Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 8

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

The United States and its allies are opposed to terrorism. The Chinese, however, are opposed to “all forms of terrorism.” Or, as Chinese President Jiang Zemin put it in Beijing on returning from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai: “Terrorism should be cracked down upon, whenever and wherever it occurs, whoever organizes it, whoever is targeted and whatever forms it takes.”

What is the difference between the two approaches? Quite a bit. After all, the Chinese are past masters at definitions and nomenclatures, which could be used as rhetorical weapons-and more. To understand why it is in the Chinese leadership’s interests to broaden the definition and criteria regarding the global scourge, it is instructive to examine how Beijing is cracking down on antigovernment and secessionist groups, including the Falun Gong, under the omnibus banner of fighting terrorism.


A Communist party directive released earlier this month identified groups ranging from the Falun Gong spiritual movement to Uighur separatists in Xinjiang as terrorist organizations. Also fingered were violent “splittist” outfits among other ethnic minorities, as well as subversive and “unstable social elements” which are using weapons such as bombs against the authorities. A Chinese source close to the legal establishment said that, soon after the September 11 attacks on the United States, President Jiang and the party Politburo Standing Committee asked various departments to assess the danger of terrorism within China. Party and government units taking part in the appraisal included the Ministry of State Security, the police, army intelligence, the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and state religious authorities. The party directive, which was based on the findings and recommendations of these departments, said that central and regional cadres should lose no time in taking the most resolute action against these terrorist groupings.

The source said also that a number of Politburo members wanted to take advantage of the global antiterrorist campaign to exterminate internal opposition and secessionist forces. So far, cadres and the state media have not yet publicly called the Falun Gong, known officially as an “evil cult,” a terrorist organization. However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said at the time of the APEC meetings that a parcel containing a letter suspected to hold anthrax germs was mailed to a Chinese employee working in a China-based American company. The letter was, he said, inserted among the pages of a “propaganda book about the Falun Gong.”

Sun did not explicitly tie the suspected terrorist act to the Falun Gong, saying only that the incident was “receiving the high attention of the Chinese government.” Falun Gong spokesmen in Hong Kong and America, however, said that it was “ridiculous and ugly” for the Foreign Ministry to try to smear the group by implicitly linking it with anthrax attacks. Sun said earlier this week that exhaustive investigations found the letter to have contained no anthrax toxin.

Analysts say while the police have already used draconian methods against the Falun Gong, the latter’s identification as a “terrorist” unit might help Beijing justify additional tactics including financial weapons that had been approved by the global community. Moreover, this terrorist label might help shield Beijing from condemnation by both liberal intellectuals at home and foreign governments.


If Beijing has kept its new campaign against the Falun Gong under wraps, it has launched a high-profile crackdown against the Uighur separatists, now characterized as part of a global, “East Turkestan” terrorist movement.

The Central Military Commission has in the past fortnight continued to deploy more troops, including newly formed crack units, to western Xinjiang, which has the largest Uighur population. Earlier this week, Xinjiang party chief Wang Lequan said a “High-Pressure Strike Hard” campaign had been launched in the autonomous region to get rid of “core separatist elements as well as forces of religious extremism.” Equally important is the diplomatic offensive Beijing has mounted to preempt or blunt international-mainly American-criticism of its handling of terrorist and quasiterrorist groups, including Uighur secessionists and the Falun Gong.

At the APEC meetings in Shanghai, Chinese officials indicated that East Turkestan elements, including Uighur “splittists,” had been trained in the Afghan camps set up by Osama bin Laden. Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan added that the bin Laden group had even sent some of these East Turkestan firebrands to fight in Chechnya. Official Chinese media reported that during their meeting on the fringes of APEC last Saturday, Jiang and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed that “Chechnya and East Turkestan terrorist activities are part of international terrorism.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao added that the international community “should hold a uniform stance and consistent attitude in opposing and combating international terrorism.” Zhu’s words recalled those of another Foreign Ministry spokesman last month, to the effect that Western countries should not harbor “double standards” in the global fight against terrorism.


The message for America could not be clearer: If you want China to help fight terrorism associated with Islam extremism, do not criticize Beijing’s tough tactics against terrorist units in China.

An equally significant thrust of Beijing’s antiterrorist diplomacy is to widen and universalize the criteria and definition of terrorism. As the Foreign Ministry’s Zhu put it: “We think terrorism should be opposed no matter where it manifests itself, where it comes from-and no matter who the perpetrators and their targets are.” Or, as Jiang pointed out while meeting with Putin: “China is determined to counter all forms of terrorism, no matter where and when it takes place and no matter who it is targeting.” Beijing’s all-embracing approach was reflected in the APEC antiterrorist manifesto. It said APEC leaders condemned “murderous deeds as well as other terrorist acts in all forms and manifestations, committed wherever, whenever and by whomsoever.”

Analysts have said that such criteria could make it easier for Beijing to brand quite a variety of antigovernment or “splittist” groups as terrorist. And the APEC document-or at least Beijing’s interpretation of it-might be cited by the Chinese government to help justify whatever harsh means its law enforcement agencies would take against groups deemed to be “terrorist” in nature. Furthermore, once the “terrorist” nature of Xinjiang separatists and the Falun Gong is established, Beijing may feel it has the moral high ground to demand that countries-including the United States-not allow such groups to operate on their soil.

And it is precisely the question of whether Beijing is justified in using the full force of the army and police against Uighur separatists-only a minority of whom are known to have been trained in Afghanistan or to have used terrorist tactics-that Presidents Jiang and George W. Bush seemed to have the most differences. During his three-day stay in Shanghai, Bush spoke out repeatedly against countries using the antiterrorist campaign to target their ethnic minorities. “The war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities,” Bush said after his “mini-summit” with Jiang last Friday. At an APEC-sponsored speech a day later, Bush pointed out “ethnic minorities must know that their rights will be safeguarded-that their churches, temples and mosques belong to them.”

Chinese officials said later that Bush was simply stating a general principle and not criticizing China in particular. Foreign Minister Tang, however, took pains to defend Beijing’s record in Xinjiang, saying there was “no question” of Beijing suppressing the Uighurs. “We have the highest respect for ethnic minorities,” Tang said. Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, a former ambassador to the United States, added that China did require international help to combat these terrorists. “We need to cooperate with foreign countries to solve the problem of terrorism [in Xinjiang],” Li said in Shanghai.


Meanwhile, based largely on Washington’s need for Chinese acquiescence in the war in Afghanistan, American and Chinese officials achieved a considerable level of fencemending in Shanghai.

For Jiang, the biggest achievement of his “mini-summit” was that a framework of friendship and close consultation has been laid down. Jiang pointed out after the tete-a-tete with Bush that Beijing and Washington would strive to develop a “constructive, cooperative relationship.” In their joint press conference, Jiang said both sides would engage in “high-level strategic dialogues” to push forward cooperation in trade and international affairs. The Chinese supremo added that he and Bush had reached “a series of consensus” on fighting global terrorism and on maintaining world peace.

Bush praised China’s decision to be “side by side” with Americans in the antiterrorist campaign, particularly in areas such as the exchange of intelligence and freezing the terrorists’ finances. The American president also indicated that he was after a “candid, constructive and cooperative” relationship with China. This was quite a departure from the relationship of “strategic competition” that Bush had earlier this year characterized as bilateral ties. But Bush made no concessions in areas such as Taiwan or lifting sanctions on the export of high technology to China. In discussions with Jiang, Bush merely made a pro forma reiteration of Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy. And, at the press conference, Bush urged Beijing to “preserve regional stability” when dealing with Taiwan. He also hinted at the lack of progress in political reform in China, saying that “economic and political freedoms must go hand in hand.”

Diplomatic analysts in Shanghai and Beijing said both governments would need to work much harder to ensure that the momentum generated by joint antiterrorist efforts would remain substantial enough to render differences on Taiwan and other issues less of an impediment to ties. Many of them have suggested that the Sino-U.S. understanding on combating terrorism might erode if the military action in Afghanistan were to grow larger or spill into another country (such as Iraq).

Jiang has repeatedly warned that antiterrorist military actions by the United States and its allies must have “clearly defined targets” and that they must avoid hurting innocent civilians. The Chinese are also adamant that the UN be allowed to play a big role.

Soon after meeting Bush, Jiang scurried to beef up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-also known as the Shanghai Six-that consists of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. After talks with Putin, Jiang announced that the SCO would meet next year to confirm its charter of counterterrorism and fighting separatism within these countries.

Analysts indicated that Jiang was afraid that America had taken advantage of the war in Afghanistan to establish a foothold in Central Asia-China’s northwestern back-yard. This in turn would mean an exacerbation of Washington’s so-called “anti-China containment policy.” A pro-U.S. regime, for example, might be set up in Kabul. And the United States may be able to maintain quasi-military facilities in Uzbekistan for a long time. Chinese officials and academics have also pointed out an American foothold in Central Asia will threaten China’s “petroleum security,” or a reliable supply of petroleum to fuel the country’s ambitious industrialization program.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.