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Sieren's China: Worry instead of gratitude

Cooperating with China to combat the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” would be easier if China was more constitutional, says DW’s Frank Sieren.

After the deadly attacks in Paris, landmarks in more than 60 cities around the world paid tribute in lights. The Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai joined in, lit up over the weekend in the French tricolore of red, white and blue to show support – an unprecedented action in China.

As expected, Chinese President Xi Jinping denounced the attacks as “barbaric terrorist acts” and expressed his condolences on Saturday, just moments before traveling to the G-20 summit in Turkey. Xi also expressed China's commitment to work closely with other countries against terrorism. Beijing combats the "Islamic State" ("IS") along the country's western borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China and its IS problem

It was not a coincidence that, on Saturday, China's state-controlled media published rare images of armed units fighting against terrorist groups in the problematic western region of Xingjiang. The images showed policemen in full black armor ready to seize a house in a rural area. The caption read: “Paris has been attacked in one of the worst terrorist acts in history, injuring and killing hundreds. On the other side of the world, Chinese policemen successfully take down a terrorist operation after 56 days of pursuit.” The images came from a state security-run microblog..

The message may work in China but not in the West. If anything, it is not perceived with gratitude or reassurance, but with worry. Beijing's authorities deal with non-violent minorities and protesters the same way that the West deals with terrorists: shoot first, ask questions later. Alleged sympathizers and masterminds are met with the same fate.

Firm hand generates extremism

The arrest of Professor Ilham Tothi last year is just one example. He received a life sentence after a simple two-day trial, accused of establishing a “criminal syndicate” for Uyghur separatism. True or not, the conviction is incomprehensible. While on one hand the sentence works as a deterrent, on the other hand, Tothi‘s sentence is perceived as such an injustice that even moderate Chinese Muslims have gone into hiding. They are also now prepared to resort to violence more than before. Their anger towards the unconstitutional actions of the state security and party grows large.

Since the massacre in Paris, Europe's desire for tough action is as widespread as ever and reminiscent of America's response after the September 11 terrorist attacks. China's drastic measures and France's state of emergency though differ significantly. French authorities are allowed to search homes, arrest suspects without warrants, and, just like in China, to break up gatherings and impose curfews. Yet the victims have the opportunity to pursue legal action and turn to the media to express their complaints. There is at least the possibility to punish authorities for an excessive use of force, whereas in China there is no such recourse.

This makes Beijing one of the most complicated allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. The alliance depends on how threatened China is by the IS and how long China and the West remain on the same page regarding terrorism. The Islamic State declared China as being one of the biggest enemies of Islam at the end of last year. Ever since then, more attacks have been carried out. Last summer there were knife attacks at a train station in Kunming and at a market in Urumqi, killing over 30 people. Most of the victims, just like those in Paris, were killed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In October, the Uyghur people were the victims. A knife attack killed 50 employees and five policemen at a coal mine in the Aksu prefecture.

Lack of solidarity with China

There is something Beijing can be upset about: the lack of solidarity shown by the West after the attacks in China. In both occasions, innocent people were victims of barbaric terrorist actions. Beijing has every right to be displeased, especially as most Chinese are convinced that the West is responsible for the growth of IS after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military meddling in Libya, Egypt and Syria, and isolation of Iran. Beijing regards the West's military efforts to bring balance to the Middle East as dangerous and naïve, an assessment which is not wrong.

Meanwhile, Beijing has relied on negotiations and economic cooperation for years to stabilize the region, making sure that no group gains too much power. An increasing number of politicians from the West are starting to see China's approach as rational. The pressure to work along China has become stronger and the G-20 summit in Turkey is just another example of it. Cooperating with China to combat terrorism would certainly be easier if China were to be more constitutional.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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