The enemy within?

Why two terror attacks evoke different responses in China


Terror in Tiananmen: plumes of smoke outside the Forbidden City

Gilo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers depicts France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising. The French briefly succeeded in subduing the Algerian resistance, although the use of force soured relations with the wider community, weakening the French position and eventually leading to Algeria’s independence in 1962.

Since then The Battle of Algiers has served as an unlikely textbook, inspiring insurgents against the status quo, but also offering governments an instruction manual on guerilla war. Struggling with surging violence in Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon is said to have arranged a private screening of the black-and-white film. According to the American media the invitation read: How to win the battle against terrorism but lose the war of ideas.

Could the film get a screening in Chinese government circles too, following two attacks in the lead-up to last weekend’s Third Plenum? The incidents have triggered debate over what China constitutes as terrorist activity, as well as questions about how best to prevent it.

First came a fireball in Tiananmen Square late last month. A jeep holding three Uighurs rammed traffic cordons and ran over sightseers before bursting into flames. The attack – striking at the symbolic heart of the capital – killed five, including all three in the car. At least 40 were injured.

Then 10 days later, a series of explosions by homemade bombs outside Party headquarters in Shanxi killed one and wounded eight more.

Both attacks had political targets, and both killed innocent bystanders. But the response to the two incidents was somewhat different.

The authorities were quick to define the crash in Tiananmen Square as an act of terrorism, claiming that the East Turkestan Independence Movement – a group that Beijing lists as an international terrorist group active in the autonomous region of Xinjiang – was responsible.

Many Chinese, or at least many Han Chinese, rallied behind the government. After CNN’s website published an op-ed questioning whether the incident was “a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation,” more than 140,000 internet users signed an online petition to kick the American broadcaster out of China.

“With CNN’s logic, is September 11 the result of Americans bullying Middle Easterners and Islamists? Is the revenge of the Islamists then reasonable?” one petitioner questioned.

The attack in Shanxi was interpreted differently – given that issues like separatism and ethnic differences were no longer in the equation. Police in the city of Taiyuan soon arrested a local man in connection with the bombing, and the state media said the 41 year-old, a Han Chinese surnamed Feng who previously spent nine years in jail, was seeking “revenge on society”.

While netizens denounced Feng for putting innocent lives at risk, some were still ready to offer sympathy. A few bloggers even blamed local officials, claiming that the public lacks alternative channels to express their grievances. “Is Feng’s vengeance against society or the Party or the government?” one weibo user queried.

Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism centre at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Wall Street Journal that the Taiyuan bombing had some of the hallmarks of a terrorist attack. But he said the term in Chinese implies ideological motivations (e.g. separatism) whereas the Taiyuan attack – like the mass shootings often witnessed in the US – was the work of a single perpetrator, motivated by desperation or mental instability.

Spending too much time on how best to define terrorism isn’t helpful, the Hong Kong Daily News said in an editorial. After all, it said, there is more than enough evidence that members of the public are venting their anger in increasingly terrifying ways. The Taiyuan attack isn’t unique, for instance. In May 2011, a man killed himself and two others when he set off explosives at the headquarters of the Fuzhou city government. Two copycat bombings soon followed in Tianjin and Hunan’s Huangshi.

One response is that the attacks are symptoms of China’s fraying social fabric (something that WiC discussed as recently as issue 210 and as far back as issue 59).

The central government’s response? On Tuesday the closing communiqué from the Third Plenum said a new security committee will be established. No details have been provided about its remit, although some analysts are already likening it to the National Security Council in Washington. Others think it will be much more domestic in focus, while Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, spoke about countering the threat from “terrorists, extremists and separatists”.

“Anyone who would disrupt or sabotage China’s national security should be nervous,” he warned.

The committee ought to deal with threats from home and abroad, the China Daily suggested,although it intriguingly added this should include “the introduction of systems to effectively prevent and to end social disputes”.

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