China’s War on Terror

Benjamin Lai is an expert on modern Chinese military and the author of  The Dragon’s Teeth. Here, he talks about China’s methods of dealing with Islamic terrorism.

The public face of PAP in Afghanistan, the Chinese embassy protection force

In the Western media the topic of terrorism is always linked to the Middle East, rarely is the word “Terror” associated with China. A recent news report by the BBC’s Chinese website (1st March 2017, heightened the threat of Islamic Terrorism in China. The BBC headline reads: “ISIS is threatening to turn China’s Xinjiang (China’s Western Province) to a river of blood” (IS威胁中国要让新疆血流成河“). The ISIS website carries a 30 minute video supposedly of a young Uyghur youth in camouflage uniform carrying an assault rifle making a pledge of loyalty for a holy war against China.

Terrorist attacks in China are nothing new. In 2014, a team of Islamic terrorists went on a knifing rampage in the ticket hall of Kunming’s train station and left 31 civilians and 4 perpetrators dead with more than 140 others injured. The police blamed Xinjiang separatist terrorists. An attempt to hijack flight GS-7554 by Uyghur terrorists in 2012 ended without any fatalities but an attack in Aksu, Xinjiang back in 2015 did not end so well. An unidentified group of knife-wielding men attacked off-duty workers at a coal mine, killing 50, among them 5 police officers. Just last month, a large show of force was instigated in Xinjiang after a violent knife attack resulted in five deaths.

PAP anti-terror troops assemble for a final “word of encouragement” before embarking on an anti-terror mission. This picture is a taken from a screen shot of the Government military media channel

As a result, the authority has tightened security around many of China’s public places. Visitors to China may be alarmed by airport security checks when entering many of the nation’s urban metro systems. A recent announcement was made that rewards for informants would be 5 million Yuan or $726,000. The mandatory installation of GPS trackers for cars in one prefecture of Xinjiang highlighted the enormity of the issue.

This has recently been particularly sensitive as the government is holding high-level political meetings, known as the “two meetings” (the National People’s Congress – China’s parliament and the People’s Political Consultative Conference) in Beijing and coupled with the exposés of the ISIS video, those of us who live in China have seen an unprecedented heightening of security all around the city. Maybe it was coincidence that a few weeks ago the Chinese media was flooded with a series of PR pictures of a huge PAP force (People’s Armed Police, the nation’s internal security force) on “exercise” somewhere in Xinjiang. Maybe the authorities were anticipating that something was indeed stirring.

Retired Chinese military personnel conducting training in Afghanistan

Xinjiang is sensitive not only on account of the large Uyghur population but the fact it also shares a land border with Afghanistan. Although only 60 miles long, there is no modern road that crosses the Wakhan Corridor, the narrow strip of territory that connects the two countries and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. Despite the danger, Chinese companies are investing in Afghanistan, particular in mining with copper one of the biggest Chinese investments.  China’s perceived neutrality in Central Asia and the Middle East has allowed it to come to an understanding with the Taliban about the security of the Mes Aynak copper mine, which was signed over to China’s state-owned Metallurgical Group Corporation in 2008. This investment in Afghanistan is important to China as it is part of President’s Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road (aka One Belt, One Road) project. In September last year, the first freight train to travel from China to Afghanistan arrived in the northern city of Hairatan. According to a Central Asia Analyst, reports shows that PLA troops have “undertaken joint patrols with their Afghan (and possibly also Tajik) counterparts on Afghan soil.” Without further verification, I cannot say if this is true or not, but it is unlikely that the PLA would be involved but if “uniformed” troops were spotted, these are mostly likely the People’s Armed Police, who have similar uniforms to the PLA. Many Western observers are not familiar with the ins and out of the Chinese security apparatus and often get them mixed up. This observation carries weight as the Financial Times reported in February that although Beijing has ‘denied its troops were in Afghanistan, it has confirmed it was engaging in “joint counterterrorism operations” with Kabul’. Ren Guoqiang 任国强, the spokesman for the PLA, said the patrols were “law enforcement authorities” which means they were from the PAP, not PLA.   

Although the rise of terrorism is a very complex issue, a common theme in many cases (but not all) is the issue of poverty. To combat the relative underdevelopment of the Western region of China, Xinjiang has suddenly become a tax haven for the rich, turning it into a Chinese version of the British Virgin Islands. A recent Merger and Acquisition by a leading billionaire movie maker Ms Zhao Wei 赵薇 highlighted this new tax loophole. While the normal corporate tax is 25% for the rest of China, the nominal corporate tax rate in Xianjing is just 15% and if some added incentives were included, this could drop to as low as 9%. Only time will tell if this attempt to reduce the region’s poverty will also lead to fewer terrorist attacks.

For more about the China’s relationship with the United States and North Korea, check out Benjamin Lai’s latest book, The Dragon’s Teeth: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army—Its History, Traditions, and Air Sea and Land Capability in the 21st Century.

Published by Casemate Books, The Dragon’s Teeth is available from:



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