Tea Leaf Nation

Should China Declare a War on Terror?

Beijing and Washington's very different response to the latest deadly attack in Xinjiang.


On Sept. 20, 2001, then President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress about the 9/11 attacks in New York City.* "Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them," he said. "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

The term ‘war on terror’ entered into wide circulation from there, and in many ways defined Bush’s foreign policy — prioritizing crackdowns on violent extremists through legal and extra-legal methods. But Bush’s war on terror also helped improve ties with China. China’s then President Jiang Zemin condemned the attacks, and pledged to cooperate with the United States in its fight against terrorism. "China’s ostensible support for U.S. retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan constituted a significant break from its standard foreign policy line," Nicholas Dynon, a Ph.D. candidate studying China’s public diplomacy, wrote in the magazine The Diplomat. It was "the first time since the Cold War that Beijing had condoned U.S. military strikes in another country."

Now that Beijing seems to be fighting its own war on terror, Washington, at least publicly, has been far less supportive.

On May 22, according to Reuters, "Explosives hurled from two vehicles which ploughed into an open market in China’s troubled Xinjiang region killed 31 people on Thursday, state media reported, the deadliest act of violence in the region in years."  The attack came just three weeks after a coordinated bomb and knife, also in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumuqi, killed three and left dozens injured — an attack that was all the more galling because it came just after Xi Jinping ended his first trip to Xinjiang as president. And it’s just a few months after coordinating knifings at a train station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming left dozens dead. The other attacks were allegedly perpetrated by members of the Uighur minority — the roughly 10 million Turkic-speaking Muslims who mostly live in Xinjiang. The perpetrators of this latest attack in the Urumqi market remain unknown, but even before the police announce their findings, Uighur separatists are being held responsible in the court of Chinese public opinion.

About six hours after the attack, the official account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on China’s Twitter Sina Weibo tweeted a message expressing sympathy to victims of "violent attack against innocent civilians," but did not describe the act as terrorism, nor did it condemn the act. The omission, intentional or not, inflamed Chinese Internet users. (The White House later released a statement condemning the "horrific terrorist attack" in Xinjiang.*) The tweet has already attracted more than 17,000 mostly negative comments accusing the United States of a double-standard and behind-the-scenes support for a separatist movement in Xinjiang, which many assume are responsible for the recent attacks. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the nationalistic newspaper Global Times, asked the U.S. government to "stop supporting Rebiya Kadeer," a Uighur businesswoman living in exile who is the face of the international Uighur movement, "and stop funding her and her separatist organizations through your democracy foundations." (Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman in exile in the United States, is the president of the World Uighur Congress, a group that calls for independence in Xinjiang.) Freelance writer Yuan Xiaoliang posted a tweet mocking the U.S. Embassy message by expressing sympathy to victims of the "9-11 Traffic Accident," and asked "is it so hard to write ‘terrorism’?"

A similar thing happened in March, after the Kunming knife attacks. As Tea Leaf Nation contributor Yiqin Fu wrote, many major Western media outlets covering the event, including The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, BBC, and CBC of Canada, used quotation marks around the word "terrorism." Chinese Internet users and domestic media were quick to notice this punctuation choice, and a storm of anger against perceived Western bias quickly brewed." Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy feed on Weibo did not immediately characterize the attack as terrorism, instead calling it a "senseless act of violence."

The situation in Xinjiang is bleak, of course, and Beijing’s war on terror may be better served through liberalizing in Xinjiang, rather than the repression and violence that characterizes its current strategy. Responding to this latest attack, Xi called for serious punishments for the perpetrators and an all out-effort to maintain stability in the region — language similiar to Beijing’s response to previous attacks. If Xi decides to call for a ‘war on terror,’ in Xinjiang, would Washington urge restraint or pledge support? 

*This story has been updated to reflect a statement from the White House. 

*Correction, May 23, 2014: Bush delivered his "war on terror" speech on Sept. 20, 2001, not Sept. 20, 2011, as the article originally stated. 

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Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
 Twitter: @rachel_tln

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