The Language of Terrorism in China: Balancing Foreign and Domestic Policy Imperatives

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1

In late October, central Beijing tasted terror when a flaming SUV rammed a crowd of tourists at the city’s iconic Tiananmen gate, killing the three alleged perpetrators and two bystanders. Authorities were quick to label the attack an act of jihadist terror.

The ensuing media commentary and controversy prompted questions around how terrorism is defined—and how terror incidents are framed—by Chinese authorities. Were the perpetrators of the attack radicalized Uighur Islamist insurgents or were they just normal folk marginalized and driven to extreme measures by an arbitrary and belligerent state?

Ultimately, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), an extremist group with purported links to al-Qaeda, praised the attack in a speech given by its leader posted online—a move that seemingly vindicated official finger pointing. While this perpetuates Beijing’s narrative of China as victim of international terrorism, it takes the focus away from a more inconvenient truth. Self-immolation, bombings and other indiscriminate attacks have abounded in China in recent years, and most have been carried out by citizens with no known terrorist, separatist or ethnic minority links. Yet as frequent as these attacks are, the use of “terrorism” to describe them in official media reportage has been noticeably absent.

Contemporary official language about terrorism and terrorist-like attacks serves different, and sometimes contradictory, purposes with different audiences:

  1. In the international sphere, it serves to legitimate Chinese policies toward restive ethnic groups such as Uighurs and Tibetans as part of the “Global War on Terror.”
  2. In Han-majority China, it serves to draw a line between the grievances of ethnic minorities and those expressed with similar forms of violence by Han petitioners.
  3. In propaganda directed at members of ethnic minorities, it aims to cast the perpetrators of attacks as foreign and exclude the possibility of their representing a wider ethnic community. In particular, Chinese official language must walk a tightrope, warning of violence from Uighur separatists while casting Uighurs and their land as an integral part of China.

The International Community: Foreign Policy Imperatives See China Cast as Victim of Global Terror

Amid Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening policies, the 1980s saw an increase in separatist violence in Xinjiang. By all accounts, the 1990s was a particularly violent decade, punctuated by a string of deadly clashes between Uighur insurgents and authorities. Yet it was only late in the decade that Beijing ultimately made the decision to start referring to separatist violence as terrorism.

You Ji, writing for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief in 2004, commented that according to the Chinese characterization, the Ghulja incident of February 5, 1997 marked “the beginning of active terrorism in the country” (China Brief, November 5, 2004). Prior to this, ethnic and separatist violence in China had been referred to as separatist or “splittist” activity, and punishable under criminal law as “counter-revolutionary” crime or crime against the state.

Precipitating this change was China’s push to dominate the Central Asia regional security agenda with the establishment of the Shanghai Five in 1996. Both China and Russia had envisaged the grouping as a multilateral mechanism for countering growing bilateral sway of the United States with governments within the region. An effective regional security structure might fill the void left by Soviet disintegration and provide the region’s fledgling states with an attractive alternative to U.S. hegemony.

Although practical anti-terrorism cooperation was slow to develop, Beijing moved quickly to have its concept of the “three evil forces” (sange shili) of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” adopted as the focus of counterterrorism policy for the Shanghai Five and its successor, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Reframing as a regional issue what it had hitherto described as an internal matter was a major switch in rhetoric for Beijing.

Then came the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. In a message to President George W. Bush on September 11, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin condemned the attacks, pledging cooperation to combat terrorism. Pointing to the training of Uighur insurgents by the Taliban, the Chinese foreign ministry stated that, “the fight against separatists in Xinjiang is part of the fight by the world against terrorism.” Beijing declared its support for U.S. retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan, and the United States in turn acceded to Beijing’s request to classify a handful of Uighur organizations as terrorist groups (The Hindu, November 16, 2001).

Despite this, it was not until at least two years after 9/11 that China initiated the SCO’s first active anti-terrorism initiatives. Using this timeline—and the lack of significant practical cooperation between Beijing and Washington—as a guide, it would appear that not even 9/11 itself had the effect of energizing China’s anti-terrorism efforts beyond symbolic posturing. China’s ostensible support for the United Sates appeared driven by key foreign policy goals: (i) to thwart international criticism over human rights issues in Xinjiang and (ii) to establish security-based leadership credentials within its Central Asian neighborhood.

Beijing’s employment of the term “terrorism” in relation to Uighur violence had increased commensurate with its efforts to externalize or internationalize what it had hitherto insisted were internal matters. Whatever foreign links Uighur or other ethnic minorities have, Beijing has done its best to embellish the foreign connection or influence. The problem thus shifts from being one of disaffected domestic actors to one of unscrupulous foreigners who influence or coerce locals to do bad.

To-date, China lacks comprehensive anti-terrorism legislation, with terrorism defined in Chinese law only as recently as October 29, 2011, when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed the Decision on Issues Related to Strengthening Anti-Terrorism Work (Xinhua, October 29, 2011). This new definition addressed the lack of clear definition in domestic law, which had hampered international cooperation in anti-terrorism efforts (Library of Congress, April 11, 2011). Consistent with the proposed (and still hotly debated) UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, the definition avoided reference to political, religious or ethnic motivations, apart from mentioning that terrorist activities possess “the goal of creating terror in society, endangering public security, or threatening state organs and international organizations.” As detailed below, this departed significantly from domestic Chinese discourse, which heavily emphasizes terrorism’s political motivations.

The Chinese People: Distinguishing Between Terrorism and Terror

In recent years China has experienced an upsurge in suicide attacks involving the sometimes indiscriminate killing of bystanders. They are perpetuated far from China’s restive borders in cities along the country’s eastern seaboard by individuals driven to desperation over their dealings with the country’s arbitrary and often corrupt bureaucratic and legal systems.

A July 27 People’s Daily interview with Wu Boxin, a professor at the Chinese People’s Public Security University and renowned criminal psychologist, picks up on the theme of “individual terrorism” (People’s Daily, July 27, 2013). In this interview, Wu distinguished between individual or “lone wolf” terrorism (geren kongbuzhuyi) and what he refers to as “individual suicidal terror crime” (geti zisha kongbu fanzui).

Exploring examples of individual suicidal terror crime, Wu cites two well-known 2013 incidents, a small fraction of the growing overall number. The first involved itinerant worker Chen Shuizong, who set himself on fire in a public bus in the coastal city of Xiamen in June, killing a staggering 47 commuters and injuring 34. The second featured frustrated petitioner Ji Zhongxing, who in July, having been left paralyzed as the alleged result of a bashing by over-zealous security guards in his home province, detonated a homemade bomb in Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3, causing injuries only to himself and a police officer. Among China’s netizens, these attacks have elicited both condemnation and, ironically, unprecedented levels of sympathy.

Wu classes these attacks as “individual suicidal terror crime,” as apposed to “lone wolf terrorism.” According to Wu, the former is non-organized and motivated by personal issues, whereas the latter is part of something organized and often motivated by matters of religion or belief. Following this distinction, the Tian’anmen SUV incident might be classed as “individual terrorism,” given its alleged jihadist links. Accordingly, anything to do with Uighurs or Tibetans could be called “terrorism” while anything else is a “terror crime.” This is a subtle, yet important, definitional distinction that appears to be reflected in reportage by China’s state media broadly.

Self-immolation is often described within Chinese social chatter as a form of terrorism. Among Chinese blog sites there are abundant references to self-immolations and explosives and knife attacks carried out by crazed individuals as “one man’s terror” or “one man’s terrorism” (yigerende kongbu/kongbuzhuyi). However, apart from reportage on foreign incidents, such as the 2011 Norway attacks, the use of the expression in official media in reference to domestic incidents is rare (obscure mentions in reporting on a 2005 Fuzhou bus torching and the Beijing International Airport terminal incident being exceptions).

Official media appears to reserve the label of “terrorism” to self-immolations by individuals where they are seen as politically motivated and connected with an identified dissident/splittist organization, such as the “Dalai clique,” Falun Gong, or Uighur independence groups. A February 18 People’s Daily editorial slamming Tibetan self-immolations categorizes such incidents as a type of terrorism due to their political purpose, use of violence and the havoc they wreak. According to Chien-peng Chung, the term “terrorist” is usually reserved for separatist and unofficial religious groups in Xinjiang and Tibet (China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 4, No. 2, 2006). This is the case, writes Chung, because Beijing sees terrorism as a “zealous religiosity on the part of minorities that threaten to displace the state as an object of adulation.”

The Uighurs of Xinjiang: Foreign Terror Versus Local Beauty

The blaming of whole ethnic groups or religions for the violent acts of individuals or organizations is a social phenomenon found the world over. China is by no means an exception. Yet as Beijing seeks to put terrorism in a conceptual quarantine by associating it exclusively with ethnic and religious minorities, it simultaneously needs to describe Uighurs and the territory of Xinjiang as integral to the Chinese nation.

According to state media, separatism has always been driven by foreign influence and, in particular, by religious extremism. By these accounts, the early 20th century had seen Uighur separatists absorb pan-Islamism, and then late in the century Afghanistan was identified as the source of religious extremism flowing into Xinjiang (Guoqing, July 1, 2013). More recently, reports of separatist forces attempting to sneak into Xinjiang following involvement in the Syrian War have led to calls for tighter policing of borders.

According to the logic of the “three evil forces” model, religious extremism stirs up separatist sentiment, which, in turn, manifests as terrorist insurgency. Religious extremism, is defined in a recent Xinjiang Daily report as “a product of religious transformation” involving the “politicization of religion” (Xinjiang Daily, November 24, 2013). Extremism is thus characterized as an anti-religious force, and in convincing adherents to do bad (i) in the name of religion and (ii) in the furthering of a political cause, it is singled out as the root cause of terrorism.

State media editorial lines assert that religious extremism and its activities “confuses and wins people over with simple religious sentiment so that they are led astray and ultimately down the path of violence and terrorism” (Xinjiang Daily, November 24, 2013). The three evil forces “confuse” (gaoluan/guhuo) the population, exploiting “extreme religious superstition and ignorance” and praying on the youth and those most vulnerable to radicalization (People’s Daily, July 1, 2013).

Identified by the state as a foreign force, religious extremism is cast as not only anti-religious but, importantly, “anti-Uighur”—a point demonstrated by a July 16, 2013 Xinjiang Daily article titled “Who would want to conceal the beauty of Uighur sisters?” In this piece, a perceived increase in Uighur women wearing black veils and robes and men growing long beards is linked to radically conservative practices from the Arab world. These practices, it is argued, are foreign and irreconcilable with Uighur culture. “Our ancestors never wore black veils and never walked in black robes, and our young handsome men never kept long beards”, writes the article’s author, Xinjiang Normal University Professor Mambet Turdi. He continues, “black makes people feel frustrated and gloomy, it undermines the will of the people, reduces people’s passion for life, and can even make a breastfeeding baby feel psychological fear.”

Reports indicate that local authorities have set up posts in neighborhoods to monitor the wearing of religious headdress and to encourage women to cease the practice. Concurrently, beauty contests titled “Project Beauty” have been staged throughout the autonomous region, which, according to journalist Palash Ghosh, are designed to highlight the attractiveness of women’s “uncovered faces” (International Business Times, November 27, 2013).

Facing off against the three evil forces are propaganda and educational activities promoting the “four identities” and “three inseparables.” According to the Xinjiang education department, the four identities refer to “identification with the motherland, the Chinese nation’s identity, the identity of the Chinese culture, and the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The three inseparables refer to “the Han nationality as inseparable from the ethnic minorities, ethnic minorities as inseparable from the Han nationality, and ethnic minorities as inseparable from each other” (Liu Yabei, September 30, 2011).

Combating extremist tendencies thus involves appeals to the Uighur identity, the demonization of non-Uighur Islamic influences and an emphasis on national unity. Education reinforcing state sanctioned views of cultural identity, argues Professor Turdi, equips youth with the ability to say, “I am Chinese, I am Uygur, I am not an Arab” (Xinjiang Daily, July 16, 2013).


While acknowledging the existence in China of terrorism, official discourse maintains that the forces behind terrorism are exotic to China and its ethnic minorities. Although conceding that minorities such as Uighurs and Tibetans are particularly vulnerable to such forces, they are presented as mere pawns in foreign conspiracies to split the Chinese state.

More potentially problematic to official discourse has been the rise of terror crimes perpetrated by Han Chinese within China’s geopolitical heartlands. Their “non-political,” non-coordinated nature precludes them from being considered terrorist acts, despite the fact that their targets are invariably institutions of government—the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the Party.

Before 1997, “terrorism” as a word was an off-limits in China. Beijing’s acknowledgement of terrorism within its borders in that year was late in coming, and even then driven by foreign policy imperatives. Since then, terrorism has become a word of choice in characterizing any form of violence perpetrated by members of China’s Uighur and Tibetan ethnic minorities. Despite this, it is evident that terrorism remains a taboo word in relation to the increasingly frequent crimes of terror carried out by members of China’s majority Han nationality.

While Beijing has become comfortable in acknowledging terrorism within its ethnic peripheries where blame can be attributed to external forces, acknowledging terroristic tendencies among the laobaixing, or common Chinese people, remains just a little too close for comfort.