Tackling Homegrown Terrorism in China

By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist

Photo Credit: AFP, via BBC


In 2002, China first recognized its domestic terrorist threat from ethnic Uighur extremists in the northwest Xinjiang province. Since then, “terrorism” has been considered one of the “three evils”: terrorism, extremism, and separatism. Although it is difficult to quantify exactly how many Uighur terrorist attacks have occurred in China due to a lack of transparency and reporting, Western media reports note that there has been a downtick in the past few years. Yet despite these trends, in the past year China has increased its security investments in Xinjiang and adopted stringent counterterrorism and anti-extremism legislation.[i] This suggests that recent Chinese counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang are not aimed at eliminating Uighur extremism exclusively, but also focused on protecting China’s economic initiatives and maintaining Chinese Communist Party (CCP) socialist rule.

Counterterrorism/Anti-Extremism Measures in Xinjiang

Currently, China claims to face a “serious threat” from Uighur extremists. As a purported response to this increased threat, China has essentially turned Xinjiang into the beginnings of a police state. In 2016 alone, China has spent nearly $4.35 billion USD on security in Xinjiang, a 20% increase from the previous year.[ii] In accordance with the 2016 Xinjiang Anti-Extremism Regulation, CCP officials in the region conduct random ID checks, provide rewards for those who report on neighbors wearing religious headgear, and require all shops to have security cameras that stream live to the local police force. The local police force also runs “convenience police stations,” by which citizens are encouraged to report neighbors, charge their phones, and enjoy free tea.[iii] This is part of an overall effort to encourage citizens in the region to “hold each other accountable,” denounce “religious extremism,” and pledge their loyalties to the CCP.[iv]

Amongst Chinese media, headlines include “two-faced” teachers who are “caught spreading religious extremism” and CCP officials who are demoted for their ‘timidity’ in fighting religious extremism by refusing to smoke in front of religious officials.[v] Yet despite these frequent reports about incidences of extremism, Chinese media has not reported on any actual terrorist attacks. There are two reasons why this may be the case: either Uighur terrorist attacks in Xinjiang have decreased (as Western media reports), or the lack of reporting is a result of the 2015 Chinese Counterterrorism Law that prohibits Chinese citizens from spreading stories and information about terrorist attacks to minimize inspiring “lone-wolf” attacks.[vi] Regardless, the CCP claims that its ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang are based on “fresh developments” and intelligence that indicate there is a growing threat of terrorism in the region.[vii]


However, Western journalists in the region report that there has not been an increase in terrorist attacks or extremist activity in the past few years that would justify China’s sudden, massive investment in security in 2016.[viii] In fact, since 2014, there has been a significant downtick of terrorist activity in Xinjiang. Like most Chinese policy, this suggests that China’s motivations to combat homegrown terrorism are focused on its economic interests and domestic stability.

Economically, Xinjiang is a central location for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Announced in 2015, BRI invests in transportation and communications infrastructure across Northeast and Central Asia to increase trade and satiate China’s abundant labor and construction resources[ix]. Kashgar and Aksu, Xinjiang are both crucial cities for BRI. The Khunjerab railway, a high-altitude railway that would connect Pakistan and China, runs through Kashgar, and Aksu is a textile hub that produces most of China’s exported cotton.[x] These are also coincidentally the two cities in Xinjiang where the CCP has mobilized most of China’s paramilitary force and police in the region in the past year.[xi] This suggests there is an economic component to China’s increased security presence in Xinjiang.

The second and more fundamental reason for China’s strict counter terrorism efforts in Xinjiang is the CCP’s need to maintain public stability. While the Chinese Constitution specifically indicates the “freedom of religious belief”, it restricts this freedom by noting that “no one shall make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order.”[xii] This regulation is in line with CCP practice that values internal stability above all else, and creates precedence to constrain all other laws and regulations to public order considerations.[xiii] For example, the 2016 Xinjiang Anti-Extremism Regulation focuses on extremism that “interferes with normal production and livelihood” and calls for de-extremification to occur to “guide religions to become compatible with socialist society”.[xiv] Chinese approaches to counterterrorism thus prioritize internal stability and CCP socialist rule.


China clearly has a vested interest in combatting homegrown terrorism for economic and public stability reasons. However, what remains unclear is how much of a threat Uighur extremism actually presents to the Chinese mainland, and whether China’s increased security measures are pushing more Uighurs toward extremism. Chinese media continues to report on the ‘successes’ of China’s security measures in Xinjiang, but as China continues to demonize the threat presented by Uighurs, terrorist groups such as the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and Islamic State see opportunities for targeting disgruntled and isolated Muslims.[xv] An example of this is the recent video released by the Islamic State calling upon Chinese Uighurs to “shed blood like rivers in China.”[xvi] If it were the case that Chinese Uighurs begin turning towards global terror networks for training and resources, China’s approach to combatting homegrown terrorism would need to shift from its current inward focus on public stability and protecting BRI to outward considerations of joining global counterterrorism efforts.

[i] “Terror threats transform China’s Uighur heartland into security state,” Reuters, March 30, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-security-insight-idUSKBN1713AS.

[ii] “Terrorism threat transforms China’s Uygur heartland into security state,” South China Morning Post, March 31, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2083736/terrorism-threat-transforms-chinas-uygur-heartland.

[iii] “Terror threats transform China’s Uighur heartland into security state,” Reuters, March 30, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-security-insight-idUSKBN1713AS.

[iv] Leng Shumei, “Uyghur teachers caught spreading religious extremism,” Global Times, April 17, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1042911.shtml, Liu Caiyu, “Xinjiang official demoted for timidity in fighting religious extremism,” Global Times, April 11, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1041792.shtml.

[v] “Terror threats transform China’s Uighur heartland into security state,” Reuters, March 30, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-security-insight-idUSKBN1713AS.

[vi] “中华人民共和国反恐怖主义法,” Xinhua News, December 27, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-12/27/c_128571798.htm.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Murray Scot Tanner and James Bellacqua, “China’s Response to Terrorism,” CNA Corporation, June 2016, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/Chinas%20Response%20to%20Terrorism_CNA061616.pdf, and “Is China Really Facing a Terrorist Threat from Uighurs in Xinjiang,” World Politics Review, April 11, 2017, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/21811/is-china-really-facing-a-terrorist-threat-from-uighurs-in-xinjiang.

[ix] National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, with State Council, “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” Xinhua News, March 2015, full text available at: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-03/28/c_134105858.htm.

[x] Tom Phillips, “World’s biggest project aims to make China great again,” The Guardian, May 11, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/12/chinese-president-belt-and-road-initiative, and Dominique Patton, “Xinjiang cotton at crossroads of China’s new Silk Road,” Reuters, January 11, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-cotton-insight-idUSKCN0UQ00320160112.

[xi] W. Foo, “China’s Xinjiang Crackdown,” Reuters International Conflict Research, March 28, 2017, http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/CHINA-XINJIANG-SECURITY/010040DC0TT/CHINA-XINJIANG-SECURITY.jpg.

[xii] Article 36, Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, December 4, 1982, full text available at: http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html.

[xiii] Jinghan Zeng, The Chinese Communist Party’s Capacity to Rule: Ideology, Legitimacy, and Party Cohesion, (London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan UK, 2015), Chapter 5.

[xiv]Translated from the full Chinese text, available at: http://news.ts.cn/content/2017-03/29/content_12577663.htm.

[xv] Adrien Morin, “Is China’s Counterterrorism Policy in Xinjiang Working?” The Diplomat, February 23, 2017, http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/is-chinas-counterterrorism-policy-in-xinjiang-working/.

[xvi] “Terror threats transform China’s Uighur heartland into security state,” Reuters, March 30, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-security-insight-idUSKBN1713AS.

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