China’s lawmakers are putting the final touches on new, unprecedented legislation aimed at preventing attacks, identifying and apprehending suspects, and protecting vulnerable communities, as Cui Jia, Zhang Yi and Zhang Yan report.
Armed police board a train during an anti-terrorism drill in Chongqing. China has witnessed a rise in the number of attacks in recent years, and is now in the process of drafting the country’s first anti-terrorist legislation. [Zhang Chunhua / Xinhua]
It wasn’t until terrorists targeted the very heart of Beijing in 2013 that many Chinese citizens realized the true nature of the threat and its close proximity.At noon on Oct 28, six people died and 39 were injured when a jeep was deliberately driven into a crowd and burst into flames at Tian’anmen Square. Three of the dead were tourists, and the others were the occupants of the jeep.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and other countries, claimed responsibility for the attack, and it warned of similar incidents to come.
The attack, which caused widespread shock in China and overseas, also accelerated the process of drafting the country’s first anti-terrorist legislation, which is expected to be passed into law soon, according to legal experts.
The international impact of the attack was also significant because it sent out a strong signal that the terrorists’ sphere of activity has spread outside the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in Northwest China, the traditional battleground of China’s war on terrorism, said Liu Renwen, a criminal expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Liu said he began to see the flaws in China’s approach to the fight against terrorism, such as the lack of a legal definition of terrorism, in the wake of the attacks in the United States on Sept 11, 2001.
Xinjiang, home to 52 percent of China’s Muslims, has recently witnessed a marked rise in the number of terrorist attacks, a phenomenon attributed to the influence of aggressive religious extremists and separatist groups.
“The attacks at Tian’anmen Square and elsewhere made the lawmakers understand the urgency of enacting comprehensive anti-terrorism laws to address the worsening situation, instead of simply amending the current Criminal Law to fight terrorism,” said Liu, who gave his views on the first draft of the proposed law to the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislative body.
In fact, the NPC began conducting research into the feasibility of introducing anti-terrorism legislation in every administrative region in August 2011, with the aim of countering the increasingly serious threat.
After three years of legal research and public consultation, the first draft of the law was brought to the table in August, and has now undergone two readings and amendments by the Standing Committee of the NPC.
Police engage a “terrorist” during a drill at Wuhan Railway Station, Hubei province. [Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua]
The draft is expected to pass into law after its third reading, which means it should be on the statute books within a year, if the customary procedures are followed. Once passed, the law will reinforce China’s counterterrorism efforts by providing a legal framework for the courts and security forces, said an official familiar with the legislation, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the latest version of the draft, the definition of terrorism has been widened to include inflammatory comments and activities that could provoke fear-mongering, jeopardize public safety, or attempt to coerce the Chinese government or international organizations by the use of threats, violence or destructive acts.
The task of identifying terrorist groups and their members has been delegated to the anti-terrorism departments at the State and regional levels, and to courts at all levels.
The draft seeks to strike a balance between combating terrorism and protecting the rights of the individual. In particular, the authorities’ access to citizens’ private information via electronic technology will be subject to “strict approval procedures”, and the information obtained will only be admissible for use in counterterrorism operations.
“The draft also makes it clear that security checks on people, goods and vehicles in major public places must be conducted in accordance with the law and regulations,” the official said.
The Legal Affairs Committee of the NPC also decided to introduce an article requiring the departments responsible for the control of airspace, civil aviation and public security to tighten their procedures and aviation-related activities, to prevent aircraft from being targeted.
In May, the NPC sent the draft research group to Xinjiang to learn from the region’s long experience of fighting terrorism, and to seek advice, said Wang Yongming, deputy director of the Standing Committee of the Regional People’s Congress.
President Xi Jinping also weighed into the debate after a visit to Xinjiang in April last year. On the day Xi left the region, three people were killed and 79 were injured in a bomb and knife attack at a railway station in the regional capital Urumqi, that the police identified as the work of terrorists.
However, even though only a few articles have been made public, they have stirred up controversy, especially a proposal added to the second draft that would allow armed police units and the People’s Liberation Army to assume command of anti-terrorism operations if the police are unable to deal with an incident.
Policemen hold a “terrorist” captive during a drill in Bozhou, Anhui province, Jan 9, 2014. [Photo by Liu Qinli/China Daily]
“Both the armed police and the PLA have heavy weaponry. If this right were to be misused or a situation was assessed incorrectly, the consequences could be unimaginable,” said Qi Baowen, a former commander in the Xinjiang People’s Armed Police, who has dealt with a number of terrorist attacks in the region.
Liu, the criminal expert, was initially concerned that an article requiring providers of Internet and telecommunication services to build “backdoors” into their services to allow access for government surveillance could severely damage China’s international image. However, the article was amended during the second reading to stipulate “a strict approval procedure” for surveillance of this kind.
“You won’t find similar articles in anti-terrorist legislation in the US or European countries,” he said. “China has frequently expressed concerns about the US conducting online surveillance, but now we are doing exactly the same thing.”
He was also worried that the security issue could spark objections from foreign Internet users and the international partners of Chinese Internet and telecommunications companies.
Liu said the government would find it impossible to monitor the massive amounts of data online, and suggested amending the article to require Internet and telecommunication service providers to cooperate with the anti-terrorism forces in monitoring possible online terrorist activities when necessary.
Many of those who have carried out deadly attacks in China have watched or listened to online video or audio files containing extremist ideological content, but the material is produced or uploaded outside the country, according to Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Regional Anti-terrorist Structure Executive Committee of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political, economic and military body founded in Shanghai in 2001 by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
In September, President Xi urged the organization, which has its headquarters in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to increase its focus on the two major security issues in Xinjiang: religious extremism and cyberterrorism.
As one of the most-discussed and debated pieces of modern legislation, the new law will significantly strengthen China’s anti-terrorism mechanism by improving coordination among a range of organizations, experts said.
The law needs to further clarify the role of each anti-terrorism department and formulate procedures to deal with attacks, such as correctly identifying the circumstances in which firearms can be used, Qi said.
According to Mei Jianming, director of the Counterterrorism Research Center at the People’s Public Security University of China: “If armed terrorist suspects threaten to kill people or cause great damage to property, the law would allow a range of different units to take immediate action to control the situation and shoot at the suspects to minimize the number of casualties.”
Police display a high-profile rifle to local residents in Bozhou, Anhui province, at an exhibition of anti-terrorism equipment. [Liu Qinli/China Daily]
Qi said a proposal to establish a joint intelligence-sharing mechanism would significantly improve the efficiency of anti-terrorism operations in the future. “The police, armed police and the PLA all have their own intelligence-gathering systems, but at present, they lack channels to share the information.”
Mei said intelligence gathering is vital to the task of foiling attacks before they happen and preventing injuries and damage to property.
After establishing an intelligence database, the relevant departments, including regular and armed police officers, will share information in a timely fashion, and attempt to prevent attacks by drawing up effective plans to neutralize them, he said. “Such a database would support the decision-making process at the highest level to combat such crimes, which would improve efficiency.”
During the ongoing NPC meeting, Nayim Yasen, director of the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Regional People’s Congress, said the regional body will issue recommendations on the implementation of the law once it has been passed. “We will take the situation in Xinjiang into consideration, and ensure that the law will combat terrorism in the region effectively,” he said.
Liu said specific legislation would certainly play a huge role in the fight against terrorism in China, but the problem will only be eradicated by tackling the root causes, such as social injustice and unemployment, and by curbing religious extremists.
“Many terrorists under the influence of religious extremism aren’t afraid of death, so they won’t be deterred by the death sentence, the harshest penalty the law can provide” he said. “It’s a start, but the law can’t solve every problem.”
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