When will China learn?

I must admit I am getting tired of seeing nation states repeat the same mistakes they made previously in counter terrorism policy.   I suppose the only saving grace is that the officials making these errors are sometimes not the same ones who made the errors initially, but can’t they learn from previous ill-considered policies?

In previous blogs I have taken Turkey and Egypt to task over their treatment of Kurdish and Muslim Brotherhood “militants” respectively (see these posts here and here).  Today it is China’s turn.

For those not familiar with terrorism in China, a large part of it stems from the situation in the far northwestern province of Xinjiang.  A Turkic people, the Uighurs, have inhabited the area for centuries and are Muslim.  Within that population, a few have resorted to terrorism to defend their way of living and attack the Chinese state: a few mass casualty attacks have been carried out in China by Uighur extremists.  A 2014 knife attack at a train station in Kunming that killed 29 was particularly horrific.

So China is correct to crack down on this, right?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, terrorism always has to be met with a stern response.  Identify the terrorists and neutralise them.  But the Chinese government is exacerbating the situation with incredibly stupid short-term policies – such as banning fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan (see story here) – and equally dangerous long-term policies such as the “hanification” of Xinjiang (i.e. encouraging ethnic Han people to move to the province and lessen the Muslim majority).  This is similar to China’s policy in Tibet where years of economic incentives for the majority Han to migrate to the plateau, as well as restrictions on Buddhist practices and the use of the Tibetan language, have led hundreds of monks to self-immolate in protest.  You know things are bad when Buddhist monks kill themselves.

And now China has announced a new counter-terrorism law that will give the autocratic state even more powers to dominate its population.  The fact that the government is nervous was seen in a decision today to eject a French journalist who wrote that it was the state’s policies that were stoking unrest in the northwest (see NYT article here).  Kill the messenger, in other words.

It seems as if everything Chinese officials are doing is set to make matters worse.  Why do states not see that heavy-handed policies against general populations seldom work, unless inordinate force is used and many are sacrificed regardless of the threat they pose?  The unfortunate truth is that while China’s moves in Xinjiang may eventually quell the rather small extremist movement and decimate the local Uighur population, it will only feed more terrorism and violence down the road.

Turkey has been down this road and failed.  So has Egypt.  Why won’t China see this and act in a more reasonable way?

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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