How China gets counter terrorism wrong

China is getting a lot of headline attention these days in Canada and elsewhere.  Most of this coverage revolves around Chinese attempts to have its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) buy up Western companies.  Some of these deals have been cancelled by Western authorities over security concerns.  The bottom line seems to be we in the West do not want to follow Chinese business practices.  Another pattern we might want to avoid is Chinese counter terrorism approaches.

Each nation has its own way of dealing with terrorism.  Some have chosen an overwhelmingly military response (e.g. Russia).  Others prefer to use softer approaches (e.g. Denmark).  Still others combine law enforcement/security intelligence-led strategy with religious re-indoctrination (e.g. Singapore).  No one response can necessarily be exported to another country without taking into consideration local characteristics, cultures, histories and scale of problem issues.

The PRC, however, seems to be getting this challenge completely wrong.   Government officials have settled on the creation of ‘re-education’ camps for their Uyghur Muslim citizens concentrated largely in the northwest province of Xinjiang.  In these camps Muslims – perhaps as many as one million – are housed in prison-like structures and are internment centres for all intents and purposes.  The government claims that it is responding to a serious security threat from Islamist extremists, who happen to come from within the Uyghur population and is engaged in ‘improving the conditions of its people’.

In fairness, Uyghur extremism is real.  I discussed the threat in my third book (The Lesser Jihads: Bringing the Islamist extremist fight to the world):  a number of serious terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by Chinese citizens who are indeed from the Uyghur ethno-religious group.  In addition, a significant number of Uyghur extremists left the PRC to join Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria and security officials, just like their counterparts elsewhere, will have to figure out what to do with the returnees.  One Uyghur-created terrorist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is tied to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Among the aforementioned attacks are:

  • In June 2103 27 people were killed by knife-wielding assailants in Shanshan county;
  • Three people were killed and 79 injured in knife attacks at an Urumqi train station in April 2014;
  • At least 31 people were killed and over 90 injured when a car drove into a market in Urumqi and extremists tossed explosives in May 2014;
  • In July 2014 a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station in Yarkant, killing 96;
  • Bomb blasts outside police stations and in a market in Luntai county killed 50 in September 2014.

Still, the PRC response to jam hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into these camps is wrong.   Yes, there are Uyghur extremists, but not hundreds of thousands of them.  There is credible reporting that authorities are cracking down on Muslim dress and beards as well.  This is no way to manage a relatively small terrorist problem.  Alienating normal citizens is a recipe for more terrorism, not less.

The PRC has raised alarm in the West over other issues such as its infamous ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea (and concomitant build-up of reefs that can be used for military purposes) and its insistence that Taiwan is part of China and not a separate republic.  To this we might want to add its counter terrorism strategy.

We in the West need to tell the PRC that its approach is counter-productive.  We should support China in condemning real terrorist attacks by real terrorists that target innocent civilians.  But at the same time we should tell the PRC that there are better ways to win ‘hearts and minds’ than interning whole populations.  The offer to help create effective CVE (countering violent extremism) programs is made.  It is time for China to choose wisely.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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