indians are experiencing drastic change. To the Chinese, opportunities and challenges exist at the same time. Whether it can handle them will influence regional security, not only with regard to China’s goals in Xinjiang, but with the war on terror more broadly.