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February 7, 2024

China’s Approach to Counterterrorism

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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China’s approach to combating terrorism is at its core a domestically-oriented endeavor. Still, Chinese central authorities have adopted a broad definition of terrorism, focusing on the “three evils,” which includes terrorism, separatism, and extremism. 

According to Chi Zhang, “this kind of broad definition allows the authorities to bring counterterrorism and counter-radicalization into every aspect of people's life, including projects designed to showcase good ethnic relations.” Beyond its borders, China’s counterterrorism cooperation has been limited, primarily in Southeast Asia and Central Asia. However, Zhang says that while China may be trying to build off shared interests, it “is trying to move to the ideological realm,” but whether it will be successful in developing shared norms related to its counterterrorism approach remains unclear.

 Eleanor M. Albert: Today we are joined by Chi Zhang. Chi is an associate lecturer at the University of St. Andrews and an associate member of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. She is the editor of Human Security in China: A Post-Pandemic State (2021) and the author of Legitimacy of China’s Counter-Terrorism Approach: The Mass Line Ethos (2022). Chi, welcome to the show. It's a treat to have you.

Chi Zhang: Thank you. It's great to be on the show.

Eleanor M. Albert: I like to start these conversations, to warm us up a little bit, but also to get a little personal. I was curious if you would give us a brief rundown of how you came to study China and its approach to counterterrorism?

Chi Zhang: Initially, I was really interested, as a human being, in why some people would commit suicide to achieve a certain political goal. Why someone would hate other people to the extent that they would kill themselves together with their perceived enemies. So starting with this curiosity, I started to read about causes of terrorism. A lot of [the] literature is there telling us that it's not because these people are just mad or having mental instability. It's of course a lot of sociological reasons behind that. So this is the original interest I had for the subject of terrorism.

However, why would I do that in relation to China? One of the reasons is I'm Chinese, so I know [the] Chinese language. But more importantly, I think, China is not the only country that has been criticized for having a very broad definition of terrorism. However, what I find very interesting is that what's different about China is its abilitythe ability of the government to enforce things.

There are quite a lot of countries which have been criticized for using the name of terrorism to achieve other goals. But in China, things can go to a certain extreme level if they're not particularly clarified at the policy level. This is where we see a lot of human rights violations going on and very bad negative impact on people, particularly of ethnic minority groups. This is why I was initially interested in this topic.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's fascinating. I think it would be helpful to ground our discussion if you could shed some light on how China views terrorism. You already mentioned that it has a quite broad definition, but how does it frame the threat coming from terrorism in its overall security assessments, and where does it fall in its security priorities?

Chi Zhang: China's overall view of terrorism… let’s start with its definition of “three evils.” I personally have a bit of problem with translating it as “three evils.” Of course, it is a better way of maybe interpreting that, but [in] the original text, just [uses] “three forces.” I think this is slightly more accurate. It's not immediately framing things as evil, which is itself a word that already has a lot of negative connotations.

Eleanor M. Albert: Moral judgment.

Chi Zhang: Yeah. So “three evils” includes terrorism, separatism, and extremism. And China is well-known for its conflation of separatism and terrorism, meaning China doesn't really differentiate between people who are proposing, for example, independence through peaceful means and differentiating these people from those who are actually using violent means to achieve their political goals.

Then, although there are other cases where China also referred to as terrorism, mostly China considers terrorism happening within the Xinjiang [Uyghur] Autonomous Region, which is not enjoying a very high level of autonomy at the moment.

Xinjiang is a region where certain policies, when it started at the central level, it may not [have] a very clear criteria or indicator in terms of what exactly the local governments are expected to achieve. Then, when the policy arrives at the local level, usually it involves a lot of over-implementation and over-compliance. That's why things could potentially go wrong.

Xinjiang is also the region where some of the Uyghur [diaspora/exile] would prefer to call it East Turkistan. This is what the Chinese authorities would refer to as East Turkistan Islamic Movement—some people would have a different name for it, Turkic-Islamic Movement. One thing to be clear about is that [the] East Turkistan Islamic Movement [does] not necessarily equal East Turkistan forces, which is the word that Chinese authorities are using. So this is very confusing, because East Turkistan forces is a very loose term that Chinese authorities uses to label [a] lot of people who are not necessarily sharing the same level of political aspiration in terms of whether they want independence, or whether they just want higher level of autonomy, or whether they just want some kind of social justice in which Uyghur or other ethnic minority groups are disproportionately discriminated [against].

This kind of broad definition allows the authorities to bring counterterrorism and counter-radicalization into every aspect of people's life, including projects designed to showcase good ethnic relations. I remember in 2016 when I was visiting Xinjiang, in the Xinjiang Museum there [was] a list of papers hanging on the wall written by primary and middle school students. These [were] all stories about how they helped other ethnic minority groups and how other people help themselves. These are written by Han Chinese, of course, and it's showing to what extent this kind of counter-radicalization narrative [goes] into every aspect of people's lives, including a very obsessive way to express this idea that all ethnic groups are coming together, united as a close-knit family. This is, of course, a very sugarcoated vision of interethnic relations, but it shows the comprehensiveness of the counter-radicalization efforts.

In terms of where counterterrorism falls within its overall security threat assessment, terrorism is one of the non-traditional security threats that the [Chinese] government is paying a lot of attention to. Although China doesn't want to or hasn't been very involved in international counterterrorism efforts, including those happening in the Middle East, China does frame it as one of the top priorities in engaging with other countries. [There is] a lot of speculation regarding China's involvement in Syria and also Central Asia. Observers are saying that there are Uyghur militant groups in these regions. So of course, China would want to have better, close cooperation in these countries. However, so far, I haven't seen that materialize.

China has so far only boosted its counterterrorism efforts with Central Asian countries, mainly through anti-terror drills. After [the] Taliban's takeover [in Afghanistan], there was an increase in terms of counterterrorism cooperation. However, I don't see much going on beyond that in terms of on-the-ground cooperation, especially with countries which are further away from China's

Eleanor M. Albert: That's so interesting, especially in the case of Afghanistan and with the Taliban coming back to power and China perhaps being cognizant of the threat, given how vocal they were after 9/11, but at the same time they were also among the early larger powers to want to bring the Taliban into the fold.

I'm curious about the tools through which China engages in counterterrorism cooperation, and mini-lateral, multilateral, or international global efforts to combat terrorism. What is the toolkit that it uses when it is trying to engage in counterterrorism?

Chi Zhang: In terms of legal tools, China initially proposed the anti-terrorism law in 2014, and that law was passed in the year afterwards. How it works in China is at the state level, the state has a very vague and loose, open-to-interpret overall guidance for local governments to implement. When the local government started to implement local regulations on counter-radicalization, they stipulated 15
manifestations of radicalization; then further down into the local level, some of the villages then interpret them and break them down into 75 manifestations of extremist religious activities. I talk about this in more detail in one of my papers on what China calls illegal religious activities. So, you can see how it works in China: at the state level, we have a very open-to-interpret message, and then, layer by layer, when it comes down to the local government, it becomes harder and harder for them. They implement more heavy-handed approaches and measures to achieve the political goals set by the central authorities.

Within the domestic power dynamics, they created this kind of, the central is good and the locals are bad [narrative]. When things go wrong, it’s always the local government which is responsible. It created a sense that it’s helping the regime’s stability actually, because people have something to blame and have somewhere to venture their anger against and then still be able to remain in this highly controlled political environment. I think this is quite unique to China because of the ways the political structure functions and because of this power dynamics within state-local relations.

In terms of international cooperation, China’s much more limited because of its non-interference and non-interventionist approach in foreign policy overall. So far, China has cooperated with a number of Southeast Asian countries. That corporation involves, for example, collaborative investigation and the repatriation of suspected terrorist individuals. One of the very controversial cases is the repatriation of over 100 Uyghurs from the Thai government in 2015. That attracted a lot of international criticism.

So far China hasn’t been really active in terms of multilateral counterterrorism efforts; most of those efforts are conducted in bilateral manners.

Eleanor M. Albert: I’m curious how the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] fits in here, because it was an outgrowth of the post-USSR border negotiations with a lot of the Central Asian states and China. That seems to be a forum where China is pushing a counterterrorism narrative. Could you talk a little bit about whether that might be an area that China wants to pursue more counterterrorism mini-laterals, or whether it really does continue to prefer the bilateral?

Chi Zhang: You’re absolutely right. China’s role in SCO is increasingly important, especially in recent years. One of the most important things coming out of SCO is the consensus among these Central Asian countries and Russia and China in terms of what they see as a terrorist threat. For example, Uzbekistan has its own share of concern regarding the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, which China could really come out and say, “So you see, we have this shared concern.” I would say that China’s participation in SCO is mainly driven by this kind of building consensus and trying to cultivate [these] close relationships in terms of their shared concern around ethno-separatist movements in the region.

One of the examples of China’s increasingly active participation is immediately after [the] Taliban’s takeover. There has been an increase of terrorist attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan as well, because of course the Taliban in Pakistan was emboldened by the takeover of the Afghanistan Taliban. I think within three months there had been three cases of counterterrorism cooperation between China and Central Asian countries. That’s one of the examples showing that China is very concerned about this kind of cross-border, transnational threat and trying to engage, elicit more efforts, more cooperation from the Central Asian countries.

Eleanor M. Albert: This idea of trying to build consensusis that an effort by China to share its broad definition of terrorism, or does it seem to be more interest-based in terms of building consensus?

Chi Zhang: It’s definitely both. In terms of realist interest, these countries do have a very similar kind of worries in terms of ethno-separatist movements within their own borders. I don’t think China has been very successful in cultivating those kind of norms in terms of “This is what we think… what our value is regarding terrorism and counterterrorism.” I think most of it is just based on the shared interest.

However, China is definitely trying to promote these kinds of norms based on its consensus on three forces—some people call it three evils. Building on the shared interest, China is trying to move to the ideological realm, but how successful is that? It’s very difficult to see. If something changes in terms of interest... If these Central Asian governments no longer are threatened by these kind of militant groups, then maybe China’s approach won’t be that successful.

Eleanor M. Albert: How might China’s counterterrorism approach differ from that of other great powers? Scholars have worked very hard to come up with scoped definitions of what terrorism means, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that states in the policy realm are using those in the same way. I’m curious if you could give us a spectrum of different types of definitions and how China’s differs from, say, perhaps the UK, where you are, or the U.S. and where there are divergences.

Chi Zhang: That’s a really good question. I remember when I started reading about terrorism. We have over 200 different variations of different definitions. I would say the biggest difference is, again, China’s ability to enforce things and this kind of obsession of the local governments to please their superiors.

The risk of using [an] overly broad definition is not unique to China. Here in the UK we have also discussions regarding prevention strategy and also the ways in which the policy of stop and search could potentially be abused. However, in China, the biggest difference is that China was able to really implement all these very strict rules. Because local governments don't know exactly where the line is, they have to assume that the stricter they are with their policy, the happier their superiors will be.

This is kind of like China's approach to COVID. On a state level, they just send a message, “You can't have any infections.” And then local level, just goes to various extreme ways to implement that. It’s slightly similar in terms of terrorism. The state authorities say, “No, we can't accept any cases of terrorist attacks. It's up to you how would you want to implement that.”’ So it's very easy for local governments to then go to extremes to say, “Okay, this is what we're going to do and we are going to go every detail, every length in order to make that simple message happen. No longer have any actual terrorist threat.” Actually one of the arguments that Chinese authorities are proposing is that after 2016, in China there [have] been very few cases of actual terrorist threat.

In terms of actual implementation, another typical way of Chinese politics is mass mobilization. It's the ability of Chinese government to mobilize all of its populations and to make them police on each other in order to achieve its political goals. Anyone slightly familiar with Chinese history [will] remember “up to the mountains and down to the countryside” movement. That happened in 1950s. In recent years, since 2014, the government implemented initially what was a three-year program called “visit, benefit, and gather” to send the officials to their local lower level of government so that they could ideally better understand what people actually want. They could feedback into the policymaking process to make it more appealing to its populations. However, that didn't go as planned but the authorities actually see that as quite a successful move, so much so that the policy became normalized and became something that people are doing on a daily basis.

I just had a look at the current webpage for those projects. Recent efforts include sending medicine, sending doctors, and planting trees in very remote villages where the Uyghur populations are the majority. All these efforts reflect the same mass mobilization tradition that Chinese government is trying to implement. It's not only about coercion and not only about rhetorical efforts in terms of establishing the [Chinese] Communist Party as the sole legitimate government. Then, in practice, local governments are thinking of these sometimes very innovative ways to implement the central authority's message.

Eleanor M. Albert: It's performative as well.

Chi Zhang: Very performative. Very ritualistic.

Eleanor M. Albert: What's also interesting is if it's performative, who's the audience for that, right? I want to conclude by asking you whether China's counterterrorism cooperation has changed? As it has grown more actively engaged around the world, I'm curious if there have been moments in time or incidents that you have seen prompt a shift in China's counterterrorism approach?

Chi Zhang: [The] U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was a very important case, and a lot of Chinese scholars have written analysis about this. Particularly, one of the lessons they would learn from that is, for the $2 trillion, 20 years and over 2,000 [U.S.] military deaths, “This is not something what we want to end up with.” This is absolutely one of the lessons China learned from international counterterrorism cases.

However, you're absolutely right in terms of thinking about China’s expanding footprint globally over decades now. Its Belt and Road Initiative, and indeed, a lot of Chinese interests and Chinese assets are being threatened, because of not necessarily targeting Chinese, but because of local conflict and humanitarian crisis or any other of this kind of reason.

China is increasingly in a position where potentially its own domestic population as well as international audience, are calling China to maybe become more active in terms of contributing to international peacekeeping, for example.

Another, I think, crucial point for China is, of course, the Taliban's takeover. There have been some speculations regarding whether China is going to step in and because Taliban is so close to China's borders and because of the previous speculations regarding Uyghur militants being trained in Afghanistan. A lot of people were guessing whether China will increase its engagement. However, I do
see that with a pinch of salt; I still think China is not really ready to step in.

One of the examples I can think of is in 2015. There was a case of Chinese national being executed by ISIS. At the time there were international observers looking at this case and thinking this could be [a] potential moment for China to start boosting its efforts in terms of international counterterrorism. But then [in] one of the reports I read, China actually started to censor the term “Chinese hostage” within its social media platforms. That means the Chinese authorities are definitely not ready to be pushed around by its population, by the public opinion [in terms of whether or not] to get more involved in international counterterrorism regimes.

Also, there have been some speculations around the private military companies in China. One of the things with this is, of course, is a lack of transparency.  We don't really know what's going on, in terms of whether they can carry weapons and how they're going to secure local government's permission. These obstacles are saying that it's not going to be very soon when China could potentially use its private military companies as a way to [get] involved very deeply in other local conflicts. So to summarize, it's a very incremental, changing process. I don't think there [are] any drastic changes happening to China's counterterrorism approach.

Eleanor M. Albert: And if we know anything about the way in which Chinese policy evolves, it will probably be done piecemeal, with experiments in certain places. And then if it's successful, it will get built out. [It's] generally how a lot of policies, domestic and foreign, get developed.

My last question is to see if you had any insight into how China's counterterrorism approach is perceived by others, whether that's neighbors, partners, or potential competitors?

Chi Zhang: In terms of how competitors see it, for most of the liberal democracies, of course, China's counterterrorism is always criticized for its lack [of] respect for human rights. A lot of my work touches on Central Asian and Southeast Asian countries. For those countries, I think China presents a model which they can look up to—the [same] way China presents its authoritarian capitalist model as a way of development. [Though China] is not necessarily actively of trying to promote this model.

China is known for not really caring about political ideology in these Belt and Road countries; “as long as we [can] do business together, it's fine.” This approach, maybe because it doesn't attach this kind of ideological and normative value, then it could potentially be something that other countries with [a] similar authoritarian structure could potentially look up to.

For example, if those countries have the same kind of concerns regarding separatist movements or if they want to have the same high level of control, then China is perhaps setting this groundwork for them, so you don't have to invent rules from scratch. You could use China's approach and implement it. So for those countries, China is presenting an alternative model to the existing, maybe the U.S.-led global war on terror model, which itself is also usually criticized by some of the developing countries as well. So in that sense, I think they do see China's model as a different way to do things, but whether it is a good way or bad way, it's hard to say.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.