China’s sweeping new counter-terrorism legislation, which takes effect in January, may constitute a Patriot Act-like moment for the country.
Just as homeland security has dominated politics in the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks, «counter-terrorism» is becoming a central ordering principle for both China’s domestic and foreign policy.
The new law requires local governments from the city level up to coordinate counter-terrorism activities with a soon-to-be-constituted national agency.
It provides a legal basis for the country’s various counter-terrorism organs to identify and suppress individuals or groups deemed to be «terrorists» and requires Internet providers and technology companies to provide technical assistance and information, including encryption keys, during counter-terror operations.
It’s clear the legislation holds the potential to significantly complicate Beijing’s relations with a range of partners — from Internet companies to the country’s mainly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
Compelling companies to share electronic data and information with Chinese authorities looks set to complicate already frosty relations with the United States, for example, and could also drive foreign technology companies from the Chinese market.
And the law’s provision for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP) to conduct counter-terrorism operations abroad also holds the potential to embroil Beijing in a range of hotspots around the globe and tarnish its much-touted principle of «non-intervention.»
The law’s expansive definition of terrorism as «any proposition or activity» through «means of violence, sabotage, or threat, generates social panic, undermines public security, infringes on personal and property rights, and menaces government organs and international organizations with the aim to realize certain political and ideological purposes» also serves two of Beijing’s abiding priorities — the security of the one-party state and «stability» in Xinjiang.
The former has received enormous attention since President Xi Jinping’s ascendancy through nationwide «wenwei» or «stability maintenance» campaigns, which in Xinjiang, have taken the form of renewed «yan da» or «Strike Hard» campaigns against the «three evils» of «separatism, extremism and terrorism» amongst the region’s Uyghur population.
Some of the key elements of the new law such as its emphasis on a nationwide, inter-governmental coordination of counter-terrorism operations and expanded electronic surveillance, including monitoring of cell phones and internet «firewalls,» have been implemented in Xinjiang for some time.
A major problem for Beijing, however, is that many of the policies it has implemented in Xinjiang, and which now appear to be the blueprint for a nationwide counter-terrorism strategy, have been counter-productive and have played a role in stimulating instability in the region.
While the new law has been officially billed as a response to increasing terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, the renewed impetus given to transnational Islamist terrorism with the rise of the extremist group ISIS is also a concern.
A limited number of Uyghur militants have been connected to conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria:
— In Afghanistan, it has been clear since the early 2000s that a small number of Uyghurs have been aligned with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. Beijing has generally sought to utilize its close relationship with Pakistan and a pragmatic approach to the Taliban (including encouraging a political settlement between Kabul and the group) to prevent the potential spill-over of Islamic radicalism into Xinjiang. The reported switch of allegiance of parts of the Taliban and groups such as the IMU to ISIS however promises to place pressure on this approach —
— China has claimed since early 2013 that hundreds of Uyghurs have traveled to Syria, often via Turkey, to fight with various anti-Assad groups. More recently, according to the the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S.-based think thank, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a group China has blamed for recent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, has a battlefield presence in Syria and is aligned with Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra.
China has seized on such linkages as proof that Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang is «spiritually supported and commanded by foreign terrorist organizations.»
To date Beijing has been loath to contemplate active intervention in such conflicts lest it directly attract the attention of al Qaeda and ISIS-type Islamism and weaken the diplomatic pull of its «non-interference» doctrine and Chinese officials have attempted to downplay the foreign policy implications of the law.
However, the open consideration of Chinese forces engaging in counterterrorism operations abroad suggests that its interest in state security may be about to trump other considerations.
Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, Australian National University and is the author of Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia — A History (Routledge 2011). The views expressed here are solely his.