Counter-terrorism with Chinese Characteristics: Why China’s strategy is more effective than that of US or India

Unlike America and India, China focuses on re-education and de-radicalization to prevent terrorism and extremism

On 8th July 2016, Burhan Wani, a 21-year old commander of the terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter in Kashmir. This in itself was not surprising. Kashmir is the most militarized region in the world — and one of the most restive. Terrorists often get captured or killed in police and military encounters.

What was surprising was what happened later. An external observer would’ve expected the death of a terrorist to be highly welcomed by local residents. However, not only was the region marked by a stark absence of celebratory mood, but instead of a wave of joy — a shadow of gloom spread across the valley. A mind-boggling 200,000 people attended the terrorist’s funeral. Few Indian celebrities or politicians — whether alive or dead — are able to attract such crowds. His last rites were held in all major towns across Kashmir. Tens of thousands paid homage to the slain terrorist. Rallies supporting him attracted countless people of all ages across the region.

It didn’t end there. What was even more unbelievable was that his body was buried wrapped in the national flag of Pakistan — the nation that funds the anti-Indian, separatist, terrorist organization he worked for.

The body of an Indian citizen wrapped in the national flag of Pakistan (source: Getty images)
Slogans in Kashmir displaying solidarity with the slain terrorist (source: Times of India)

Burhan Wani’s killing subsequently catalyzed months-long unrest in the region, in which 120 people died. Many Kashmiri youths took inspiration from him and joined terrorist organizations after his death. After all, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and one man’s slain terrorist is another man’s martyr.

Supporters of Burhan Wani at a rally. The word “Shaheed’” means “Martyr”. (source: India TV)

You believe what you want to believe

His family denies that he was a separatist. It traces his hatred of the Indian state to an incident from his childhood in 2010, when he was only 16, when state police beat him and his brother Khalid Wani (who the state later claimed was also a militant) and another friend for no apparent reason.

While Khalid fainted due to the beating, Burhan and his friend managed to escape. Burhan vowed to take revenge for the humiliation and joined Hizbul Mujahideen the same year. India claims that Burhan’s cousins were already part of the organization at the time.

If this was China, western media would’ve given the family’s story almost exclusive coverage, while largely sidelining or ignoring the state’s views. It’s not exactly difficult to create a one-sided narrative. And since it’s not technically lying, it’s easier on the conscience. Portraying terrorists as freedom fighters, or vice versa depending on your agenda, is remarkably easy.

The Romanticization of Terrorism

From 1990 to 2017, 41,000 people have died across Jammu and Kashmir, an average of 4 deaths every day for 27 years. This includes 14,000 civilians, 5,000 security personnel, and 22,000 militants.

In the same period, the whole of China witnessed about 1000 deaths, and not a single terrorist incident or death since then.

Kashmiri youth like Burhan Wani are easily drawn to extremism and separatism. Riddled by either poverty or lack of employment opportunities (and often both), lacking a sense of identity (that the state has failed to distill), and disgruntled by the extremist elements of Indian rule and brutal policing — youths like him harbor a profound sense of victimization by the Indian state.

Terrorist groups are all too happy to weaponize this perceived persecution and channel it to the insurgency. These young recruits then use their charisma and social media skills to recruit more vulnerable foot soldiers. Wani was a social media star in Kashmir— people across the region were hooked to his mythology and Robin hood-style freedom-fighting image. He romanticized and glorified the militancy in his videos in chaste Kashmiri. Burhan Wani’s message resonated among many, and the same cycle of radicalization was repeated across Kashmir — creating dozens of Burhan Wanis.

What causes radicalization?

What causes people to be radicalized? What makes them so willing to take up arms against the state, often at the cost of their own lives? What causes people to become militants and even suicide bombers?

Discussing and dissecting the effects of radicalization is important — but ultimately only the first step, and not particularly useful in eliminating them. Many nations focus on the symptoms of terrorism and extremism — but not enough on the causes. Indian officials are all too happy to blame Pakistan for funding terrorist groups in Kashmir, without focusing on what makes Kashmiris so easy for them to recruit in the first place.

Counter-terrorism that creates more terrorism

The United States of America, the most powerful nation (and the largest terrorist state) on Earth, has also been (largely deservedly) a victim of terrorism. So it is perhaps no surprise that America’s counter-terrorism strategy has actually increased terrorism.

On 11th September, 2001, America was attacked by the very same terrorists whose precursors it had once sponsored to fight the Soviets. America says 2,977 victims died in the attacks. In response, the US fell back to its old instincts and did what came naturally: kill people. In response to the 2,997 deaths, America directly or indirectly killed about one million people and displaced 37 million, in what is today the biggest terrorist operation in the world, the “War on Terror”, under the guise of anti-terrorism.

Part of this War was invading Iraq, a nation unrelated to the 9/11 attacks, killing off its leadership, securing its oil and gold, and consolidating US position in West Asia (or to use the Eurocentric term, Middle East). A direct result of the US invasion of Iraq was ISIS, the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world after the US.

Terror attacks across the globe increased because of America’s War on Terror. And even more after the Syrian civil war and the US invasion (or “intervention”) in Syria, in which it supported terrorist groups opposing the Syrian government. US drone attacks often end up radicalizing more people and creating more terrorists — the very people they are meant to eradicate.

Terror attacks largely follow US invasions (source: warontherocks.com)

If America’s objective was to destabilize the region and increase terrorism, it succeeded.

None of this is surprising of course, given America’s history. Since World War II, the regime has been the most prolific sponsor and instigator of terrorist activity on Earth.

Counter-terrorism with Chinese Characteristics

What both India and America don’t seem to realize is that such brute-force methods to eradicate terrorism, devoid of any understanding of its root causes, have very little effectiveness. Often, more people end up being pushed towards radicalization — whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or in Kashmir.

Many nations focus on the symptoms of terrorism and extremism, but not the causes. Many Indian officials are all too eager to blame Pakistan for funding terrorist groups in Kashmir, without focusing on what makes Kashmiris so easy for them to recruit in the first place. While India has made some right moves (for example, Kashmir is the largest per-capita recipient of central aid), much more needs to be done.

China has chosen a different approach. In parallel to strictly enforcing law and order, it has decided to fight radicalization with de-radicalization, both things that Kashmir could use more of. This requires a whole-of-government approach and includes a myriad of tactics, including:

  • eliminating poverty and improving people’s standards of living
  • improving infrastructure and connectivity
  • providing modern education and vocational training en masse
  • re-educating people who harbor extreme religious thoughts with modern, secular ideas
  • creating employment opportunities
  • emancipating women from solely traditional roles
  • absolute control over social media

After all, the problem is never tradition or religion itself, but the forceful imposition and weaponization of tradition — mixed with pseudo-religious doctrine — to subvert the state. China calls this the “three evils” of Terrorism, Separatism, and Religious Fundamentalism.

The strategy seems to be succeeding. Not only has Xinjiang not witnessed a single terror attack since 2017, but people are enjoying increasing standards of living. Xinjiang today has a per-capita income of around $7868, which is not only on a different planet than Kashmir ($1342), but also higher than that of Goa ($6698), India’s richest state by per-capita income. So much for “freedom” and “democracy” being India’s advantages over China.

The massive western propaganda campaign about “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang is a direct response to this success. These Sinophobic propaganda narratives largely rely on taking a few tactical problems in China’s strategy and deceptively portraying them as central. No wonder that almost all criticism of China surreptitiously skips any mention of terrorism or religious fundamentalism. The West largely supports extremism in Xinjiang (e.g. the religious indoctrination of children, women being forced to stay at home and being deprived of education and jobs (the average age of marriage for women in India is 22.1 years)) and falsely portray any attempts to correct such age-old, non-secular practices as “crimes against humanity”.

The weaponization of “human rights”

The West hates China’s strategy (and its guts) because it works — and makes the region more prosperous. Making people richer, while still allowing harmless, non-extremist expressions of religious identity, is a far better way of winning hearts and minds than India does in Kashmir.

Western media portray the opposite of what’s actually happening: When China’s methods work and terrorism is almost eradicated — this absence of terror attacks is then weaponized to accuse China of over-reacting to terrorism citing the absence of terror attacks.

By now, the “Uyghur genocide” narrative has been almost completely and thoroughly debunked, and only those with an agenda (i.e. western governments and media) take it seriously. Most allegations break down under the slightest scrutiny. Moreover, not a single person or entity making these allegations is independent — every single one of them can be traced to funding or support from some western government or corporation. The same people who are quick to dismiss “Chinese state media” because they are funded by the Chinese government — are quick to downplay their own funding by western governments or weapons manufacturers, and expect people to fully trust them.

At the international stage, few nations are fooled. Most nations are aware of these issues and agree with China’s policies, including almost all Muslim-majority states. At the UN, 80 nations have expressed open support for China so far. By contrast, a mere 39 nations have opposed it. So much for “wolf-warrior diplomacy” denting China’s image.

Peace, not perfection

No nation or policy is perfect. Perfect is the enemy of the good. Counter-terrorism is always an ongoing, learning process.

One cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. The eggs America broke are about one million killed and 37 million displaced, and the destruction of the whole region. The eggs India broke are 41,000 killed, including 14,000 civilians. By these standards, going through a few security checkpoints in Xinjiang seems like a small price to pay for not being blown up in a terrorist attack.

(This article is the first of a series looking at China’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism measures compared to that of India, the United States, and other countries)

Writing about Current Affairs, Past Affairs, and Foreign Affairs — especially about India and China