China’s domestic terrorism problem

Posted: September 6, 2010 in Interpreter
Tags: , , , ,

A new contribution for the Interpreter blog, this time not looking at the Expo, but instead at terrorism in China in its various forms. A fascinating topic I hope to cover more over time.

China’s domestic terrorism problem

by Raffaello Pantucci – 6 September 2010 12:25PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he is working on an EU-funded project on EU-China relations.

Recently there was a bombing in Aksu, a predominantly Uighur city in China’s Xinjiang province. The world’s media leapt on the story, eager to learn more about a set of issues which the Chinese are notoriously coy about.

Very little actual information emerged, except for brief updates from Xinhua and other official outlets. They suggest that a total of six people were involved in the attack, using an electric tricycle to lob bombs around a crossroads in Aksu, targeting a group of local security forces. Crucially, the stories refused to say that it was terrorism linked to the East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM), the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), or other Uighur extremists, and instead hinted that it was most likely a business dispute. One official described it as ‘a violent criminal case’.

The cynic will look at this and assume that something else is afoot. Previously, TIP claimed in a video to have carried out a series of bombings in Shanghai, Wenzhou, Guangzhou and Kunming – but in all four cases, local officials denied they were terrorist acts. Who is telling the truth is almost impossible to know, though it is curious that Chinese officials are so eager to downplay any effective attacks by such groups.

But let’s assume it is as described. It is still disturbing that so many people in China are willing to resort to such violent methods to resolve personal disputes. According to local reports, in Wenzhou, the bombing was related to a gambling dispute; in Shanghai a man named Wang claimed he did it to get ‘more, stronger attention and worship from netizens’.

When one couples this with the spate of knife attacks on schoolchildren earlier in the year, which were perpetrated by men angry at the world, it seems as though the main terrorist threat in China is not in fact groups like ETIM or TIP, but rather angry locals who strike out randomly at fellow citizens.

In fact, when we compare this to the effectiveness of Uighur radical groups, it seems as though these sorts of random attacks are in fact worryingly regular and much more effective (though admittedly, coverage of what occurs in Xinjiang is erratic – one report by RFA suggested small-scale attacks in the province are regular; certainly, group-arrests are). The ‘lone wolf’ seems a much more dangerous predator in China than the organised ethno-Islamist or separatist group.

This also might help explain why there is a great trepidation in describing these attacks as terrorism. If all such acts were categorised as terrorist in nature, then a whole set of domestic problems might be grouped together and would have to be addressed through the lens of terrorism. Given the power of anonymous group-think powered by the internet in China, there is every possibility that the characters who perpetrate these acts achieve some sort of online celebrity which might further complicate the official response.

Photo (of Chinese security forces in Urumqi during the Uighur unrest of 2009) by Flickr user Remko Tanis, used under a Creative Commons license.

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