Since the year 2000, China has widely expanded its laws pertaining to counter-terrorism by adding new clauses to many different amendments in its Criminal Law. Although the attacks did not result in a high number of deaths, the terrorist attacks, including the Hotan attack in 2011, the Aksu bombing in 2010, and the Kashgar attacks in 2011, prompted a strong punitive response by the Chinese government under the banner of ‘the War on Terror’. However, many scholars and lawyers are debating the effectiveness of the legal expansion and the purpose to which it served, particularly with regards to potential human rights violations and racially motivated targeting of Chinese citizens. The rest of this blog will evaluate the effectiveness of China’s counter-terrorism legal expansion and examine exactly who has been most affected.
What are the expansions?
First and foremost, the expansions introduce the first definitions of terrorist acts and terrorism. “Terrorist acts” are now defined in Chinese Criminal Law as “those acts which are intended to induce public fear or to coerce state organs or international organisations by means of violence, sabotage, threats or other tactics. These acts cause or aim to cause severe harm to society by causing casualties, bringing about major economic losses, damaging public facilities or disturbing social order.” ‘Terrorists’ are now defined as “those who organize, plot and conduct terrorist acts as well as those who are members of terrorist groups.” Furthermore, Chinese authorities now have the power to publish lists of suspected terrorists and freeze suspected terrorists’ assets.
Additionally, many amendments have been altered to increase punishments for people associated with terrorism. For example, anyone found guilty of being a terrorist leader can now expect ten years to life imprisonment instead of three to ten years. Other expansions include five years to life imprisonment for ‘serious’ cases of participating in or funding terrorism and ‘public surveillance’ to five years imprisonment for people who ‘disturb the public order’ by gathering in public places, blocking traffic, or obstructing agents of the state from carrying out their duties.
The Societal Milieu
The Chinese government classifies terrorism as one of three evils that threaten the social and national stability of the state. Together with separatism and religious fundamentalism, terrorism is seen as “a violent expression of the aim of ethnic separatism and the result of zealous religiosity on the part of minorities that threaten to displace the state.” Because the most threatening potential for acts of terror stems form the autonomous Xinjiang region, “where Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, resent the Chinese rule and controls on their religion, culture, and language,” the citizens of Xinjiang are expected to be most effected by counter-terrorism legal changes.
Piggybacking on the United States, Chinese legal expansions have been made in the name of War on Terror. Although some argue that the War on Terror is merely “a convenient cover to justify [the] brutal crackdown in East Turkestan [the name separatists give to calls for an independent state in the (Xinjiang) region],” the government maintains that it “is faced with the real threat of terrorist activities, and the struggle with terrorism is long-term, complicated and acute.”
But is it effective in curbing terrorism?
Despite the extremely high number of 18,227 arrests related to counter-terrorism expansions in the Xinjiang region for 2005, many human rights activists, including Amnesty International, have condemned the legal expansions as a way of targeting non-Han Chinese ethnic minorities. Amnesty International argues that the Chinese government is using the War on Terror for politically motivated reasons and to justify human rights abuses against political and religious dissidents, most namely the Uyghur people, who China openly blames for recent terrorist attacks. Additionally, some argue that the legal expansions are a tool to arrest and detain minority groups: “If you look at just the convictions or the arrests on ‘endangering state security’, the number of Uyghurs arrested against any other group of people is disproportionate.”
Through loose and vague definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts, China has left the door of legal interpretation open. The door is open so wide that people who peacefully demonstrate now fall under the definition of terrorism, which Amnesty International calls a blatant human rights abuse. Furthermore, peaceful political or religious opposition groups could now be branded as terrorist organizations, which seems to suggest that China could have orchestrated legal expansions to justify incarceration or punishment of any organization the Chinese government doesn’t condone.
Clearly, due to arrest rates, the new legal expansions with regards to counter-terrorism have been effective at something. Although there have been no new terrorist attacks since 2011, the effectiveness of Chinese counter-terrorism legislation is heavily disputed. Whether the laws have been effective at curbing terrorism or repressing political and religious dissents, it does not look like any massive change in Chinese penal codes is on the horizon.