James P. MULDOON Jr.

Before the events of September 11, 2001, international terrorism was a remote concern for China. But now that terrorists have attacked in Asia—and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a threat on China’s own soil—the Chinese government is no longer willing to sit on the sidelines. As an increasingly large player in global strategic affairs, China has joined the international antiterrorism coalition.

The spread of international terrorism in Asia is of particular concern to China, since terrorism threatens China’s efforts to modernize economically, establish social stability, and improve relations with its neighbors. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States put antiterrorism at the top of Asia’s political and security concerns, creating an unusually strong consensus among Asian nations in support of antiterrorism action on all levels—bilateral, regional, and international. China had its own political reasons for joining the U.S.-led war on terror—specifically, the elimination from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of its main terrorist threat, the separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), supported by al-Qaeda. But China’s cooperation and leadership in the war on terror underscored a more important strategic decision by China to abandon its traditional position of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs as well as its opposition to multilateralism. In other words, China’s efforts to combat international terrorism indicate that a much broader strategic role is emerging for China in the world and may well elevate China to the ranks of the great powers.

Background: Terrorism in the 1990s

Before September 11 international terrorism was a rather remote concern for China and did not figure prominently in its foreign policy. Its exposure to terrorism was limited, and China had been basically on the sidelines in the fight against international terrorism. Although China had signed and ratified most of the international conventions and treaties against terrorism, the participation of China in international counterterrorism activities had been minimal, generally. International terrorism was considered mainly a scourge of the developed world, since the vast majority of terrorist acts were committed in Europe or the Middle East. China and East Asia were largely untouched by terrorism throughout the later years of the Cold War, allowing the region to concentrate more on developing its economies and maintaining internal stability. Furthermore, China was more concerned about its position in the strategic balance of Asia than about conflicts or antiterrorism far removed from China’s sphere of influence.

Of course, some violent and terrorist activities, mostly with economic motivations, did occur in China—for example, kidnappings, bank robberies, and armed drug trafficking. Most kidnappings and robberies took place in the eastern coastal regions, where the economy and overseasconnections were more developed, while drug trafficking generally originated in the northwest (for example, in Afghanistan and Xinjiang) and in the southwest. To be sure, terrorism of a political nature—such as the occasional hijacking of airplanes to Taiwan—also occurred. Yet even these hijackings were often simply a way to escape prosecution for economic crimes committed on the Chinese mainland. On the whole, the Chinese government treated these activities as ordinary criminal acts rather than acts of terrorism.

China became concerned about international terrorism in the early 1990s, after terrorist acts in Xinjiang by the separatist group ETIM; they were the most significant terrorist attacks to occur within the borders of China in modern times. These attacks, which involved bombings and armed attacks that targeted Chinese police and security facilities and personnel, compelled Chinese authorities to formulate an antiterrorism strategy for combating East Turkistan separatist groups—particularly the ETIM, which had gained the support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—and for ensuring the security and stability of Xinjiang. In this context, an antiterrorism corps was organized in Xinjiang with the support of the central government. Moreover, because the East Turkistan movement crossed borders, the Chinese authorities recognized that antiterrorism would need to include mechanisms for international cooperation.

But the problem of terrorism was not nearly as acute or pressing in East Asia as it was for the West during the immediate post–Cold War period and was overshadowed both on the international front and in China itself by globalization and the economic and political consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, bringing to an end the strategic rivalry between the two superpowers. For most of the 1990s, Chinese scholars and government officials remained focused on keeping up with the rapid pace of global change and the transformation of China’s economic system, while scholars of security and strategic issues were also busy tracking and analyzing the episodic crises on the Taiwan issue, tensions on the Korean peninsula, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and China’s strategic relationships with the United States, Japan, and the European Union. The importance of these international economic and strategic issues to China’s development and role in the world pushed the subject of international terrorism to the background.

Impact of September 11

It was only near the end of the 1990s that Chinese scholars and policy makers began to take more interest in the problem of international terrorism—particularly, that of militant Islamic groups, which were migrating to South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Terrorism was no longer a distant threat; it was actually approaching China’s doorstep. The danger became even greater after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. China’s sense of security was profoundly shaken by September 11 (as was that of the whole international community), causing a rapid shift in Chinese foreign policy toward Central and South Asia to meet the direct threat of al-Qaeda.

Antiterrorism became an urgent consideration in China’s relations with its Asian neighbors—particularly, countries to the west—after the September 11 attacks. Although al-Qaeda and its brand of Islamic extremism were a known and gathering terrorist threat to China’s western frontier prior to September 11, the al-Qaeda terrorist network’s long reach into Southeast Asia, unearthed after U.S. forces went into Afghanistan, was cause for considerable concern, as it might undermine the progress made in regional cooperation and might derail China’s agenda for regional economic integration and development. Thus, antiterrorism cooperation joined regional and global economic cooperation as top Chinese diplomatic goals.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, based on its new security concept, China has been actively promoting international antiterrorism cooperation on all levels. On the international level China has spoken out in favor of giving the United Nations the leading role in international efforts against terrorism, arguing that the organization provides an international legal framework for antiterrorism activities and that the Security Council—particularly, the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC)—is the best mechanism for coordinating counterterrorism activities. On the regional level, China has made antiterrorism cooperation a priority issue in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and the Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF).

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, China led the push to strengthen antiterrorismcooperation with its Central Asian neighbors and Russia through the SCO. Three days after September 11 in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, the SCO member states issued a joint statement that strongly condemned the attacks and renewed their determination to combat the “three evil forces”—separatism, terrorism, and extremism—as detailed in the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism. Chinese premier Zhu Rongji also proposed in Alma-Ata the creation of an SCO antiterrorism center, which was formally agreed to at the SCO’s St. Petersburg summit in June 2002 and established in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in October 2003. In other regional organizations such as APEC, ASEAN, and ASEM, China has pushed for greater antiterrorism cooperation in areas such as finance, shipping and transport, and intelligence. At the ASEM Copenhagen summit meeting in September 2002, Zhu helped forge an antiterrorism statement and cooperation plan. A year later an ASEM antiterrorism conference was held in Beijing. At the sixth summit meeting of China and ASEAN in November 2002, China agreed to expand its cooperation with ASEAN countries on nonconventional security issues like drug trafficking to include antiterrorism cooperation.

East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)

The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a small Islamic extremist group based in China’s western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It is the most militant of the ethnic Uygur separatist groups pursuing an independent “Eastern Turkistan,” an area that would include Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang Uygur A. R. of China. ETIM is linked to al-Qa’ida and the international mujahedin movement. In September 2002 the group was designated under EO 13224 as a supporter of terrorist activity.


ETIM militants fought alongside al-Qa’ida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. In October 2003, Pakistani soldiers killed ETIM leader Hassan Makhsum during raids on al-Qa’ida–associated compounds in western Pakistan. US and Chinese Government information suggests ETIM is responsible for various terrorist acts inside and outside China. In May 2002, two ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for plotting to attack the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan as well as other US interests abroad.


Unknown. Only a small minority of ethnic Uygurs supports the Xinjiang independence movement or the formation of an Eastern Turkistan.


Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and neighboring countries in the region.


ETIM has received training and financial assistance from al-Qa’ida.

Source: Sabasteanski, A.. (Ed.) (2005). Patterns of global terrorism. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

In October 2001 China, at the request of the United States, sealed its border of over ninety kilometers with Afghanistan to coordinate with American military actions in that country. After the United States captured some East Turkistan terrorists of Chinese nationality in Afghanistan, Chinese security officials were invited to join the interrogation of the detainees. In August 2002 the U.S. State Department formally included the ETIM on its list of terrorist organizations. This act was followed by a similar move on the part of the U.N. Security Council throughthe joint efforts of China, the United States, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. China-U.S. antiterrorism cooperation has become institutionalized through a number of expert-level working groups that exchange information and methods on terrorist financing, security of container ships, and intelligence. Significantly, the FBI now runs an office in Beijing, which also facilitates bilateral cooperation against drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, illegal immigration, and various other cross-border crimes. Similar bilateral consultation and cooperation mechanisms have been set up with Russia, India, and Pakistan. China has also had a series of bilateral dialogues and negotiations on antiterrorism with the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

On the Domestic Front

The September 11 terrorist strike, which shocked the world, also reinforced the determination of Chinese leadership to come up with a domestic antiterrorism mechanism for China. Shortly after September 11 China established the National Anti-Terrorism Coordination Group (NATCG) headed up by Hu Jintao. The National Ministry of Public Security also set up an antiterrorism bureau, which is responsible for the research, planning, guidance, coordination, and implementation of national antiterrorism efforts and for all counterterrorism investigations and enforcement. The antiterrorism bureau works closely with other ministries including foreign affairs, national defense, state security, customs, finance, and the People’s Bank of China, as well as with provincial and municipal antiterrorism bureaus, to improve China’s domestic counterterrorism capabilities.

The antiterrorism mechanism developed by the NATCG has four elements: (1) an early-warning and prevention system, which monitors the activities of terrorist groups in order to preempt terror attacks well in advance and to cut off their sources of funds; (2) a rapid-response system, which is designed to quickly remove terrorist threats or to contain the fallout of terrorist attacks (in almost every provincial capital China has deployed armed rapid-reaction antiterrorism troops); (3) an emergency control-and-management system, which focuses on the control of both physical and human losses in the wake of terrorist attacks or during their development (striving to contain the destructiveness of terrorist attacks and to restore order, China has drawn on New York City’s experience of September 11 and has increased coordination of police, fire fighters, armed troops, emergency rescue and medical personnel in emergency cases); and (4) a mass education and mobilization system, which increases the general public’s awareness of the government’s antiterrorism efforts and policies.

China has also expanded and clarified provisions related to terrorism in Chinese administrative, financial, criminal, and national security laws so as to more rigorously and effectively combat terrorism at home and abroad. The most extensive antiterrorism provisions can be found in the Chinese criminal code. In 1997 the Standing Committee of the eighth National People’s Congress amended the criminal code to include a specific antiterrorism provision—Article 120:

Whoever organizes, leads or actively participates in a terrorist organization shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than ten years; other participants shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, criminal detention or public surveillance.

Whoever, in addition to the crime mentioned in the preceding paragraph, commits other crimes of homicide, exploitation or kidnapping shall be punished in accordance with the provisions on combined punishment for several crimes.

After September 11 the Chinese government adopted another criminal-law amendment that is even more specific and detailed on terrorist crimes and brought the criminal code into conformity with counterterrorism obligations and requirements of international conventions on terrorism and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, particularly, resolution 1373.

Long and Difficult Fight Ahead

The priority target of the Chinese antiterrorism campaign is four East Turkistan organizations: the ETIM, the East Turkistan Liberation Organization, the World Uygur Youth Congress, and the East Turkistan Information Center. While the government has had some successin thwarting terrorist attacks by these groups in 2007 and early 2008, it has not been able to stop them totally as demonstrated by the terrorist attacks in the Xinjiang towns of Kashgar on 4 August 2008 and Kuqa on 10 August 2008, despite the extraordinary security measures for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China recognizes that it has a long and hard fight ahead in overcoming the Xinjiang insurgency and will have to strengthen its antiterrorism cooperation, regionally and globally, to win.

China’s war on terrorism is not restricted to battling the ETIM in Xinjiang and Central Asian terrorist groups that support and supply the ETIM. China is well aware that the global networks of terrorists and other international criminal organizations are a significant threat to the international system and to China’s national strategic and economic interests, which have progressively expanded beyond the Asia–Pacific region. Hence, it is not surprising that China has been very active in the international antiterrorism coalition. The war on terrorism has involved China in global strategic affairs at a much higher level than ever before, testing China’s power and influence in the world. Beijing is acutely aware of how much is at stake and that the price of failure will be high. So far, China has demonstrated that it has the capacity and capability to play a leading role in the international antiterrorism coalition alongside the other great powers.

Further Reading

Bolt, P. J., Su Changhe, & Cross, S. (Eds.). (2008) The United States, Russia, and China: Confronting global terrorism and security challenges of the 21st century. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

Chung Chien-peng. (2006). Confronting terrorism and other evils in China: All quiet on the western front? The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 4(2), 75–87.

Hu Shuli. (2008). Fighting terrorism over the long haul. Caijing Magazine, 216. Retrieved September 5, 2008, from http://english.caijing.com.cn/2008-08-19/100077365.html

Malik, M. (2002). Dragon on terrorism: Assessing China’s tactical gains and strategic losses post-September 11. Carlisle, PA: US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

Muldoon, J. P. (2003). International conference on international terrorism and counter-terrorism cooperation: A conference report. Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Muldoon, J. P. (2004). The impact of 9/11 on Chinese regional security cooperation. China Brief 4(12), 7–9.

Pan Guang. (2006). East Turkestan terrorism and the terrorist arc: China’s post-9/11 anti-terror strategy. The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 4(2), 19–24.

Shen, S. (Ed.). (2006) China and antiterrorism. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Wayne, M. I. (2007). China’s war on terrorism. London: Routledge.

Source: Muldoon, James P. Jr. (2009). Terrorism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2228–2232. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Terrorism (Kǒngbù zhǔyì 恐怖主义)|Kǒngbù zhǔyì 恐怖主义 (Terrorism)

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