Old 'people's war' tactics are being mobilized against a new threat.
HONG KONG — Terrorism is on the mind of the average Chinese citizen these days. Assailants have attacked crowded areas like train stations and markets in large cities around China, indiscriminately killing travelers, vendors, and passersby. Particularly shocking was a March 1 knife attack in the southern metropolis of Kunming, which claimed 29 victims, followed by a bomb attack in a crowded market in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, which killed 31 on May 22. Chinese authorities have blamed these attacks on Uighur separatists from Xinjiang.
State media has tried to manage the aftermath. After the knife attack in Kunming, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) tweeted a survival guide in case of terrorism on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform. The guide, complete with an Astro Boy-like cartoon figure dressed in a Superman suit performing first-aid maneuvers, has advice like, "Try your best not to scream out of fear because it would further agitate the perpetrators" and "do not stop to take photos with your cellphone and share on social media."
Later, after the Urumqi market attack, CCTV tweeted more detailed advice for surviving attacks in a variety of scenarios and locations, including in gunfights and explosions on the subway, buses, hotels, or markets. "Hide behind objects that can cover your body," the guide advises, warning that objects such as lampposts, small trees, and fire hydrants are inadequate cover because they "seem dense but are too narrow." Many of the country’s state-owned media have shared similar guides online, in print, and on television. On May 24, police in southern Yunnan province, where the Kunming attack took place, distributed more than 80,000 colorful survival guide brochures to the public.
Online response has been mixed. Many Internet users take the guides as a hint that the Chinese government expects similar attacks to become a regular occurrence in crowded areas in China’s large cities, and are demanding the government to do more to actively prevent attacks. One user tweeted in a typical comment, "Why are the media outlets telling ordinary people how to survive it but not criticizing the government for not doing more to prevent it?"
But from the ruling Communist Party’s standpoint, calling on citizens — mobilizing the masses, in party argot — is an example of government doing its job. On May 30, domestic media reported that as many as 850,000 volunteers, most of them retirees in their 60s and 70s, have been called upon to patrol Beijing’s streets. The report interviewed a 78-year-old woman named Guo Xiuyun, a 10-year veteran of the volunteer team, who said the team mostly consists of "elderly party members, cadre, and retirees." Guo claimed that her high level of vigilance helped law enforcement catch a man who was selling counterfeit money last year. "We have to let the terrorists see our red armlets," which designate volunteer patrols, said 61-year-old Li Huishen, who keeps up her patrols in Beijing’s searing summer temperatures by "bringing more bottled water and staying in the shade."
Also on May 30, the Beijing Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League, reported that as many as 100,000 informants, even shoe cobblers and newsstand vendors, are now helping report suspicious activities. The Beijing police claim that the patrollers and informants will help collect information in local communities to form a "security network that involves the whole population."
"People’s war" is one of the core components of former Chairman Mao Zedong’s strategic theory and a tried-and-true tactic for the party, which used it to win China’s gruesome civil war in 1949. But in the ensuing decades under Mao, the rhetoric of a people’s war was often used against the so-called "class enemies" or "counterrevolutionaries" who had upset the party in one way or another. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the phrase was often invoked by so-called red guards, mostly young Chinese then empowered to perpetrate massive destruction and strife. After subsequent leader Deng Xiaoping instituted market-oriented reforms in 1979, the mention of a people’s war became increasingly rare.
Now that the Chinese government is facing a new threat, it seems ready dust off the old trope. In a May 24 editorial, the Hong Kong-based pro-party Wen Wei Po newspaper called for the use of a people’s war to defeat terrorism by "mobilizing the masses to uncover the terrorists and their behind-the-scene puppet masters." The minister of public security, Guo Shengkun, also vowed to use the power of the masses to avert terrorism in a May 22 speech in Xinjiang.
Not everyone is convinced that a people’s war would be effective in preventing attacks. Xinlin Shi, the pen name of a writer of historical fiction, tweeted that a people’s war will only "make everyone suspicious of people around them and fear for their own safety." Lu Yaming, an Internet executive in the southern city of Shenzhen, wrote on Weibo that "the whole population is now in fear. Isn’t this what the terrorists want?" Another Weibo user lamented, "The campaign to pry into the private affairs of the people by mobilizing other people is scarier than terrorism."
To be sure, asking citizens to be involved in counterterrorism measures is common around the world. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, law enforcement in the United States called upon everyone to report suspicious activities. "If you see something, say something," read a popular slogan.
While the mere phrase of a people’s war may invoke unpleasant memories for some Chinese, the party seems to be grasping for every possible way to combat what it sees as its new enemy. The problem, however, is that people’s wars in China have historically overreached their intended mark, instead turning the populace against itself. As the threat of terrorism continues to loom over China, the ruling party will need to balance the demands for privacy in a modern society against the age-old doctrines of Maoism.