Posts Tagged ‘China domestic’

A long lost post for ICSR looking at terrorism in China, something that I had actually drafted initially prior to the recent events out in Hotan. There it now seems as though the government is saying that a “flag of jihad” was being flown, though I have not seen reference to the East Turkestan groups anywhere. Any tips or pointers always welcome.

Jihad in China

Islamist terrorism and extremism in China is a very difficult subject to research. A general sense of paranoia casts a shadow over the it and a great paucity in direct and accurate information means that people often have very little that is empirical or tangible to add.

None of this is to say that the problem does not exist. Recently a video emerged on the forums that by my count is the first to be released that is primarily in Chinese (Mandarin that is, the main Chinese language) – previous videos have been later translated into Chinese, but this is the first one to boast a speaker clearly using Chinese. Others have been released threatening China ahead of the Olympics, and a video from April 2008 showed three Chinese men being executed, most likely somewhere in Waziristan. There have also been a number of half-formed plots, including an attempt to bring down a plane going from Urumqi (a regional capital) to Guangzhou (a regional the capital) using a petrol bomb,a series of bus bombings for whom no satisfactory explanation has ever been provided and aseemingly suicidal attack against security forces in Aksu, Xinjiang in August last year.

In all of these cases, the Chinese authorities blamed what are called East Turkestan groups. East Turkestan refers to what China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is considered by those who call for independence of their province. These people tend to be Uighur, a Turkic minority mostly resident in China that used to be the most populous in that province: Han Chinese migration has completely changed the ethnic demographics of the province. This migration has been accompanied by what is seen locally as a slow erosion of Uighur culture and a general sense that Han China is taking advantage of the province’s considerable natural resources with little benefit to the locals. Uighur’s are a predominantly Muslim minority and some splinters of the al-Qaedaist narrative have managed to find a home amongst the disaffected communities. And these groups are either referred to as, or self-call themselves, East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP).

But whether these attacks are actually carried out by organised groups is very hard to confirm. Some individuals have in the past made connections with al Qaeda and affiliated networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and broader Central Asia. According to Camille Tawil’s recent authoritative book Brothers in Arms, in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 ETIM “pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and stopped all paramilitary activity against China (which the Taliban could ill-afford to upset), as requested.” And the existence of the connection is further confirmed by a quick review of the Chinese listed Wikileak’d Guantanamo detainee files that show a whole series of Uighur men who left China for reasons mostly to do with what they felt was Chinese oppression and ended up in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether they were all connected to terrorist groups is unclear, but certainly the path they took seems to have been a well-trodden one. There are regular reports that the Pakistani government trumpets of “Turkestan” fighters being killed in operations in Waziristan. And last May, interior minister Rehman Malik referred to the back having been “broken” of the “East Turkestan” groups. He was rewarded with substantial contracts and investment from China.

More recently, while the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was undertaking one of its joint counter-terrorism exercises, Chinese minister Meng Hongwei declared that, “signs are the ‘East Turkestan’ terrorists are flowing back.” But while this declaration sounded like it was founded in some sort of direct threat intelligence, nothing has since materialized. This could of course be due to the fact that it is sensitive information and consequently suppressed, but at the same time, Chinese authorities like to trumpet success in counter-terrorism operations.

But now we have had what seems to be a genuine expression of violence in Xinjiang, with the news that a mob of “thugs” attacked a police station in Hotan, one of the few majority Uighur cities left in the province. While this attack does not seem on the scale of the grim July 2009 riots that led to around 200 deaths, reports indicate that at least a handful of people have been killed. So far blame has not been attributed to the East Turkestan groups, but the local information bureau has already referred to the event as “an organised terrorist attack.”

The East Turkestan groups and the threat from them are also often quoted as one of China’s driving motivations behind engagement with Central/South Asia. But what is interesting is that there is often little evidence of a successful terrorist attack being carried out in China. Consequently, there is a certain amount of skepticism about the size and nature of the threat. Curious, I recently asked a series of high profile researchers and officials what size they considered the threat to be and got broadly similar responses, though very different senses of how dangerous the ETIM/TIP groups are.

One told me that in the past year some 100 had been killed in Afghanistan/Pakistan and that he estimated there were some 1,000 more. Someone affiliated with a research institution linked to the state security ministry played the threat down, declaring that there were some 100/200 people and that the networks had been largely disrupted. The only reason he thought they would be able to make a turn-around was if things in Afghanistan got a lot worse providing the group with a new space to operate in. In a larger conference space I posed the same question to a University academic who had just given a very doom and gloom assessment of security in Central Asia and he guesstimated numbers were in the “hundreds” and that they were very active in the “border regions.” He expressed particular concern about Tajikistan and the porous borders that the nation had as a potential conduit for terrorist networks in the region.

Often, however, the bigger threat that is referred to are groups like Hizb ut- Tahrir, whom are present in Central Asia and apparently amongst the communities of cross-border traders that go back and forth between Xinjiang and the bordering states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. One high estimate that was given me was of some 50,000 HuT members in China spread out from Xinjiang all the way down to Sichuan province with people seeing the group as part of a dangerous Islamicization that is taking place in broader Central Asia and consequently in China too. More conservative estimatessay there are some 20,000 HuT members in China.

It seems that there is some sort of a terrorist threat to China from violent Islamist networks. But what remains unclear is to what degree this threat is able to conduct any sorts of operations within China or to what degree al Qaeda and affiliate networks are able (or want) to manipulate it for their own ends. Currently, the jihad in China seems more aspirational than operational. At the same time, if events in Hotan are confirmed, it looks like the tinderbox of ethnic friction and disenfranchisement that might offer an outlet for such extremism to latch on to continues to exist.

A short post for Whose World Order? on the pending birthday of the CPC. I am planning on doing another one on the upcoming film that is being released to coincide with it. Will undoubtedly be a big melodrama – Chinese friends are already warning me about it.

Shanghai View: Happy Birthday CPC!

Date: 24th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: , ChinaShanghai

July 1st marks the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 90th Birthday, and the country is gradually gearing up for the big event, with large red Communist party flags going up all over the place. I noticed a giant flag appear on the huge shopping mall near me: a somewhat incongruous location for the hammer and sickle logo of socialism to appear, but strangely in keeping with the slightly surreal nature of this anniversary.

The mall itself has a certain history. Ba Bai Ban (八佰伴) was one of the first giant malls to appear in Shanghai (and I believe China), established in December 1995 by a Japanese company. It has eight floors of retail space and is somewhat comparable to something like Selfridges in London – selling high end consumer goods with concessions inside dedicated to recognisable brands like Hugo Boss, Zegna, and so on. According to a factoid I picked up online, it remains a leader in terms of volume of sales, shifting the most goods nationally for a single day’s sales on December 31st, 2008.

So to see the giant symbol of socialism to appear on it is a bit strange, though apt within the general contradiction of viewing Shanghai as a city in a Communist state. The city is awash with conspicuous consumption, with Ba Bai Ban long having been overtaken as the most high-end mall in Shanghai. Liujiazui, the most recognizable part of Shanghai, is littered with giant malls, an Apple Store and- I noticed the other day – a new Ferrari and Maserati showroom, which is soon to open.

Yet at the same time, Shanghai-ren are still proud of their Communist heritage. The city boasts the location of the first Communist Party of China National Congress, and has one of the three main national Party schools in it. But even the site of the first CPC meeting has been swept up in China’s more capitalist recent history, located as it is in the middle of Xintiandi, one of the city’s most affluent tourist attractions. It is surrounded by branches of Starbucks, and some of the Shanghai’s priciest restaurants whose prices top (or match) London’s best.

This contradiction exists at an ideological level too. For a planned central government to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship is bizarre, but the very ongoing existence of Party Schools is also strange. Senior individuals, or individuals who are tipped for the top, have to pass through these institutions of higher learning before they ascend further. As far as I can tell, while they are there they are drilled in the latest party doctrine and reminded that Mao and Marx are still their ideological forefathers.

I was asking around the institute whether people are excited about the CPC birthday, and for the most part received blank stares. Everyone is aware of it, and everyone will attend the big party meeting that is going to take place, but few seemed that enthused – dismissing it as “politics.” This is likely because, as they tell me, they are not getting a national holiday to mark the anniversary. That decision is probably intended to emphasise that it is industry and not indolence that should be celebrated, though I imagine productivity will be quite low.

For the time being, however, everything is going red, and the hammer and sickle is emblazoned everywhere. The newspapers are full of stories praising the CPC and looking forward to next period of high growth and success. An unnamed party official recently claimed that party membership has risen to 80 million – more than the population of France – though it remains the case that most people join because they think it will advance their careers. Whether it really makes any difference or not, the fact that people think it does shows the ongoing power that the CPC continues to have after nine decades.

A longer paper for ECFR with Jonas looking at China and the Arab Spring. It has managed to pop out before a longer piece on EU-China I am working on, but hopefully that should also land soon. The whole paper can be found here, with a slight typo in my name. The published text to release it is below.


China’s Janus-faced response to the Arab revolutions

China’s zigzagging response to the Arab revolutions: How Europe can benefit

China was caught off guard by the Arab revolutions. Its first response in Libya was to go along with international sanctions against Gaddafi for abuses on his people while undertaking its largest evacuation mission of Chinese citizens. It then changed tack and verbally opposed international military action. The protection of citizens abroad didn’t extend internally in China, where a crackdown was carried out in response to minor breezes of the Jasmine Spring.

This zigzagging response to the crisis points to the new pressures that Beijing is under, from growing international interests, pressuring traditional non-interference principles abroad, to a population that is also increasingly connected to events across the globe.

A new policy memo published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, China’s Janus-faced response to the Arab revolution, explores these arguments. The authors, Jonas Parello-Plesner andRaffaello Pantucci, argue that:

  • China has now laid down a ‘responsibility to protect’ its own citizens abroad. China’s international interests (it had an estimated 38,000 nationals in Libya, along with contracts worth $18.8 billion) mean it can no longer remain aloof from developments like the Arab revolutions.
  • Beijing’s behaviour is increasingly influenced by relationships with other nations, for instance South-South cooperation. Its initial support for sanctions in Libya was influenced by the stance of Arab nations and the Arab League.
  • Beijing’s domestic crackdown, including the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei, demonstrate the authorities’ concerns about increasing connections to the outside world and the internal development of a bustling public sphere with more than 400 million internet users and where microblogs are used to dodge censorship and expose official corruption.

Click here for the pdf of the memo

The authors argue that the EU has the opportunity to push for Chinese responsibility on the international stage because China sees a pragmatic need to protect its investments and citizens. They recommend that:

  1. The EU should engage with China on framing stability in a broader bandwidth and look at joint approaches to crisis management and good governance in third countries.
  2. EU should develop a strategy for influencing China through others, as Arab and African reactions to Libya counted more than Western pressure. A discreet China component could be added to EU dialogues with other emerging countries.
  3. The EU needs to remain vocal and consistent on Chinese human rights and internal reforms.

“Chinese zigzagging is a reflection of a broader realisation that its previous posture of absolute non-interference is increasingly at odds with its global economic presence.”

A somewhat inflammatory title for my latest for Whose World Order? – but oh well. Daily life feels pretty far from a police state to be honest. Addresses some points I have touched upon previously, and I am going into greater detail about in an upcoming longer piece.

Shanghai View: Living in a police state

Date: 10th May 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: , AppleIpadPla

Things are strange in China at the moment. This past week there was the announcement that the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) had told broadcasters not to show TV dramas related to spying, criminal cases, romance or time-travel during May, June and July. The reason is the upcoming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the desire of the organs of state that the public is entertained appropriately. This came on the heels of an article published in the magazine of the Central Party School by Zhou Yongkang, the powerful politburo member in charge of State Security, in which he proposed the creation of a massive ID card database including all adult citizens on the mainland to ensure “perfection of citizen identification registration and management.” Orwellian sounding stuff indeed.

Of course, some objectivity needs to be maintained here – the ID card system has only been proposed, and many Chinese already have something similar (though this new version would contain more information). SARFT, on the other hand, was quite quick in clarifying that “we aimed not at forbidding but delaying the broadcast of TV shows relating to spies, crime and time-travel.” Their intention was solely to encourage channels “to play dozens of excellent shows on revolution and development of the Communist Party of China.” So that’s ok then – but I leave it to your vivid imaginations to imagine what would happen if any of this was proposed in Europe.

Additionally, on the eve of the big US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue happening in Washington, the New York Times ran a story detailing the growing number of problems that diplomats and journalists have been encountering in China. With regard to both groups, I can testify from a conference I attended last week, and from speaking to friends in Beijing, that things seem particularly glum at the moment. Many of those I spoke to talked of a prevailing tense wind in the air. In one visible demonstration of this, after crowds got unruly at the Apple store in Beijing while queuing frantically for the new iPad2, a foreign store owner came out and ended up getting into a fight with scalpers. Rather than even try to thrash out the case in court, the Apple store chose to quickly settle, giving the aggrieved party (a likely scalper, as even reported now in the state press) 20,000RMB to go away – that’s about £2,000. It is a testament to the company’s fear of generating a bad name for itself in China that it so quickly capitulated to make the story go away.

But not everything is bad and scary. On a more positive note, while researching this post, I came across the reassuring news that the “PLA denies rumours of massive cutbacks.” We were, of course, all very concerned that the People’s Liberation Army was shrinking.