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The Evolution of China’s ‘Preventive Counterterrorism’ in Xinjiang

Peace Mission 2018

China’s northwestern Xinjiang region is now the site of the largest mass repression of an ethnic and/or religious minority in the world. Since 2016, over 1 million people, mostly ethnic Uyghurs, have been detained without trial in a system of “re-education” camps while the broader population is subjected to a dense network of hi-tech surveillance systems, checkpoints, and interpersonal monitoring that severely limit personal freedom.

Beijing defends these policies by claiming they together constitute a “preventive counterterrorism” strategy that enables the state to detect early signs of radicalization among the Uyghur population and to educate at-risk individuals before they commit attacks. It is easy to dismiss this as post facto justification for a system of draconian social control and cultural cleansing, but the discourse and practice of China’s counterterrorism doctrine reveals the full scope of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ambition.

Through an analysis primarily of Chinese government documents, Chinese state media reports, and Chinese academic sources, we demonstrate how preventive counterterrorism in Xinjiang combines key practices (e.g. greater reliance on new surveillance technologies) and discourses of the “global war on terrorism” with the CCP’s evolving Leninist governance methodology of “social management.”

A clearer understanding of the Chinese strategy demonstrates that the CCP has not simply instrumentalized terrorism as a means of repressing ethnic and religious minorities; it has also pioneered a new and insidious (and potentially exportable) technology of control that seeks the negation of the very possibility of societal resistance. The goal, as Deputy Secretary of the Xinjiang CCP Zhu Hailun has remarked, is to “weave a dense social prevention and control network” that permits “no cracks, no blind spots, no gaps” in the Party’s supervision of society. In this regard, Xinjiang can be seen as an experimental laboratory for the party’s broader efforts to socially re-engineer Chinese society.

Seeing Like the Chinese State 

The Party-state’s securitization of Uyghur identity has long been evident. However, this markedly increased in intensity with the 2016 changeover to Chen Quanguo and Zhu as the CCP secretary and deputy secretary respectively in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It has been under Chen’s watch that the Party-state has implemented what two theorists at Xinjiang Police University, Ding Wang and Dan Shan, term the “Xinjiang mode” of counterterrorism. This combines the war model of counterinsurgency adopted by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan with China’s own public security model and governance model.

The public security model is “based on the construction of the anti-terrorism intelligence system” that endows public security forces with “the ability to obtain information on signs, tendencies … related to violence and terrorism” and thereby enhance “social prevention and control capabilities.” In Xinjiang, this system rests on the integration of grid-style management, where communities are segmented into geometric zones policed by “convenience police stations,” with CCTV surveillance systems and databases that aggregate and map suspicious activity or behaviors of citizens. The objective, as Chen Quanguo has noted, is to achieve “comprehensive, round-the-clock and three dimensional prevention control” and to ensure that terrorists are caught “before they appear.”

That such surveillance of the public security model is but a means to an end is demonstrated by Wang and Shan’s description of the governance model component of the Xinjiang mode, which emphasizes that the “scientific and effective management” of terrorism in the region requires that the Party resolve the “ethnic and religious ideological issues” that give rise to extremism.

Here, the Party’s prescription to ensure that Uyghurs have immunity to extreme terrorism combines both ideological and material elements. First, religious extremism is deemed to be an ideological problem that can only be solved by ideological methods of sustained education of the population in order to reject the brainwashing of distorted religious views. Second, the state must buttress these ideological methods with the “construction of people’s livelihood.” It is only through such means, Wang and Shan conclude, that “people of all ethnic groups move closer to secularization and modernization.”

The anti-terrorism intelligence system established by grid management and technological surveillance permits the state to undertake the “social sorting” necessary for the achievement of these objectives of ideological remolding and modernization by providing the necessary information to not only identify and categorize individuals as prone to “distorted religious views” but to assign to them specific penalties and training or employment programs. The surveillance apparatus, for instance, has been used to document individuals’ display of one or more of the “48 signs of extremism” as one measure of assessing which penalties or sanctions are to be applied.

The Party’s Justifications for “Re-education” in Xinjiang

The Xinjiang mode does not simply increase the Party-state’s ability to identify and interdict individuals but also to engage in a systematic attempt to manufacture the consent of the Uyghur population by actively shaping individual thought and behavior. That this second element is central to the Xinjiang mode is demonstrated by a closer examination of the legislative and discursive architecture that has been erected to support the security state in Xinjiang.

Following the passage of China’s National Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016, which defined extremism as the “ideological basis for terrorism,” Xinjiang passed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification in March 2017. This regulation was significant for not only demonstrating the Party’s objective to categorize and sanction those displaying signs of extremist behavior but also for its intention to undertake “educational transformation” of such individuals.

Article 3 defined “extremification” as “speech and actions under the influence of extremism, that imbue radical religious ideology, and reject and interfere with normal production and livelihood,” while Article 9 enumerated 15 primary expressions of extremist thinking, such as having abnormal beards, religious names, niqabs and burqas, and “failing to perform the legal formalities in marrying or divorcing by religious methods.” Where Article 9 is violated, the regulations noted, public security organs are empowered to give public security administrative sanctions including individual and group education on the legal system, ideology, behavioral correction, and skills training.

China’s August 2019 white paper on “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang” further detailed the Party-state’s objective to define and regulate Uyghur values, beliefs, and loyalties. Based on the principle of “striking the minority in isolation and uniting and educating the majority,” this document asserts that the state must not only deal with “terrorist crimes in accordance with the law” but also “educate and rescue personnel infected with religious extremism” in order to treat “both symptoms and the root causes” of religious extremism. Through education and training, the training centers would promote development, increase the people’s overall income, and help Xinjiang “achieve social stability and enduring peace.”

The latest white paper on “Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang,” released Sept. 17, further underlined the Party-state’s linkage of religious belief and under-development as root causes of extremism among Uyghurs. The document asserts that the enduring poverty of many parts of Xinjiang has been due to the fact that “terrorists, separatists and religious extremists have long preached that ‘the afterlife is fated’ and that ’religious teachings are superior to state laws,’ inciting the public to resist learning the standard spoken and written Chinese language, reject modern science, and refuse to improve their vocational skills, economic conditions, and the ability to better their own lives.” This has caused local people to have “outdated ideas,” “suffer from poor education and employability,” and have “low employment rates and incomes.”

The now well-documented use of forced or coerced Uyghur labor thus emerges here not as an improvised outgrowth to the system of re-education but rather as integral part of the Xinjiang mode of counterterrorism. The graduation of thousands of Uyghurs from vocational training to become low-skilled labor in factories directly connected or close to re-education facilities, for example, achieves a number of important goals for the Party-state in this context: It places Uyghurs in Chinese-dominated environments and separates them from the familial, cultural, and religious connections that are deemed to make Uyghurs prone to extremism.

The Xinjiang mode of counterterrorism is thus not simply punitive and exclusionary in intent but also disciplinary and educative. While the anti-terrorism intelligence system permits the Party-state to identify, categorize, and sanction individuals on the basis of observed behaviors, the re-education system places emphasis on remolding the physical, ideological, and moral qualities of citizens.

The Party-state’s framing of the family separations that have resulted from the forced labor components of re-education is revealing, here. The secretary of the Party Committee of the Education Bureau of Yutian County, for example, noted to state media in October 2018 that because “the parents of these children were poisoned by extreme ideologies” and were “unwilling to send their children to school,”  the children “could not speak Mandarin and failed to develop a good life habits.” But, he said, after being enrolled in the elementary school of Yutian County Vocational and Technical Education Training Center, the children have developed “good daily habits” such as learning to wash their faces, brush their teeth, and attend to personal hygiene. The implication is clear: It is only by removing these children from their Uyghur environments can they hope to reach basic levels of “civilized” behavior.


In the context of Xinjiang, social engineering entails co-opting individuals into becoming loyal and complicit subjects of the Party-state by standardizing their behaviors, or through reformative training and punishment. It is only through these measures, as President Xi Jinping stated at the CCP’s Third Xinjiang Work Forum on Sept. 26-27, that Xinjiang can develop “into a region that is united, harmonious, prosperous, and culturally advanced.”

This “civilizing offensive” by a paternalistic state, which aims to alter and standardize individuals’ behavior and to inculcate lasting “civilized” habits in Xinjiang, is also highlighted in China’s social credit system. That system bears striking parallels to the system of predictive policing in Xinjiang, whereby the state’s ability to monitor an individual’s social interactions and physical movement through a combination of surveillance and grid management techniques enables it to make real-time assessment of an individual’s perceived threat to the regime.

The social credit system shapes and scores individual citizens’ economic and social behavior based on meta-data, in order to construct a “culture of honesty and integrity.” Like the visible and invisible aspects of the securitization and militarization of everyday spaces in Xinjiang, the system relies on both passive and active participation: The state has access to personal data linked to everyday conveniences, but individuals are also coerced to voluntarily conform to relinquishing their data privacy to allow the state to control, monitor and punish individuals for non-compliant behaviors.

Under Xi, the revolutionary ethos emphasized during the Maoist era has been brought back into Xinjiang through the mass line. During the Cultural Revolution, the mass line aimed to bring the Party-state closer to the masses by co-opting party cadres at the grassroots, serving to mold the will of the people towards the collective goal of national rejuvenation. In this same manner, the Party-state has used the discourse of the war on terrorism to mobilize the masses into collective action against separatism, extremism and terrorism. Under the pretext of de-extremification and poverty alleviation, party cadres visit households in the villages through two programs: Visit, Benefit, Gather, and Bonding as Relatives. The end goal is to serve as a means for the Party-state to support, centralize, modernize, and strengthen its own leading role at the grassroots level in Chinese society.

China’s preventive counterterrorism in Xinjiang has provided the Party-state with a powerful tool with which to identify and categorize potential deviants and extremists within the region’s Turkic Muslim populations. At the same time, the emphasis on the educative and curative aspects of the re-education and training facilities as a means for “rescuing” the individual from his or her ideological extremist propensities complicates the assumed distinction between the state’s care for and coercion of its citizens. In this manner, the state legitimizes its preventive counterterrorism as a form of benevolence that seeks the welfare of individuals.

It remains to be seen if the ongoing measures – heavy-handed securitization and repression, in combination with re-education and mandatory employment for huge numbers of Uyghurs – can actually provide a long-term solution to mitigating what the Party-state sees as the root of its extremism problem in Xinjiang. What is clear however is that the model of preventive counterterrorism that the CCP has developed and implemented has not only precipitated and justified extensive human rights abuses in Xinjiang but is both potentially transferable to other ethnic minority regions of China and exportable as a Chinese model of the “scientific” management of terrorism.

Based on the findings, we make the following recommendations in relation to China’s strategy of counterterrorism in Xinjiang:

  • The U.S. government should not engage in any substantive cooperation with China on counterterrorism issues until the re-education camps are verifiably closed. As we have detailed, counterterrorism remains Beijing’s core justification for the system of repression implemented. The George W. Bush administration’s acceptance of Chinese assertions after 9/11 that it too was waging a “war on terror” against Uyghur “extremists” in Xinjiang – including placing the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” on the U.S. State Department’s “Terrorist Exclusion List” in August 2002 and assisting in placing ETIM on the United Nations’ “consolidated list” of terrorist groups – has enabled China for nearly two decades to deflect criticism of its increasingly hard-line security measures in Xinjiang. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s de-listing of ETIM from the “Terrorist Exclusion List” on 20 October is a step in the right direction, the U.S. government should now undertake a systematic review of the nature of U.S. bilateral engagement with China on counterterrorism and explore means by which to encourage allies and partners around the globe to do the same.
  • The U.S. government should consider developing a mechanism to track and assess the global reach of Chinese companies in the provision of security and surveillance technologies. The recently passed U.S. Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act stipulates, among other measures, an annual report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence with updated assessments on Chinese companies involved in the building and operation of mass internment camps in Xinjiang and/or the production of technology for surveillance in the region. Tracking of the interconnections between the surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang, Chinese and foreign tech companies provides two potential pressure points that can be leveraged by the U.S. government. The Trump administration, via the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security’s (BIS) Entity List, has pushed the first of these. In October 2019 the administration added a number of major Chinese tech companies implicated in the surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang – such as video surveillance companies Dahua, Hikvision, Megvii, Yitu, Sensetime, and Yixin Science and Technology Co. Ltd, and voice recognition firm iFlytek – to the BIS Entity List as a means of limiting their ability to obtain components from U.S. tech giants such as Intel and Nvidia that have been crucial to the development of the surveillance state. Restricting the access of the implicated Chinese companies to U.S. technology is an imperfect solution however as such companies have simply been able to source supply chain alternatives or are investing heavily to boost their own R&D capabilities to fill the gaps. What is required is a systematic tracking and open source reporting by the U.S. government of supply chain connections between Chinese companies on the BIS Entity List and U.S. tech companies. Such an undertaking will increase the prospect of reputational risk for U.S. companies by making their conscious or unconscious complicity in Xinjiang’s surveillance state public. 
  • The U.S. government should recognise that in order to achieve meaningful international action on Xinjiang a broad coalition of states is required. This cannot simply be a US or even Western-led effort because it is too easy for Beijing to rebut and deflect such efforts and criticism as evidence of Western ‘double-standards’ given the colonial and imperial records of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Australia amongst others in undertaking mass detention, removal and exclusion of subject or indigenous populations. Rather, the U.S. government should focus diplomatic energy on the development of a broad-based coalition of states from the developed and developing worlds. The precedent of the campaign of sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa is apposite here. While there are clear distinctions in terms of the relative strength and interconnectedness of the target state, there is also a major similarity. The CCP’s shift from a strategy of integrating Uyghurs into a Han-centerd society toward one based on a racialized politics of exclusion and social re-engineering that threatens the very existence of an autonomous Uyghur culture suggests comparison with the “institutionalized discrimination” at the heart of aparthied-era South Africa. 

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University who specializes in the history and politics of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Chinese foreign and security policy. Clarke is the author of “Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia – A History” (Routledge 2011) and editor of “Terrorism and Counterterrorism in China: Domestic and Foreign Policy Dimensions” (Oxford University Press 2018). His work has been published in prominent international outlets including Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, China Brief, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, The Australian, The Age, and The National Interest.

Stefanie Kam Li Yee is a Ph.D. student at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy and an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. She is completing her dissertation on China’s counterterrorism policy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.

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