China must rally its people to win the war against terrorism

Zhou Zunyou says the Chinese government cannot win the fight against terrorism unless it rallies its people to the cause. To do this, it must be prepared to be more open with information

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2014, 4:28am

China appears to be plagued by terrorism. Tuesday's knife assault at Guangzhou Railway Station was only the latest in a spate of violence that has left many Chinese shaken.

Six people were injured in the assault, which came within a week of a major attack in Urumqi last Wednesday in which three people were killed, including the two suspects, and 79 others wounded. The two suspects in the Urumqi attack, who it was claimed had been involved in religious extremism for a long time, wielded knives and detonated bombs at the South Railway Station in the Xinjiang capital.

The attack happened just hours after President Xi Jinping concluded a four-day inspection tour of the region, a trip supposedly designed to promote the government's efforts to fight terrorism.

The Urumqi bombing was the third major terrorist act in China in six months. Last October, a jeep crash and explosion in Beijing killed five people, including the three attackers in the vehicle, and injured some 40 others. In March, knife-wielding assailants went on a rampage at a Kunming railway station that left 29 people dead and some 140 others injured.

All three deadly attacks had similar characteristics. Worryingly, the frequency and intensity of the violence in the past few months suggest an unsettling escalation of terrorist activities.

For the time being, the militants only seem able to deploy fairly crude weapons, such as long knives and home-made explosives. It would be a nightmare for Chinese leaders if these terrorists could one day get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, including the most dangerous weapons like nuclear ones.

In the aftermath of the Urumqi attack, China's official media immediately labelled it an act of terrorism and reported Xi's vow to take "decisive measures" to deter terrorists.

The quick response was probably to demonstrate that the government has adopted a high-profile strategy on terrorism to replace its previous low-key approach. As such, the Urumqi incident may be seen as a turning point in China's anti-terrorism strategy.

Chinese officials spoke little of terrorism before September 11, 2001. Even when they had to talk about it, they usually played down its real threat for fear of either affecting economic investment or internationalising their conflict with Uygur separatists who demand independence. After the September 11 attacks on the US, America's global "war on terrorism" prompted China to admit the existence of the problem and announce its resolve to combat it. Nevertheless, details about the extent of terrorism were kept secret.

Following the fatal riots in Urumqi in July 2009, the authorities displayed rare openness by inviting foreign journalists to the site of the unrest. In subsequent cases, however, the government resumed its deliberately low-profile strategy.

The terrorist attack that killed 21 people in Bachu county in April 2013, for example, was first reported in a short news release by a local news website, Tianshan. Although the Bachu attack was treated as a major news event by prominent international media, China's national - and therefore much more influential - media did nothing more than reprint the Tianshan news release.

The same strategy was also applied to the attacks in Beijing and Kunming.

After the Beijing attack, China's state-run media merely described it as a jeep crash "incident". The authorities declined to respond when speculation ran wild in overseas media that this was a terrorist attack. Only two days later did the Chinese government finally declare the jeep crash to be an act of terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kunming massacre, although top leaders attached great importance to the case, CCTV's evening news programme failed to mention the attack, as if nothing had happened; many other national media did not carry front-page stories on the bloodshed.

Chinese media have showed enormous enthusiasm for reporting terrorist incidents outside China, but have appeared uninterested in cases at home. This is a consequence of censorship; given the sensitive nature of ethnic and religious issues, Beijing prefers a low-profile strategy when dealing with terrorist incidents.

From a wider perspective, however, controlling media coverage of terrorism is detrimental to the fight against the scourge. Combating terrorism is a task for specialised security forces, but these forces alone cannot solve the problem. In this regard, the traditional Chinese strategy of a "people's war" is of great significance.

Terrorists live among the people and terrorism occurs in front of people's eyes. In order to combat terrorism more effectively, the government must rely on its people. If the people are ignorant of the truth, the government cannot build a strong line of defence. The fight against terrorism should be a high-profile war of the people - and that includes not only Han Chinese but also Uygur Chinese. Both ethnic groups are victims.

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