Breaking down the implications of China’s new anti-terrorism law

Breaking down the implications of China’s new anti-terrorism law

China’s new anti-terrorism law has been strongly criticized for infringing on a host of both corporate and human rights..

On December 27, 2015, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress approved China’s new anti-terrorism law. It took effect at the beginning of January 2016.

The previous draft of this law, made available in March 2015, was roundly criticized by legal scholars, the U.S. government and NGOs like Human Rights Watch for being in violation of corporate proprietary rights, personal privacy rights, and human rights like the freedom of speech and religious freedom, especially the religious rights of non-Han nationals.

Infringing on human rights

The law’s major purpose was to create a statutory basis for China’s future anti-terrorist activities. To do so, it incorporates actions that Chinese security authorities have already taken in other contexts. Unlike the United States, China does not have high-profile provisions in its constitution barring unreasonable searches and seizures nor does it have a ‘free exercise clause’ guaranteeing religious freedom. The People’s Republic of China has had little respect for personal privacy in instances where state and regime stability appear to be at stake.

The new law is so sweeping that it has the potential to interfere with a wide range of human activity. Terrorism is defined as “any proposition or activity that by means of violence, sabotage, or threat generates social panic, undermines public security, infringes on personal and property rights, and menaces government organs, and international organizations with the aim to realize certain political and ideological purposes”. 

In theory, any growing social movement that issues demands and has a policy agenda other than that of the government could be in violation. In fact, China itself has shown how broadly they view terrorism by labeling Turkey’s recent shooting and destruction of a Russian bomber an act of terrorism.

The Chinese implementation of counter-terrorism policy needs to be understood in terms of China’s very strong requirements for preserving security and stability. Since China has been dismembered by colonial cessions, affected by lengthy civil wars, and rendered nearly anarchic by the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, it places a high value on security and stability. Chinese leaders, remembering all of China’s problems, will do nearly anything to prevent popular protests or dissent for fear of the instability and repression they believe will follow.

Thus, privacy and human rights are affected. But will this paranoia impact business in China?

Could foreign companies in China be targeted?

The early draft of the law contained provisions that were potentially harmful to foreign companies. That draft required that companies make the source code for any software available to the government. It also required that companies provide a “back door” entry for government observation. This would amount to these companies giving their most sensitive proprietary information to the Chinese government who could in turn provide it to Chinese corporate competitors.

President Obama said that this would have to change if China wanted to do business with American companies. Under similar laws, the U.S. requires that companies provide information to meet the needs of law enforcement, but does not require access to information beyond this without legal review. There was also concern that the availability of back doors could open opportunities to Chinese hackers. The early draft also required that tech firms store their data only on servers based in China so that these would be available to the Chinese authorities.

The final draft only required that firms provide technical help and help with decryption when needed by state authorities to prevent terrorist attacks. This does come closer to the American and British standard, except for the overly broad definition of terrorism.

In a related move, Chinese bank regulators also required that financial institutions use only Chinese domestic network solutions supplied by Chinese firms. This would also assure that network solutions provided by foreign firms like IBM, Oracle and EMC would lose out to Chinese suppliers.

The Uyghur ethnic group and the new anti-terrorism law

These concerns over the anti-terrorism law come to a head when looking at the case of Uyghurs.

While tech firms have resources and often home country support in dealing with the Chinese government, the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, have neither resources nor ready foreign support. In fact, it is likely that the new law will simply make matters worse.

The Chinese are not strong in recognizing the contributions of ethnic diversity. Nationality groups may be legal citizens, and some, like the Mongols, may have even been the recipients of affirmative action policies, but the social reality is that non-Han Chinese are not seen to be mainstream despite their legal status as citizens. Uyghurs who retain their religious practices and customs are seen as separatists. Some of this is still rooted in the old belief in the superiority of Chinese culture.

The Uyghurs are a bare majority ethnic group in Xinjiang at 45%, just larger than the Han Chinese at 40%. The loss of substantial majority has resulted from major government investment in railroads that facilitated Han migration from elsewhere in the country. There has also been major economic investment to make the region increase production.

Chinese policy makers had assumed that the increase in average income provided would effectively pacify any Uyghur dissent. In fact, since many of these new jobs have favored hiring Han over Uyghurs, the rising income has not been uniform. In addition, some of the new manufacturing substitutes cheaper manufactured goods for local handmade goods driving down the revenues of Uyghur artisans.

Human rights observers contend that the dilution of the Uyghur identity in their own homeland has been the source of a rift. Chinese authorities who lump Uyghur terrorist acts with international Islamist terror have chosen to ban some people from praying in mosques, fasting on Ramadan, growing beards, or wearing religious dress. This has simply escalated local fears about the loss of identity.

As a result there have been a number of high-profile terror attacks, which unfortunately are used to justify the government’s increase in anti-terrorist activities. In March 2014, there was an incident in which Uyghurs used knives to kill 29 people in a railway station in Kunming. In November 2015, the government killed 28 Uyghurs accused of an attack on a coal mine that killed 16 people. In 2013, there had also been a high-profile suicide attack in which an intentional car crash in Tiananmen Square resulted in 5 dead and 38 injured.

While the government is justified in ferreting out and preventing terrorist attacks, they should also reverse course to show support for Uyghur religious practice and identity. It is highly unlikely that they will do so rather than pursue censorship and the repressive means made available by the new law. This will probably lead to more rather than fewer future attacks.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.