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  • Oct 29, 2014
  • Updated: 8:49am
CommentInsight & Opinion

America's double standards on terrorism

Zhou Zunyou says fair and equal treatment by the US government in defining acts of terrorism at home and abroad would help it forge allies in the global campaign to combat the violence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 3:44am

At the end of 2013, terrorist violence befell both China and Russia. On December 30, nine assailants armed with knives and homemade explosives attacked a police station in Yarkand, a county administered by Kashgar prefecture in Xinjiang . During the clash, eight attackers were shot dead; one was captured.

Also on December 30, a suicide bombing occurred on a crowded trolleybus in the city of Volgograd in southern Russia, a day after a suicide bomber launched an attack at the city's main train station. The two attacks killed 34 people and injured many more.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, President Xi Jinping extended his condolences to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Plagued by Islamic terrorists fighting for ethnic independence, China and Russia have common interests in combating terrorism within the framework of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.

The US also immediately showed its solidarity with Russia, but the message of solidarity was not sent from President Barack Obama. Instead, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf condemned the terrorist attacks in Volgograd "in the strongest terms" during a daily press briefing.

US double standards on terrorism point to an awkward mindset among American politicians

However, when asked about the latest attack in Xinjiang, Harf refused to label that attack as terrorism. Instead, she called on the Chinese government to "permit its citizens to express their grievances freely, publicly, peacefully and without fear of retribution".

So, just what does constitute an act of terrorism in US eyes? Up to now, the international community has failed to agree on a single definition. Terrorism is even defined differently within different US government departments, such as the State Department, the FBI, and the departments of homeland security and defence.

In order to understand America's position on terrorist attacks in foreign countries, it's necessary to look at the definition used by the State Department. According to this agency, "terrorism" refers to "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents". In particular, the term "non-combatant targets" is interpreted to include both civilians and military personnel who are not deployed in a war zone or a war-like setting.

For the State Department, terrorism is perpetrated by non-state entities, involves the premeditated use of violence, is committed against non-combatant targets, and has political aims. Given these four requirements, the Xinjiang attack cannot be categorised as terrorism, because it targeted police officers rather than so-called "non-combatants".

But, if this definition is used to evaluate the jeep crash in Tiananmen Square last October that killed five people, including the three attackers, and injured 40, there will be a different conclusion.

This incident satisfies all four requirements: it was carried out by a group of Uygurs; it involved a premeditated suicide explosion of an SUV; it targeted tourists at Tiananmen Square; and the flag that was found in the SUV calling for "jihad" indicated a political aim.

And while the US government declined to designate the Beijing incident as terrorism, it reacted quickly to call the Boston Marathon bombings in April that left three people dead and more than 200 others wounded "an act of terrorism".

The jeep crash and explosion in Beijing was remarkably similar in nature to the Boston bombings and undoubtedly met the State Department's definition of terrorism. So, if the US had applied the same standards for both cases, it could have labelled the Beijing incident a terrorist attack. The American use of double standards on terrorism has been drawing strong criticism from Chinese authorities and the media.

At the December 30 press briefing, when asked to comment on accusations of double standards in the case of the Beijing incident, Harf said: "We don't just jump to conclusions or call things by a certain name if we haven't gathered all the facts ourselves."

This is clearly a shoddy excuse. When declaring the Boston incident a terrorist act, Obama admitted knowing nothing about who had carried out the bombings. And when Washington identified the attacks in Volgograd as terrorism, the identities of the bombers were not known.

In previous years, the US often displayed sympathy for Islamic terrorists in Chechnya. Its solidarity with Russia this time seems to be a change of policy. One possible reason may be that the terrorism in Russia has caused considerable pain to the US, as demonstrated by the fact that the two brothers accused of the Boston bombings were ethnic Chechens.

US double standards on terrorism point to an awkward mindset among American politicians: political violence may be called terrorism only if it is perpetrated by those they do not like.

Terrorism is a crime against humanity. Counterterrorism requires effective international co-operation. For the sake of global anti-terrorist campaigns, the US must stop this unwelcome practice.

Zhou Zunyou, head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, is working on a research project on counterterrorism legislation


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This article is now closed to comments

The Boston bombing wasn't "terrorism"; it was an act of desperation. In fact, what the U.S. calls "terrorism" on its soil is an expression of grievances.
Professor Zhou uses faulty reasoning in his argument. Unlike in the case of the Boston bombings, where police provided details of what happened about the investigation, in China, the government offered no proof or evidence to support it's claim. The incident certainly doesn't satisfy the four requirements Professor Zhou lists. It was not proven to be carried out by a "group of Uyghurs." There was one man, his wife and mother. China has provided no proof that others were involved or that it was premeditated. There are indications the attack may have been due to personal frustrations. It was not an explosion of an SUV, and the gas that was set on fire only killed the occupants of the car, although several pedestrians were killed by the car. While the police say a flag was found, they never exhibited it, and there certainly is no proof that the flag indicated anything about a jihad or a political aim. This information is purely the imagination of Prof. Zhou. If China had a history of telling the facts about such incidents, there would likely be more people willing to accept its claims.
"The American use of double standards on terrorism has been drawing strong criticism from Chinese authorities and the media." I'd also like to hear Professor Zhou explain the difference between 'the media' and the 'Chinese authorities'.
@ andreaswagoner:
Volgograd is a integral part of Russia as Xinjiang is not a part of China? Strictly speaking, there are no such thing as an integral part, anywhere. There are only conquered territory in the process of state-building. The difference is longer or shorter in duration and the assimilation to the center stronger or weaker. All relative terms.
Is Alabama an integral part of the United States. I, for one, see the American South (Alabama, Mississippii, Georgia, etc.) as legitimately belonging to the Confederacy to be a credible claim. They could be seen as occupied territory as a result of the US Civil War in 1865. Before 1783, every US colony was British territory.
In contrast, Qing China set up direct rule in Xinjiang (the Yili governorate) in 1762, 100 years earlier than the US South being forcibly annexed by the Union.
Interesting article but it all boils down to one thing - the lack of independently verifiable information about attacks in China's far West. Disappointing a scholar would so unquestioningly believe what he or she reads but then again not surprising. Scholarship with Chinese characteristics.
I agree. Professor Zhou completely accepts the government claims about this incident. But what proof do we have? The scene was immediately closed off so no one could see the investigation and no evidence has been provided to prove government arguments that this was a terrorist act. There was a bombing in Taiyuan weeks later by a Han Chinese, but Beijing never called it a terrorist act? Why the double standard by the Chinese Communist Party?
You need to be more specific than such sweeping generalization to convince readers that the issue is lack of transparency, not US double standards. But again your stance is hardly surprising, as double-standard is a central characteristics of western scholarship.
US double standards is nothing new and are certainly not limited to definition of "terrorism." I sympathise with all grievance-inspired retributions to the extent their demands have nothing to do with greed and are not excessive. But the resuls are always deplorable. Is Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary for Pearl Harbour? I think not.
Political visionaries like Bin Laden doubtless have led to the injury and death of non-combatants. But if US security forces killed innocent people as a direct result of their attacks, it is usually called collateral damage, never terroism.
That said, I support a certain degree of racial and ethnic profiling, which is understandable (crime rates and violence levels are vastly different among different racial and ethnic groups) and widely practiced in the US. But if China police do the same thing in Xinjiang targeting the uyghurs, they are called ethnic/racial repression.
For the Americans, it is perfectly alright to exploit the land, labor, raw material, and natural resouces in China and other developing nations through direct investment and then import the cheap products for US consumption, causing massive polution and resources depletion there. However, if China's meat-processing titan Shuanghui goes to the US to acquire Smithfield Foods for US$ 7 billion, they question "why should Americans use US water and land, risking polution and damage, to raise hogs and feed the Chinese?"
Volgograd is an integral part of Russia, whereas East-Turkestan is a by China occupied territory, where resistance movements fight the regime that occupies their country. Just like France and The Netherlands had resistance movements that were fighting the German invaders in WWII.
No double standards, but a totally different situation.
China's regime can fool their own people, but not the international community.
Looks like someone needs a good geography and history lesson....Xinjiang was "integrated" into the Qing dynasty before the American independence,,,,




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