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Dispatches: China-US Dialogue – Counterterrorism or Counter-Productive?

This week, China and the United States convened another counterterrorism dialogue in Beijing. On the surface, their expressed intentions are positive: joining forces to counter terrorism, partly by encouraging peace and economic development. 

Yet it’s hard to see the dialogue giving adequate attention to human rights violations committed under the guise of counterterrorism.  

All governments have an obligation to provide public order and prevent crime. But as China increasingly treats peaceful dissent as a threat to national security, its insistence that many such incidents rise to the level of “terrorism” is cause for concern. And through this dialogue the US risks giving its imprimatur to China’s approach.

A policeman of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team stands guard on a main street next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing October 31, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

Since the bilateral counterterrorism dialogue was suddenly resurrected in July 2014, China’s already-problematic approach to terrorism has hardened significantly. This has included reverting to Mao-era tactics of public sentencing rallies, using state media to label individuals as terrorists before any semblance of a judicial process, and sentencing to life in prison prominent Uighur economist and peaceful critic Ilham Tohti on charges of “separatism.” By the end of 2014, Chinese courts had convicted more than 700 people on charges of terrorism or separatism in opaque proceedings—the Criminal Procedure Law denies terrorism suspects basic defense protections, including access to family members and lawyers, and allows suspects to be held for months in undisclosed locations.     

In January 2015, Beijing released a draft counterterrorism law that expands state powers with no commensurate accountability or defense for the accused. In July, Chinese authorities pressured Thailand into forcibly expelling more than 100 ethnic minority individuals from immigration detention despite the fact that credible allegations of criminal conduct against them was produced; Chinese state media broadcast images of these people hooded and handcuffed, and referred to them as “terrorists” shortly after their flight had landed.

The US track record on counterterrorism, including dubious domestic prosecutions, has undercut Obama administration efforts to raise human rights concerns abroad. Its position toward China and terrorism has been woefully inconsistent. In a November 2014 interview with the Xinhua news agency, President Barack Obama inexplicably repeated Beijing’s insistence that certain groups, such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), whose very existence is debated, are a threat to China. He then noted that bilateral cooperation would “depend upon the action China takes at home,” but failed to identify specific steps that should be taken, and did not identify any of those imprisoned in violation of their rights in the name of counterterrorism in China. US officials suggest it is China’s abusive practices that prevent greater cooperation on terrorism.

What then is the utility of the China-US dialogue? But there seems to be little reason for the US to proceed until China takes some meaningful steps, including providing information about prosecutions, radically rewriting the draft counterterrorism law, ensuring terrorism suspects have lawyers of their own choosing, allowing free media access to regions where “terrorist” attacks have taken place, and ceasing its hunt for refugees. Holding formal dialogues while Chinese counterterrorism laws and practices are heading in the wrong direction is simply counter-productive.

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