How Xinjiang Has Transformed China’s Counterterrorism Policies

August 26, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaUyghursXinjiang Province

How Xinjiang Has Transformed China’s Counterterrorism Policies

"The Xi Jinping administration has sought to transform Xinjiang; but has Xinjiang transformed China instead?"


Since ascending to power in November 2012, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Xi Jinping has supported a wide range of directives, regulations and policies in his quest to bring long-term stability to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Of particular importance is the Party-State’s ideological assault and security crackdown on the so-called “three evil forces” of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism. Yet, although foreign analysts are gaining a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Beijing’s hardline security and religious policies in Xinjiang [East Turkestan], it’s also important to consider how the central leadership’s focus on combating the “three evil forces” in the western PRC has consequently shaped elite thinking on how to prevent, manage and respond to threats nationwide.

Building a National Framework to Combat Terrorism


The National Security Commission is playing a prominent new role in the formulation and execution of the central leadership’s overarching national security strategy, policies and legal infrastructure in Xinjiang. Announced during the CCP Third Plenum in November 2013, the Commission places “a highly empowered group of security experts” at Chairman Xi Jinping’s disposal to “work the levers of the country’s vast security apparatus.” It leads and coordinates efforts among various domestic, intelligence and foreign-affairs organs to more effectively respond to critical security and counterterrorism challenges. “The maintenance of internal cohesion and stability is the indispensable core of Chinese national security,” argues political scientist David Lampton. To thwart internal or external acts of subversion in the name of stability maintenance and perpetuation of regime longevity, the state “requires a broadly conceived central foreign and security policy coordination mechanism of increasing sophistication, a mechanism that can provide top leaders with options, help establish priorities, evaluate costs and gains, and enforce implementation on a fractious bureaucracy and society.” Given an official reemphasis on “maintaining social stability and an enduring peace” over all else—including economic development—in the XUAR, the Commission’s ability to manage and mitigate the effects of ethnoreligious tensions and unrest will serve as a litmus test for its effectiveness.

Following a deadly market bombing in Urumqi that left forty-three dead and ninety-four injured, China launched a national counterterrorism campaign on May 25, 2014. Vice Public Security Minister Yang Huanning stated that while Xinjiang is the “main battlefield” in the fight against terrorism, security personnel should view “the entire country as one chessboard.” Authorities consequently began to establish counterterrorism working groups at the national, provincial/regional, local and district levels. China already cooperates internationally through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other bodies. By creating these vertically and horizontally linked groups, leaders hope to prevent or manage emergencies by enhancing coordination, implementing central directives more effectively, gathering and disseminating timely intelligence to thwart potential attacks, conducting drills and training exercises and responding decisively to attacks through the rapid mobilization and deployment of counterterrorism teams.

The Creeping Normalization of Militarized Policing in China

Government officials are deploying increasingly large numbers of armed police units to combat terrorist threats, particularly members of People’s Armed Police (PAP) and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. According to PAP Deputy Commander Wang Yongsheng, authorities fear that extremists are abandoning “cold weapons” such as knives and axes in favor of “hot weapons” such as guns and explosives. He also reiterated official concerns that China will face more organized, coordinated terrorist attacks in the future. PAP forces are consequently deployed in three hundred cities across China, where they stand guard at forty airports, 170 train stations, 130 entry and exit points, and 150 additional high-priority venues. Wang identified four critical goals for the People’s Armed Police. First, strike hard against terrorism in Xinjiang. The PAP deputy commander asserted that armed police now patrol the streets daily in every city, county, town and district. Second, redouble efforts to increase control over and protect Chinese society by deploying armed police at major events nationwide. Third, respond rapidly and efficiently to terrorist threats through the presence of armed police at the national, provincial, regional and county levels. Fourth, provide enhanced opportunities for counterterrorism combat training through live-fire exercises as well as participation in international exercises and competitions. These security measures are anything but inexpensive. Following the July 2009 riots, XUAR authorities have dramatically increased the amount of money spent on public security. Official expenditures rose 87.9 percent from 1.54 billion yuan ($241 million) in 2009 to 2.89 billion yuan ($452 million) in 2010. By 2014, the annual budget for public security expenditures had increased to approximately 6 billion yuan ($938 million). The figure represented an increase of 24 percent over the 2013 budget. Officials expect spending to rise to 6.7 billion yuan ($1.05 billion) in 2015, an increase of 9.1 percent.

In comparison, the central government plans to spend 154.2 billion yuan ($24.6 billion) on public security this year. In China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Shambaugh notes that China’s publicly disclosed domestic security budget expenditures do not include the People’s Armed Police, Ministry of State Security, People’s Armed Militia or local security force budgets. He estimates that the entire internal security budget might exceed $300 billion.

Larger state and provincial counterterrorism budgets have enabled authorities to hire and train additional security personnel as well as procure more technologically advanced tactical weaponry and vehicles. For example, Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials have created new armed counterterrorism forces, dubbed rapid response tactical assault units (RTU). These front-line special units are designed to thwart terrorist attacks and maintain social stability. Following the terrorist attack in Kunming, authorities from the Wuhua District PSB launched the first RTU in Yunnan. The PSB procured twenty-four high-power motorcycles, each of which seats two officers. The motorcycles are equipped with communication tools and counterterrorism equipment. They are meant to serve as mobile assault units with heavy firepower, offensive and defensive capabilities.

China is also investing more heavily in armored personnel carriers (APC), armored riot-control vehicles, armored patrol vehicles and SWAT vehicles. While there are many such vehicles deployed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—and are a particularly common sight in southern cities such as Hotan and Kashgar—they are also increasingly in use across the PRC. Hangzhou publicly displayed its new 1.6 million RMB (US $250,000) “Sabertooth Tiger” armored riot-control vehicle in early 2015. Lanzhou (Gansu), Nantong and Haian (Jiansu) and Yibin (Sichuan) have purchased the vehicle as well. Xuchang, Henan not only purchased a 1.8 million RMB (US $281,000) “Sabertooth Tiger,” but also sent two police command cars, three mobile police offices and two police patrol vehicles as gifts to public security organs in Xinjiang.

Skynet: Hasta La Vista, Privacy

Social instability remains a major concern for Beijing, which particularly seeks to curb the outbreak of ethnoreligious unrest and extremist attacks. China is consequently increasing surveillance of its citizens both online and offline. The Hu Jintao administration began constructing “Skynet,” China’s nationwide surveillance system, back in 2005. Officials argue that Skynet will maintain the safety and security of the public by deterring and combating “immoral” as well as “illegal” behavior. Increasing numbers of cameras in Beijing and beyond monitor public transportation, roads, shopping centers, hospitals, public utilities, residential communities and schools. Dissidents find themselves under constant watch. The process has accelerated following the 2008-2009 unrest in ethnographic Tibet and Xinjiang, where officials have already blanketed the region with cameras.

By July 2010, XUAR authorities had installed high-definition video surveillance cameras on public buses and at bus stops; on roads and in alleys; in markets and shopping centers; and in schools. Officials also placed mosques under video surveillance. An official boasted that the region’s “Eagle Eye” cameras are capable of “seamless” surveillance in all “sensitive” parts of Urumqi, undoubtedly a reference to the Uyghur quarter. Unbreakable, fire-proof and “riot-proof” shells encase the cameras, which can produce sharp, clear images, even at night. Police monitor the camera feeds constantly, searching for actionable intelligence.

Authorities similarly revealed during the 18th Party Congress that they used Skynet to partition ethnographic Tibet into a meticulously-watched grid. There are reportedly cameras positioned on every road in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as well as in ethnically Tibetan regions of Gansu and Sichuan. For example, the Sangri County Public Security Bureau in Shannan Prefecture, Tibet recently announced that it has fully implemented Skynet, having placed high-definition cameras at ninety locations at the city, township and village levels. Officials boasted that within twenty-four hours of installing the cameras, they uncovered two cases of criminal wrongdoing as well as sixty-four clues to solve open cases. Furthermore, in addition to installing video surveillance cameras in monasteries and nunneries, the state is permanently stationing government or Communist Party officials as well as police offices in these sanghas. Officials consequently have claimed that in the event of a self-immolation, they can mobilize and dispatch security personnel to the site of protest within two minutes.

Authorities pledge to cover all crucial public spaces—nationwide—with video surveillance cameras by 2020. According to the National Development and Reform Commission, "Building a public security surveillance net is an important measure… to maintain national security and social stability as well as prevent and combat violent terrorist crimes.” Leaders furthermore stress the need to “improve social management,” a euphemism for tightening security.