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Holiday security tightening reflects rising threat of terrorism

Paramilitary police forces stand guard in the popular tourist area of Sanlitun in Beijing on December 27 after warnings of heightened security risks. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In 2001 when the US took revenge on al-Qaeda right after the terrorist group carried out suicide attacks that disaggregated the World Trade Center and killed thousands of innocent people, China was still not vulnerable to terrorism, which mainly afflicted the US-led Western world.

More than a decade later, however, the threat of terrorism is increasingly spilling over to China, especially at a time when the Islamic State, a rising terrorist group after al-Qaeda, is stretching its influence to the country's western borders and Xinjiang, which has seen violence in recent years blamed by the Chinese government on militant separatists who have connections with overseas terrorist forces.

On December 24, Beijing authorities for the first time issued a yellow security alert to ensure public safety during the New Year holiday. The deployment of the armed police patrols and security check points will be enhanced in the large shopping malls, supermarkets and densely populated downtown areas in the Chinese capital during the New Year holiday as the period will see a growing number of people visiting shopping, entertainment and dining venues, media reports cited Beijing police as saying.

The issuing of the yellow security alert, which has become a top-searched term on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, came as the US Embassy in Beijing released a notice warning US government staff and Westerners of possible terrorist attacks in the Sanlitun area of Beijing on or around the Christmas Day.

In response to the US embassy's warning, teams of armed paramilitary policemen were dispatched to stand guard and patrol near the landmark buildings and major streets in Sanlitun where a Chinese woman was stabbed to death when walking with her foreign husband in August.

Similar security warnings were also issued by some other embassies of Western countries in Beijing. But they did not give further details about the warnings.

"I believe that every developed country and every world-leading metropolis at this point will be on full alert with regard to terrorist acts…and has structured some sort of anti-terrorism organization to protect the people living within its borders. And China is no different," a young American, who lives in Beijing and refused to be named, told Sino-US.com.

The American, who has lived in China for over three years, said that he never felt insecure here in Beijing. "Sincerely, I feel appreciative that the Chinese government has taken precautions to protect its foreign residents," he added, expressing anger over some extremist organizations which resort to violence to convey their voice.

"With the terrorist activities running rampant globally, the issuing of the yellow security warning is an action Beijing had to take given the fact that terrorist activities cannot easily be detected and prevented. Based on the information, it is necessary that the Beijing municipal government take some preventive measures to protect the safety of people's life and property," Li Wei, special assistant to the president of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told Sino-US.com.

Renewed effort to combat terrorism

2015 marks a significant year that could press China to step up its attempt to play a larger role in the global anti-terrorism war traditionally waged between the US-led Western countries and the Islamic extremist forces.

There are some security experts and military officers criticizing the Chinese government for its meticulousness in sending troops to Syria, where the Islamic State is under military strikes from the countries including the US, France and Russia, on the grounds that the chaos in the faraway Middle East has no direct impact on China.

"In addition to military means, combating terrorism involves many other means ranging from information exchange to law enforcement cooperation. Wiping out the Islamic State is not a matter of whether China will join the on-going military strikes. This is a misunderstanding in the global anti-terrorism war," said Li, denying the notion that China's anti-terrorism effort is just a lip service.

The military operation by the US-led coalition has led to a new round of retaliation by the Islamic State. In October, a Russian passenger plane with 224 people on board was brought down in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula en route to the Russian city of St. Petersburg. The Islamic State later claimed the responsibility by releasing a photo of what it said was the bomb that brought down the airplane. The downing of the jetliner was followed by another atrocity by the militant group in November in the French capital of Paris, which shocked the world and sparked heated discussions on a possible policy change in combating terrorism.

"The key to eliminating terrorism lies in promoting the regional peace process through political negotiation, instead of military action," said Li, adding that political instability and economic stagnation in the related regions contribute to the rise of global terrorism.

What's more, the killing of a Chinese national by the Islamic State is a reminder that China is becoming a target of terrorist attack as the terrorist group is eyeing Central Asia, South Asia and China's far-western Xinjiang long inhabited by Muslim Uyghur people, but in what ways China will strike back and to what extent it will intervene in the Middle East affairs remains to be seen.

In November, the Islamic State confirmed the death of Fan Jinghui, the first Chinese citizen kidnapped by the terrorist group, after its demand for ransom was not met. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, expressed China's long-held stance of firmly opposing terrorism of all forms and resolutely combating any terrorist crime that challenges the bottom line of human civilization.

Since its establishment in 2014, the Islamic State has included China's Xinjiang as a target for establishing its influence. In January, the terrorist organization speeded up its expansion to the east by setting up a branch in the self-claimed Khorasan province which covers Afghanistan and Pakistan, the two countries bordering China, and where a fighter training camp is located.

An article published in August in the Study Times, a mouthpiece of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China, pointed out that the Islamic State's systematic expansion to the east has been formed, which will pose a threat that cannot be underestimated by China and its surrounding countries.

The systematic eastern expansion depends on a complete chain consisting of propaganda, recruitment, training and dispatch in South Asia and Southeast Asia, resulting in the deterioration of the stability in the region, said the article.

Recently, the Islamic State posted a video footage in Chinese to call on Chinese Muslims to "wake up" and "take up weapons to fight" in its latest push to recruit jihadists from Xinjiang, which forced China to seek more international anti-terrorism cooperation.

Anti-terrorism law

On December 27, the National People's Congress, China's top legislature body, approved the country's first-ever anti-terrorism law, which requires telecommunication and Internet service providers to offer technical interfaces, decryption and other technical supports and assistance to the public security and national security agencies when they prevent and investigate terrorist activities in accordance with the laws.

The measures have long been under attack from the US government, business groups and rights advocates.

Chinese officials said that it "is basically the same as what other major countries do", and will not do harm to related companies' intellectual property rights, as terrorist forces are increasingly turning to cyberspace.

"The criticism is groundless because Western countries have always called for Internet companies' technical support to assist their anti-terrorism operation," said Li.

Li also hit back at the US blame of the restriction on reporting on terrorist activities, which is regulated by the anti-terrorism law, as a double standard.

"Is there any country in the world that allows its citizens to advocate extremism which is a major cause of terrorism? It is unreasonable to ask other people to do the things that you do not want to do yourself," noted Li.

When reporting violence in Xinjiang, Western reporters were accustomed to linking the terrorist attacks in the region with ethnic tensions in what they said were caused by the Chinese government and the Han people's suppression of Uyghur culture and religion.

Recently, Chinese authorities expelled a French reporter due to her article which said that Beijing used the Paris attacks to justify its "crackdown" on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and that local government policy is to blame for the terrorist attacks in the region.

"The French reporter's article reflects a bias against the Chinese. She cannot justify her perception that attacks in Xinjiang are caused by crackdown on ethnic minorities," said Zheng Liang, professor at the Journalism & Communication College of Xinjiang University, adding that it violates the rules of journalism because it is based on her own opinion and not on interviews and facts.
 


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