Xinjiang in the 2018 U.S. Country Report on Terrorism

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Mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang
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On 1 November 2019, the United States has finally issued the 2018 Country Report on Terrorism. The yearly-report is a comprehensive overview of the situation in various countries that struggle with terrorism. It focuses on the examination of the counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-violent extremism (CVE) policies implemented by each state while also evaluating the overall environment and international cooperation.

One of the discussed topics in this year’s report was the situation in Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) as part of China’s country report. While China’s CT efforts in Xinjiang were already mentioned in the 2017 Report, there has been a number of significant changes which all together lead to a strengthened specific narrative surrounding China’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Domestic Situation

To begin with, the overall report stresses the current conflation between China’s response to terrorism and its suppression of peaceful ‘subversive’ activities. As pointed out by the report, this means that China now uses the terrorism narrative to implement any policies it deems necessary in its fight against (not only) Uighur separatism. This is, according to the report, corroborated by one of the main differences between 2017 and 2018 Reports – the lack of any terrorist attacks in the XUAR region. While in 2017 there was a number of incidents reported inside China, in 2018 the US authorities were unable to verify any terrorist acts given the lack of transparency and information. The report, in fact, underlines that the absence of any incidents is what China ultimately uses to justify their approach. This efficient justification is what makes it hard to rule out that the lack of information might be a deliberate move from the Chinese side, especially if one takes into account the reported reluctance of Chinese officials to respond to the US law enforcement official request for information.

While many of China’s CT terrorism policies resemble standard laws in other countries, it is the lack of transparency that contributes to the ongoing debate about China’s abuse of CT narrative. Most importantly, it is the definition of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ that seems too broad and allows for arbitrary designation that suits political interests rather than an effective security measure. Regarding the legislation, the 2018 saw further tightening of CT laws substantiated by the new joint guidelines on legal procedures for terrorist crimes. The changes in legislation also include the legal provision for ‘vocational skills training centers’ for ‘deradicalization’ which is the first time the law referred to the training centers effectively providing the camps in Xinjiang with a legal cover. In addition, law enforcement cooperation was strengthened between XUAR and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region raising worries over the spread of Xinjiang-like policies into other parts of China.

International level

On the international level, China now has an extradition treaty on the basis of terrorism charges with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members. This is especially worrying as the measure could be used to extradite Uighurs on the pretext of ‘terrorism’ charges. In comparison, the 2017 report mentioned the case of Egypt which arrested and deported 34 Uighurs with Chinese nationality after China ordered Uighur students in the country to return back to PRC. The extradition treaty now provides China with a legal way of achieving its means. However, the abuse of international mechanisms is nothing new as China has been for years accused of misusing the INTERPOL Red Notice system for its own political purposes. In 2017 for example, Italy detained a Uighur activist Dolkun Isa who was supposed to speak about the situation Xinjiang during the conference at the Italian Senate.   Finally, the weak spot of the 2018 Report seems to be the fact that it dropped its 2017 reference to ISIS and failed to mentioned other international groups that explicitly threaten China. While there were no reported attacks on Chinese citizens by ISIS in 2018, China has been continuously threatened and also targeted by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) which is now growing stronger in Afghanistan. Except for a brief passage on the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) which has been threatening China’s interest in Pakistan, this year’s report failed to elaborate enough on the external links between China’s internal CT policy and its external interest.

Barbara Kelemen is CEIAS Research Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter as @KelemenBarbara.