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The Xinjiang calculus

China's National People's Congress unanimously passed the country's first counter-terrorism law on December 27. The new law has been hailed by some Chinese commentators as an "unambiguous legal document" that "conforms to the new developments in the global fight against terrorism" and as a tool to "help fight terrorism at home and help maintain global security". From this perspective, China is simply following in the footsteps of many other states in establishing a clear legal basis for the counter-terrorism activities of its national security agencies.

The law formalises counter-terrorism as a national security priority for Beijing through the establishment of a "national leading institution for counter-terrorism efforts" and provides a legal basis for the country's various counter-terrorism organs, such as the People's Liberation Army and People's Armed Police, to identify and suppress individuals or groups deemed to be "terrorists".

Chinese police patrol outside the court where the Kunming railway station bombers were tried. Photo: AP
Chinese police patrol outside the court where the Kunming railway station bombers were tried. Photo: AP Photo: AP

It also requires internet providers to provide technical assistance and information, including encryption keys, during counter-terror operations, and includes a provision by which the PLA or PAP may seek approval from the Central Military Commission to engage in counter-terrorism operations abroad.

While official pronouncements may stress that the law's primary purpose is to strengthen Beijing's ability to ensure the security and safety of the country's citizenry and interests both at home and abroad, a closer examination suggests that ensuring the security of the state, particularly in its restive province of Xinjiang, lies at its heart.

Since coming to power President Xi Jinping has expended a considerable amount energy on two core domestic security issues: Xinjiang and wenwei or "stability maintenance" campaigns. The former has been driven by nationally and internationally prominent terrorist attacks by Uighur militants such as the March 2014 Kunming railway station attack and the latter by rising numbers of violent incidents by "ordinary" Han Chinese related to personal gripes, local political grievances or corruption.

The new law's definition of "terrorism" as "propositions and actions that create social panic, endanger public safety, violate person and property, or coerce national organs or international organisations, through methods such violence, destruction, intimidation, so as to achieve their political, ideological, or other objectives" would appear to be broad enough to apply to events as distinct as the Kunming attack and the series of mail bomb attacks in Liucheng County in Guangxi in September last year that killed 10 people. Yet, acts such as those in Guangxi, in stark contrast to those in Kunming, have been labelled "criminal" rather than "terrorist" in nature by the authorities.

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The Xinjiang-centric nature of China's counter-terrorism agenda has also been implicitly acknowledged by officials with, for instance, Vice Public Security Minister Yang Huanning stating last year that while officials would view "the entire country as one chessboard" in the fight against terrorism, Xinjiang remained the "main battlefield". In fact key elements of the new law, such as its emphasis on a nation-wide, inter-government coordination of counter-terrorism operations and expanded electronic surveillance, including monitoring of cell phones and internet "firewalls", have been "road tested" in Xinjiang for some time.

The law's provision to enable elements of the PLA or PAP to engage in counter-terrorism operations abroad has also led some to suggest that Beijing is set to significantly modify its adherence to its much-touted foreign policy doctrine of "non-interference" in the face of rising Islamist terrorism inspired by IS.

Even here, however, Beijing's Xinjiang calculus is apparent. While Beijing has seized on reports that "hundreds" of Uighur militants have been engaged in fighting with various Islamist groups in Syria it has done so to convince the West that Uighur  terrorism in Xinjiang is "spiritually supported and commanded by foreign terrorist organisations" and mute international criticism of its hard-line policies in the region rather than to justify any shift toward Chinese intervention in the Syrian crisis.

This, as James Leibold has forcefully argued, suggests that "terrorism in China, as both a concept and a rhetorical device, is about securing and legitimising Chinese rule over the troubled regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. The perceived threat is one of domestic security and political instability rather than any global scourge on humanity as Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials would now have us believe". The international community would thus do well to keep Beijing's domestic calculus in mind when assessing the merits of China's emerging counter-terrorism approach for international security.

Dr Michael Clarke is associate professor at the National Security College at the ANU Crawford School and is the author of Xinjiang and China's Rise in Central Asia – A History. This piece was also published at www.policyforum.net