‘Counter-Extremism’ in Xinjiang: Understanding China’s Community-Focused Counter-Terrorism Tactics
Last year, the Chinese propaganda apparatus claimed that the northwestern province of Xinjiang had to be saved from becoming “China’s Syria or China’s Libya.” After a succession of violent attacks — in Urumqi in 2009, in Beijing in 2013, and in Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 — the Chinese party-state turned to extreme measures to stabilize and control Xinjiang. The “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism,” launched in 2014, began the securitization of the region. The stabilizing effort went one step further by the end of 2016 with the appointment of Chen Quanguo, previously the Chinese Communist Party secretary of Tibet, as the party head of Xinjiang. Building on measures implemented in Tibet, Chen transformed the Uyghurs’ homeland into a police state. In early 2017, the recruitment of police forces increased exponentially, in line with efforts to establish close to 7,500 “convenience police stations” across the region to stabilize Xinjiang with a “grid-like” security apparatus. These securitization efforts also draw on technological development: a surveillance network using facial recognition, the collection of citizens’ biometric data, GPS tracking of private vehicles, and spyware in Uyghurs’ smartphones.
But the party’s campaign in Xinjiang goes farther than a deepening of security measures. Its most novel aspect is that it incorporates profound “counter-extremism” efforts aiming at changing the heart and minds of the local population. The People’s Republic of China Anti-Terror Law of 2016 defines extremism as “the ideological basis of terrorism” or, more broadly, “inciting hatred, discrimination, or agitating violence through distorting religious doctrines or other means.” While the term has been part of Chinese security policy in Xinjiang for a long time — the party-state refers to separatism, terrorism, and extremism as the “three evil forces” — extremism is now becoming increasingly predominant in the official discourse, much more than separatism in particular. But what exactly does this new emphasis imply? Does it reflect a paradigm change or simply old wine in new bottles?
Drawing on interviews with Chinese sources, central and local official documents, and expert analyses, this article argues that the Chinese Communist Party’s focus on extremism as the main threat in Xinjiang aims to legitimize mobilizing the population for a massive social transformation of the region. The goal is to justify what the party-state describes as a preventive approach to terrorism, focused on blunting the influence of religious extremism over large segments of the Uyghur population. The establishment of re-education camps all over the region is the most obvious embodiment of this policy. In addition, the government’s emphasis on extremism connects its policy toward Xinjiang with what other nations have undertaken in the name of the global war on terror. This highlights Chinese authorities’ willingness to legitimize their policy, both internally and abroad, and to produce their own alternative discourse on the issue.
Counter-Extremism in Xinjiang: Targeting the Community, Not the Individual
Chinese experts distinguish two different strategies to deal with extremism: “de-extremification” (qujiduanhua,去极端化) and “counter-extremism” (fanjiduanhua, 反极端化). The former is focused on individuals while the latter focuses on groups, but in both cases, the aim is to change minds and behaviors . While the first term, “de-extremification,” is the most used, it is the group-focused approach which prevails. As a local Xinjiang official reportedly put it: “You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops in the field one by one — you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.”
“Counter-extremism” has progressively become a watchword for Chinese government efforts to transform Xinjiang. It was first mentioned in 2012 by the province’s local government. The term has since become an important part of Xinjiang government work reports, starting in 2014. This process resulted in the 2017 drafting of the “Xinjiang Autonomous Region Regulations on de-extremification,” the country’s first legal text on the topic. Illustrating the new importance accorded to extremism among the “three evil forces,” a recent interview given by the chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region mentions extremism 25 times, while separatism is only mentioned once.
Chinese experts I have interviewed suggest that the party-state has turned toward counter-extremism because it has tried all traditional anti-terrorism measures, particularly the gradual intensification of the security apparatus in the region, without eradicating the problem. Another justification is that attack perpetrators tend to be young (the average age of the 2014 Urumqi attack perpetrators was 26) and seen as malleable. Hence, beyond the terrorists’ “flesh,” the new campaign focuses on their “souls.”
The focus on extremism broadens the scope of state intervention beyond the direct prevention of terrorism. It justifies going beyond targeted anti-terrorist measures to focus on the transformation of the local society: The state must intervene in the culture, customs, and thoughts of the local population. Chinese authorities have published lists of illegal extremist activities: According to the 2017 Xinjiang regulations, it is, for instance, forbidden to use one’s “appearance, clothing and personal adornment, symbols, and other markings to disseminate religious fanaticism, disseminate religious extremist ideologies, or coerce others to wear extremist clothing or religious extremist symbols. The state has also listed “unusual behaviors” that are considered signs of extremism and have to be monitored. It includes storing large amounts of food, quitting smoking or drinking, and not crying at funerals.
This community-based approach to extremism led to the widespread application of “transformation through education” to Uyghurs. Reports generally indicate that large numbers of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been placed in re-education facilities in Xinjiang since 2014. A recent amendment to the Xinjiang de-extremification regulations aimed at making these practices legal, but their legality remains contested.
Mobilizing the population
Chinese experts emphasize that in order to work, “counter-extremism” requires the massive mobilization of the population. This mobilization is part of the “people’s war on terrorism” launched in 2014. In parallel to military efforts, this involves a “war against extremism” which takes place in education, on the Internet, in cultural sectors, etc. The mobilization aims at expanding the popular consciousness of terrorist and extremist risks, teaching people how to recognize extremism, and uniting social forces against the “three evil forces.” This strategy was included in the Anti-Terror Law of 2016, which called for establishing joint coordination mechanisms to mobilize grassroots organizations, stipulated that citizens have the duty to assist the authorities in the fight against terrorism, and encouraged the establishment of volunteer groups and civilian intelligence gathering groups in local communities.
In Xinjiang, more than a million Chinese civilians have been mobilized to support the police and the military with the “counter-extremism” campaign. Work teams of officials have been sent to communities to assess the local situation and identify extremists. Also, as part of the “becoming family” program, discussed in a recent Human Rights Watch report and mentioned by several experts and observers, public-sector employees from the Han Chinese ethnic majority are sent to stay regularly with Uyghur families to monitor and indoctrinate the local population. Following a similar logic, the “linking couples” policy asks Han public-sector employees to identify Uyghur colleagues and live for a period of time in their home, according to my interviews with party-state officials. The goal of these programs is to replace existing ties and connections within communities.
Extremism as a global issue
Beyond domestic mobilization, the terminology of extremism is also used to legitimize the state’s efforts in Xinjiang on the international stage. As a response to the international backlash against its policy in Xinjiang, China draws parallels between its “counter-extremism” campaign and what it sees as similar efforts in the western world. At the same time, China stresses the comparative efficiency of its radical policies, as they focus on the community as a whole rather than targeted individuals.
China’s efforts to secure international legitimacy for its Xinjiang policy have evolved. First, it denied the existence of camps in the region. Responding to a press request on the issue in May 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “had not heard” of such a situation. A few months later, the official propaganda apparatus started to publish articles on the establishment of what is officially called “transformation through education” or “counter-extremism education” facilities to curb extremism in Xinjiang . As the chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region put it in an interview published in English:
Xinjiang has provided [trainees] with free vocational training through vocational education institutions to improve their ability in commanding the country’s common language, acquiring legal knowledge and vocational skills, among others. In that way, Xinjiang can better guard against the infiltration of terrorism and extremism.
The Chinese government has also drawn parallels with deradicalization practices in the Western context. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “The relevant practices in China are no different from those in the UK, France and the US. They are all the active efforts we have made to prevent terrorism and eliminate extremism with the view to nipping the evil in the bud.” But these efforts to draw parallels to Western efforts belie very different realities: Rather than targeted policies focusing on radicalized individuals, which are more common in the United States and Europe, the Chinese party-state promotes a community-focused strategy aiming at the social transformation of Xinjiang. In fact, the party-state acknowledges this distinction by capitalizing on the inefficiency of Western deradicalization programs. The policy implemented in Xinjiang is presented as more efficient, as it targets the community rather than individuals.
Chinese authorities use the concepts of extremism and “counter-extremism” as an attempt to legitimize their policy in Xinjiang in the eyes of both the domestic population and the international community. The goal is to justify a massive mobilization of the population and a long-term securitization strategy in Xinjiang: Contrary to separatism, which is by definition limited geographically, extremism is a problem for the whole nation and can be found anywhere. Thus, rather than a campaign limited in time or space, the more expansive counter-extremism campaign has become the new normal in Xinjiang and seems to be here to stay. This strategy is also expanding beyond Xinjiang, as local governments from provinces with large Muslim populations have signed cooperation agreements with Xinjiang on extremism.
Overall, the evolution in terminology highlighted here is crucial, as it helps to underscore the shift from pure securitization to a preventive approach. The trend echoes the writings of Hu Lianhe, one of the initiators of the new “counter-extremism” campaign, who argues that the “standardizing of human behaviour” is a prerequisite of stability. Thus, rather than an exception, Xinjiang can be seen as a laboratory for the Chinese party-state’s social engineering policies.
Jérôme Doyon is a Departmental Lecturer at the School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. His research focuses on Chinese domestic politics, in particular the Party-State apparatus, elite politics, political youth organizations, and the management of ethno-religious minorities. He is also an Associate Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Image: David Stanley