China steps up anti-terror crackdown

China steps up anti-terror crackdown
Victims of a bombing lie on a street near the site where attackers ploughed two vehicles into a market and threw explosives, killing at least 31 people, in Urumqi in northwest China's Xinjiang region on May 22, 2014.

Rocked by four terror attacks in eight months, China launched an unprecedented nationwide crackdown on terrorism, with the focus on the restive Xinjiang region.

But analysts said the year-long campaign announced on Sunday mostly aims to improve coordination between Xinjiang and other cities, and between the Public Security Ministry and other government agencies.

"China has staged nationwide crackdowns against vices like prostitution but never before against terrorism," terrorism expert Pan Zhiping from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences in Urumqi told The Straits Times.

"Xinjiang has been doing anti-terror work all this while, so this campaign is aimed at making other cities step up efforts in this area. Before the current spate of violence, some places regarded terrorism as a remote problem that would not occur to them," he added.

Observers said they wondered about the timing of the campaign, which came two days after Xinjiang itself announced a year-long effort to fight terrorism.

The Public Security Ministry said the national campaign would focus on pre-empting attacks and improving coordination. "Police nationwide will pool their information for early identification of terrorist groups," it said.

They will also improve coordination among police departments in different regions, and with railway, civil aviation and transport sectors to aid investigations.

Insufficient coordination in intelligence gathering and sharing across government departments has been cited as a key factor in militants being able to carry out a spate of attacks in recent months.

The first took place last October when a car crashed near Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing three people in the vehicle and two passers-by.

It was followed by a slashing attack at Kunming railway station on March 1 that left 29 civilians dead.

Last month, on April 30, the last day of President Xi Jinping's visit to Xinjiang, an attack involving knives and explosives at Urumqi railway station killed two suspected attackers and one civilian.

Then, last week on Thursday, four militants in two vehicles ploughed into shoppers at an open market in Urumqi and threw explosives into the crowd of mostly elderly residents.

In all, 43 people died, including the attackers, making it the worst attack in Xinjiang since the July 2009 ethnic riots that killed 197 people. China has blamed the attacks on religious extremists and separatists fighting for an independent state they call Eastern Turkestan in Xinjiang.

It has accused foreign groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of supporting the violence.

Eager to boost public confidence, China has deployed soldiers chanting anti-terror slogans in Urumqi's streets, and urged terror suspects to surrender. Beijing also said it busted 23 terror and extremist groups in Xinjiang this month.

President Xi yesterday chaired a Politburo meeting to discuss ways to tackle the security situation in Xinjiang, including options such as beefing up control of cyberspace against extremist influences.

Judging from the details of the nationwide campaign, Xinjiang expert Barry Sautman from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said it does not represent a significant change but it does put pressure on security forces to produce results.

He added that the crackdown was likely launched to set a deadline for the security forces.

Some analysts said the crackdown may not be able to weed out violence completely.

Counter-terrorism analyst Raffaello Pantucci from the London-based Royal United Services Institute said China's anti-terror strategy hinges on two pillars: Heavy economic investment coupled with growing Xinjiang's links to the world; and a "strike hard" security response.

"This strategy lacks a middle way - to engage the people and figure out how to dissuade them from being drawn to violence, and help them feel they have a stake in society," he added.

Dr Pan said the authorities should proceed with caution."We have to be careful not to link terrorism blindly to ethnic and religious groups or think that all Muslims and Uighurs are potential terrorists," he said.

"We have to identify accurately the sources of violence before striking hard because if we get it wrong, there may be political consequences," he added.

This article was first published on May 27, 2014.
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