Print Edition - 2015-01-28  |  The Economist

Dodging peril

  • Instead of uniting China and the West, jihadist violence risks further dividing them
Dodging peril

Jan 27, 2015-

ONE foreign-policy issue on which, in theory, China and the West stand shoulder-to-shoulder is the fight against jihadist terrorism. When Chinese and Western leaders meet, their statements usually condemn terrorism “in all its forms” and pledge more co-operation in countering it. But reactions in China to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris and to recent successful counter-terrorism operations at home reveal a big gap in perceptions.

China criticised the Paris attacks unreservedly. But its press also blamed Charlie Hebdo for offending Muslims. The latest issue of another French magazine, Fluide Glacial, gave China a chance to show that it, too, is a victim of what Global Times, a Communist Party tabloid, calls “free-speech mania”. The magazine features a cartoon of a Frenchman pulling a rickshaw with a Chinese passenger, under the headline “Yellow Peril”. Not everyone, warned Global Times, is as “good-tempered” as China, whose officials loftily ignored the slur.

The West’s reactions to terrorism within China are seen as even more troubling. “Double standards in the fight against terror and acquiescence in religious extremism do no good to any party,” thundered China Daily, an official newspaper, this week. The paper was celebrating the busting of people-smuggling networks involved in helping ethnic-Uighur Muslims from China’s western region of Xinjiang flee the country, usually to Turkey and then, allegedly, to join extremists in Syria and elsewhere. In one incident last November, reported only this month, police in Shanghai arrested nine Uighurs who were trying to leave the country by air. Also detained were ten Turks and two Chinese citizens helping them—including with fake passports. Then this week, close to the border with Vietnam, two of five Uighurs trying to flee overland were shot dead; the others were captured.

The double standards China Daily detected were to portray such men not as terrorists but as “innocent, helpless members of an ethnic minority fleeing ‘suppression’ at home in pursuit of ‘freedom’.” By contrast, China depicts terrorist attacks blamed on Uighurs as fomented in part from abroad; and it wants to show that its own radicalised Uighurs are a global threat. Last month the Chinese press reported that 300 Chinese citizens were fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. According to the police, 352 people have been arrested in recent months for alleged involvement in people-smuggling, along with 852 Uighurs trying to leave the country. Hundreds more who managed to cross the border were detained last year in Thailand and elsewhere.

Some Uighurs have certainly been guilty of terrorism, including an appalling massacre—using knives—at the railway station in Kunming in south-western China last March in which 29 people were killed and 143 injured. Many private citizens in China feel aggrieved that the West has offered scant sympathy for the loss of life. On Chinese microblogging sites, the worldwide outpouring of grief and solidarity in France and elsewhere for the dead in Paris have been taken as proof of Western hypocrisy and prejudice. Did Chinese lives matter less?

The comparison between the reaction in the West to the Kunming and Paris attacks—and the sense of Chinese victimhood it betrays—seems bizarre. The Kunming

slaughter was far away and not covered live on television; the spread of the news abroad was further hampered by China’s restrictions on Twitter and Facebook, and other media; the Chinese government did not, as France’s did, encourage mass marches, inviting foreign leaders to join in; it was not immediately obvious to the outside world who the murderers were and why they had done it. And those who took part in the marches in France were doing so not just to oppose terrorism, but to support a principle: free speech.

But the microbloggers and China Daily are probably right that some in the West are blind to China’s terrorism problem. Many sympathise with the Uighurs, of whom even the law-abiding find it hard to leave China; so those fleeing are often seen as refugees from oppression. Even the 22 Uighurs detained by America at Guantánamo Bay were, upon release, scattered round the world rather than returned to China, lest their suffering at American hands be followed by persecution at home. By the same token, though, China is blind to the damage done by its own repressive policies. Ethnically and linguistically Turkic, Uighurs have long bridled at the influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang. Sporadic revolts have been harshly put down. Curbs on religious activity have stoked further anger and fuelled the radicalism they were supposed to curb. Moderate Uighur intellectuals have been hounded and jailed, leaving space for extremist influences from Afghanistan, with which Xinjiang shares a sliver of border, and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The Chinese Taliban

To solve its problems in Xinjiang, China needs to change tack both at home and abroad. If global jihad is at the root of its problems, it is not enough, as China has done, in effect to subcontract the war against it to America and its allies, and to hope that its client, Pakistan, will rein in extremist groups based on its soil. With the drawdown of foreign troops in Afghanistan China is indeed starting to play a more active diplomatic role, even inviting two officials from the Afghan Taliban to talks in Beijing late last year. When Xi Jinping, China’s president, visits Pakistan next month, he is likely to demand stronger action against the militant groups that China sees as a threat in return for the largesse it lavishes on the country.

Foreign policy may be beginning to adapt to the threat, but policy towards Xinjiang itself shows little softening of the iron fist China has deployed as the way to tackle discontent. That does not excuse terrorism, and China’s anger at suggestions that it does is justified. But repression is not working, and is making it hard to present a united front against jihadist terrorism.

 

Published: 28-01-2015 11:04

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