China Confronts Terrorism at Home and Abroad

Following the Paris attacks on November 13, in which assailants killed 130 people and left 368 injured, world attention has again shifted to a focus on the global fight against terror. This tragic event is further evidence of ISIS’s rise from a mere afterthought to a preeminent threat towards international security and stability. Moreover, the attack in Paris last week serves as a reminder of a significant vulnerability in Western society. Open borders, permitted by a democratic foundation of freedom and openness, have exposed these populations to the horrors of evil and manipulative non-state actors.

China’s exposure to global terrorism was intensified recently when ISIS abducted and murdered a Chinese national in Syria

As the U.S., France, Russia, and other leading nations come together in the wake of the Paris attacks to discuss a broader international protocol and system for combating terror and non-government affiliated violence, China, too, now faces increased pressure to support this global prevention agenda. Known for a historically non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, China has been a victim of multiple terrorist activities during 2015. ISIS murdered a Chinese national in Syria this fall, while just last week, three of the 21 civilians murdered in the Mali hotel siege were Chinese.

New York City scenes
The rapid rise of China’s middle class has led to an influx of tourists traveling the world. More than ever before during the modern era, Chinese civilians are now vulnerable to the threat of terrorism

China’s gradual re-entrance into global society in the modern era has also prompted an increased vulnerability towards terrorist efforts. Beijing and Shanghai—as well as recently reclaimed Hong Kong—are major points of international commerce, trade, and policy—attractive destinations for evil-minded organizations that target world hubs. Chinese citizens, increasingly affluent as the middle class grows in numbers and strength, are traveling the world for educational, professional, and tourist opportunities and are consequently now subjected to the danger of random incidents of terrorism.

To this point, China has chosen to avoid involvement in the global war against terror—instead maintaining international relationships and policy focused strictly on trade. Yet, following the Paris attacks—a horrific incident that has come in the same year as several ISIS-sponsored killings, the bombing of a Russian passenger plane, and other major hostage situations—China is beginning to ramp up its rhetoric. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, announced that “the Chinese government opposes all forms of terrorism and firmly cracks down on any violent and terrorist crimes that challenge the baseline of human civilization.”

Uyghurs are treated as second-class citizens by the majority Han Chinese population. Economic expansion in Xinjiang has caused the rise of domestic terrorism led by a Uyghur separatist movement

Of course, just because China has played a non-existent role in the global fight on terror to date does not mean it has had a free ride when it comes to terrorism. China deals constantly, in serious ways, with a form of violent conflict that most Western nations do not experience—domestic terrorism. In Xinjiang, the northwest—and also largest—province of China, there is a large degree of ethnic unrest, led by the Muslim Uyghur population. The Chinese government blames this unrest on Uyghur separatists, responsible for several brutal acts of domestic terrorism throughout the country in recent years. However, Uyghur rights activists blame Beijing’s repressive and discriminatory policies in Xinjing as the cause for these unfortunate terrorist activities. Beijing now fears that increased resentment among Uyghurs is causing separatists to turn to ISIS for support and training. To this end, the Chinese government believes it is already fighting against the influence of ISIS—on its own soil.

China’s growing vulnerability towards major terrorism, both domestically and internationally is surely affecting its decision to become more immersed in the global war on terrorism. With an increasingly powerful military and a thirst for improving its terrorist prevention abilities, China, as some experts believe, seeks to collaborate with other leading nations in order to have better access to their intelligence-gathering technologies—which it can then utilize in its own efforts against Islamic extremists and Uyghur separatists.

The need for China to build up intelligence-gathering technologies is not part of merely a short-term vision. As the U.S. prepares to enter a new era of energy independence, on the foundation of fracking and renewable energy technologies, its strategic interest in policing the Middle East will become gradually less prominent. At this time, China, a country which does not contain nearly the same access to energy resources on its own soil, will need to inherit this responsibility—ensuring that a stabilized Middle East continues to provide access to oil for an enormous and rapidly growing population of Chinese energy consumers. China will need to improve the depth and capacity of its intelligence technologies in order to properly monitor a region that continues to experience significant unrest, violence, and instability. This longer-term reality also affects China’s current interest in more thoroughly engaging anti-terrorist efforts.

As China’s impact and footprint on the world grows at rapid pace, its role in terrorism prevention is inevitably broadening. This process will surely be gradual and will have many different parts, depending upon China’s security needs. However, as major terrorist activities continue to wreak havoc around the world, a strong current of paranoia will force China to take serious steps towards improving its ability to protect its people, both within and beyond the country’s national borders.

About the author:

David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.

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