Kunming Railway Station, the site of the 2014 knife-attack
The havoc created by ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, France, and Mali in recent months has highlighted the need to combat global terrorism more effectively. As the world’s second largest economy and a rising power, China faces unprecedented challenges and opportunities to contribute to global counterterrorism efforts in the wake of these devastating attacks. Yet for China to truly become a member of the worldwide coalition against Islamic extremism, both the international community and China need to abandon their long-held double standards on terrorism. The West needs to realize that China faces the threat of terrorism domestically as well as internationally, while China must abandon the counter-productive stereotype that terrorism is only a Western issue created solely by the West.
There is truth in China’s accusation that the West holds a double standard when it comes to classifying acts of extremist violence within China as acts of terrorism. As it stands, the Western narrative depicts such attacks as the result of China’s own flawed ethnic-minority policies and religious crackdown on Uighur Muslims who mostly live in the Northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region. As such, violent attacks in China, mostly conducted by Uighur extremists, appear to be somewhat different from attacks conducted by Al-Qaeda or ISIS elsewhere. For instance, in the aftermath of the shocking Kunming train station attack in March 2014 that left 31 people dead and another 141 injured, the BBC called the event a “deadly mass knife attack” and quoted “Uighur activists” as worrying that the attack could open up “potential for abuse” by the Chinese state. Little wonder the veiled suggestion that the attack had some legitimate political motives and the portrayal of the attackers as victims of oppression angered Chinese citizens, who in turn accused Western media of hypocrisy in its labelling of terror.
While admittedly much can be improved in China’s minority policies and in its treatment of religious, especially Islamic, activities, there should be no hesitation to view such attacks in China as acts of terrorism. Though these attacks may be caused to a greater extent by the economic dislocation of the Uighur on China’s frontiers than the direct recruitment and command of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, one must ask: how is a radicalized Muslim minority in China fundamentally different than such groups in the Middle East or South Asia that have similarly lost prospect of economic advancement and regard militant Islamic fundamentalism as the only recourse? Moreover, Western media needs to acknowledge that Islamic networks overseas do pose a security threat to China. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a US-designated terrorist organization that calls for the separation of Xinjiang to become part of an independent Islamic state, has a broad support base in Central Asia and Turkey, as indicated by an anti-China riot in Istanbul this past summer. If knife-wielding attackers at a train station calling for the separation of China do not qualify as terrorists, then perhaps the definition of “terrorism” should be expanded.
At the same time, it is necessary for China to reject its own double standard regarding terrorism in order to fully tackle the issue. While the Chinese government has frequently stated its opposition to any and all forms of terrorism, a popular myth continues to exist in China that considers terrorism solely as the product of the West’s own wrongdoing. The prevalent anti-Western Chinese nationalism supported by the state has led many Chinese citizens to develop sympathies for Islamic terrorist organizations, which claim that the Muslim world’s suffering has come at the hands of the US. As a result, a considerable minority in China perceives groups like Al-Qaeda as anti-American heroes and even cheered for them after 9/11. For those who hold a less sanguine view of these groups, they nonetheless blame the West for having fostered the growth of groups like Al-Qaeda as proxies against the Soviet Union. What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that China, too, provided military assistance to the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the lack of high-profile terrorist attacks in China has augmented the belief that the problem of terrorism afflicts only the West, and that China can remain safely on the sideline.
Recent events have proved this to be nothing short of fiction. So far, ISIS has wounded one Chinese citizen in Paris, executed one Chinese hostage, and Al-Qaeda has killed three Chinese railway corporation executives in Mali. These attacks prove that, in an age in which China has significant personnel and economic assets overseas, it is becoming increasingly vulnerable to global terrorism. In fact, Western landmarks and fancy shopping malls that Chinese tourists frequently visit are ideal targets for terrorists. China will have to cooperate with other nations, including the West, to protect its interests given that it still lacks the military resources to combat terrorism overseas. More importantly, the Chinese public must realize the threats posed by Islamic terrorism to China. After all, the ETIM pledges allegiance to and receives funding from Al-Qaeda, while ISIS has included a portion of Xinjiang as part of its global caliphate. ISIS has also managed to attract extremists from China to fight in Iraq and Syria, and may have plans to send them back home to create terrorist cells. It is not a matter of if, but when, terrorists plan a Paris-style attack in China.
China can join the fight against global terrorism by stemming the growth of ISIS in Asia, where Indonesia and Central Asian states are already facing the risk of radicalization. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China plays a leading role, will become a valuable tool for the international community to address these challenges. Moreover, maintaining positive economic relationships between China and Central Asian nations will mitigate the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism through the expansion of economic opportunities. For these measures to be truly effective, however, both the international community and China must discard their double standards on terrorism.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History as part of the College Scholar Program.
Image Attribution: “Kunming Yunnan China Waiting For Departure at Kunming Central Station” by CEphoto/Uwe Aranas, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0