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China

Sieren's China: Beijing charts unknown territory with counter-terrorism law

The fight against international terror won’t be won without international cooperation. Beijing is having to rethink its counter-terrorism strategies, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

It isn't quite over, but 2014 has already gone down in history as the year in which China experienced a record number of terrorist attacks, and saw them claim a record number of people's lives. Terrorism in China has long been restricted to the restive Xinjiang region in the far west, home to the Muslim Uighur minority group, and was perpetrated by lone fanatics or small cells.

But what has happened this year is different. The country's leaders and the general public alike are becoming aware that terrorism is no longer just something that happens on the evening news, but outside their front door. In March, 29 civilians were killed at the main railway station in Kunming in southern China, and according to the official investigation, the attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatists. Four of the Uighur Muslims responsible were shot by police at the scene, while three more assailants were apprehended and sentenced to death. A female perpetrator who was pregnant was sentenced to life in prison.

Terrorism has well and truly arrived in China, so it is hardly surprising that the National People's Congress in November published a controversial draft counter-terrorism law. Paragraph 76 authorizes the army and the paramilitary police to carry out counterterrorism missions abroad.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Re-thinking the strategy

This is not unusual: the fight against international terrorism requires international efforts, and Beijing believes that international Islamists are behind the growing threat to its national security - even though it has no concrete evidence to back this up.

It is no longer enough just to increase the police presence, especially if the attacks are organized abroad. For the Chinese, who for some time have only operated within their own borders and have hardly seen foreign missions as an option, this is new territory. So far, only the Chinese police has taken part in UN peace missions.

But it is clear that since the US has largely withdrawn from the Middle East, terrorist activities in China have increased.

Sending goods rather than weapons and promoting economic development is still a sensible strategy and has eroded support for terrorists among the population in many regions. But it can be slow to take effect, and in the meantime the terrorists aren't wasting time. "Islamic State" militants have already declared that freeing Xinjiang is on their agenda. China is now confronted with a problem that the West, particularly the US, has suffered from for some time.

New problems, new plans

In comparison to the US, which is flanked by two oceans, China is at a disadvantage: Afghanistan and Pakistan are neighbors. A narrow corridor connects the troublesome province of Xinjiang with an eastern Afghan region in which many terrorists have sought refuge and where they undergo training. Weapons can easily be brought into China. And as long as Beijing does not want to cross the border the source of weapons and ammunition will not run dry.

The president's remarks earlier this year about how the Chinese public must build a "wall of bronze and iron" to fight terrorism, and "make terrorists become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting 'beat them'," did not bode well.

The new draft law, however, shows that Beijing is not about to act recklessly. It contains a clause stating that soldiers and armed police should only be deployed to countries whose governments have agreed to the operation. It is therefore highly unlikely that Chinese special forces will soon be showing up uninvited in foreign countries alongside US Seals, or that Chinese drones will start violating foreign airspace, as American ones do. Not for the time being, anyway.

One of Germany's leading experts on China, Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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