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.

At the same time, leaders are implementing a number of new programs that enable authorities to verify the identities and track the digital footprint of individuals online. For example, a pilot program for a new e-identification system is touted as a means of safeguarding the “privacy and safety” of netizens “using social media or e-commerce platforms.” The government is concurrently constructing a “social credit system”—dependent on an individual’s digital footprint and other variables—that assigns a score to each netizen based on her fidelity to “socialist values” such as “patriotism and hard work.” Criticizing the Chinese Communist Party may lead to low marks, thus potentially jeopardizing its ability to procure employment or bank loans. Authorities are also developing a national population database linked to personal identification information as well as credit records. Within the context of the government’s promise to “improve social management” and strengthen social stability, one must ask how the Public Security Bureau and other agencies plan to make use of such digital repositories of citizen information.

A growing prevalence of patrols

Street patrols—conducted either by foot or by PAP armed patrol cars—are already a common sight in Xinjiang. However, Chinese authorities are increasingly using them elsewhere, both as a surveillance tool as well as a “psychological deterrent to terrorists.” Beijing has also permitted ordinary police officers to carry firearms, lifting a nationwide ban following the Kunming terrorist attack.

In some cases, these patrols are temporary measures designed to address sensitive events or anniversaries. Beijing launched a stability maintenance campaign dubbed “peace action” in late June, aimed at providing heightened security during Ramadan, the anniversary of the Urumqi riots, the 2015 Beijing World Championships in Athletics and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Beijing Public Security Bureau announced on its Weibo microblog that patrol officers, traffic officers, armed police and assistance police will patrol streets, the subway and other venues in heavily populated areas. They will monitor and place strict additional controls on knives, express deliveries, used goods markets, gas stations and low-flying small aircraft.

In other cases, authorities launch patrols in response to specific incidents or as a general precaution against potential terror threats. The Beijing Public Security Bureau has deployed 150 armored patrol cars onto the capital streets in response to the 2014 Urumqi market bombing. Each vehicle contains nine police and four assistant police, which appears consistent with the number of individuals riding in armored patrol vehicles in Xinjiang. Officials asserted that first responders could arrive on the scene within three minutes of a reported emergency. Following the 2014 Kunming terrorist attack, the Hainan Public Security Bureau “immediately moved to enhance its counterterrorism work by increasing armed patrols, inspecting and buttressing potentially vulnerable targets, and striking hard against terrorist threats.” Authorities deployed hundreds of PAP to patrol local train stations, public squares, tourist spots, downtown areas and other crowded places.

Meanwhile, the Gansu Legal News described new efforts to increase both foot and vehicular patrols to deter criminal activity in the northwestern province. One county north of Lanzhou reported that it recently purchased two new patrol vehicles and assigned thirty-two police to security patrol teams. Nanchang, Jiangxi has instituted community policing, foot patrols, armed patrols and traffic patrols. A local public security bureau in one Shandong county released photos of SWAT teams carrying out foot and vehicular patrols to ensure “security and stability.” The Chinese media also highlighted new SWAT electric patrol vehicles deployed last year in Urumqi to buttress the city’s counterterrorism efforts.

Public security officials also rely on volunteers to assist patrol teams. People’s Public Security University of China Counterterrorism Research Director Mei Jianming stated that average citizens can play an important part in combating terrorism. “The key to defeating terrorists lies in early warnings, which require the public to contribute intelligence.” Dubbed “the people’s army,” members of these civilian patrols may receive money to keep watch over their neighborhoods and report suspicious activities to the police. In Urumqi, even Uyghur children are encouraged to take on light community policing responsibilities. As part of a national campaign, local police nationwide can also provide monetary rewards for tips on separatist, extremist or terrorist activity.

The Xinjiang-ization of China?

The 2008-2009 ethnoreligious unrest in Tibet and particularly in Xinjiang dramatically shaped China’s security landscape. CCP Chairmen Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have subsequently implemented directives, regulations and laws that have not only contributed to the growing militarization of policing, but also serve to suffocate intellectuals and civil society actors, suppress civil liberties and curtail religious freedoms, all under the pretext of “striking hard against terror” and strengthening China’s system of “rule according to the law.” Since the conclusion of the Fourth Plenum, Beijing has already promulgated a revised national security law, is deliberating a new counterterrorism law and is also considering draft legislation regarding the management of foreign NGOs. Legal scholar Jerome Cohen argues that these new laws act to strengthen the central leadership’s control “over the unruly lower levels of government and all the distorting influences that impact local court decision-making. Xi has intensified the uses of legislation and judicial practice as instruments of party ideology and policy in order to impose a more repressive regime than China has witnessed since the June 4 era.”

The specters of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism have fundamentally altered the Chinese Communist Party’s threat perception. In a quixotic quest to maintain security and stability in the western borderlands, authorities have placed draconian restrictions on the traditional cultural, religious and linguistic practices of ethnoreligious minority groups. Calls for greater autonomy in the management of local affairs are far-too-often deemed subversive and a threat to the state. Such counterproductive measures exacerbate tensions and ultimately make China less secure. Rather than mitigating the sources of discontent and unrest, Beijing’s hardline policies and laws deny locals adequate agency within the policy-making process and paradoxically expand the potential scope and scale of terrorist threats across the country. Fearing that an attack could occur anywhere at any time, the central leadership has responded by cracking down hard on dissent while strengthening the role of armed police in Chinese society. As Chairman Xi Jinping consolidates his power and strengthens “social management” policies nationwide, the central leadership will continue to gradually expand the use of security tools and tactics first tested in the XUAR and/or Tibetan areas.

“The defects of the current weiwen [stability maintenance] system are no secret,” remarks political scientist Xi Chen. Ascribing the current weiwen challenges to “institutional weakness,” he argues that while the stability maintenance system is capable of managing short-term challenges effectively, it has created grave long-term problems for the regime. The chagrined judges and police officers to whom he spoke in Hunan and Hubei offered a far blunter assessment: “The more weiwen, the more instability.”

Although the Xi Jinping administration has sought to transform Xinjiang, Xinjiang has already begun to transform China instead. If the Party-State fails to address the deleterious consequences of its policies in the XUAR, then the security situation will undoubtedly continue to deteriorate, not simply in western borderlands, but throughout the People’s Republic of China.

Julia M. Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a doctoral candidate in modern East and Central Asian political history at Georgetown University. She currently serves as a predoctoral fellow in international security studies at Yale University.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Uighur Protests