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Decoding Chinese Strategy of Combating Three Evils
China has adopted a unique strategy of combating the “Three Evils” namely “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism”. The threat of three evils is perceived from the ethnic minorities mainly Uighurs of Xinjiang and Tibetans mostly concentrated in Western fringes of the Han dominated China with only 7.1 percent ethnic minorities. Some of the components of its strategy are no different than other countries struggling with similar problems like granting autonomy, inclusive development to include infrastructure, social needs, economic and financial inclusion of population. There is a vast difference in Chinese strategy in a number of measures like shaping external environment by linking the aid being given to some countries in neighborhood with their efforts in addressing Beijing’s concerns of ‘Three Evils’.
The components of Chinese strategy drawing maximum controversy of HR violations include control over freedom of exercising religious practices of suspected communities, keeping alarming number of people in glorified imprisonment, under the camouflage of re-education camps and separating the children from parents on the pretext of education to imbibe Chinese characteristics. Undertaking psychological transformation of population and making legislative changes, by justifying it as a security needs. Changing hierarchical structure and social engineering in TAR, tweaking education system to change social profiling, irreversible demographic changes, exhaustive surveillance and mental profiling using artificial intelligence are part of the strategy. China can afford such a strategy being a communist country with no room for dissent, but it is not a model to replicate in any modern democratic society.
When China coined the terminology of the ‘Three Evils’ to be combated against, namely “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism”, and sold this narrative at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit at Tashkent on June 11, 2010, to leaders of SCO, it was willingly agreed upon. The narrative was sold under the overarching idea of organizing joint efforts against terrorism, separatism and extremism, to ensure peace and security in the region as the first priority[i], which looked quite benign. At that point of time China was battling with violent ethnic unrest in Xinjiang Autonomous province. This idea of combating ‘Three Evil’ is being frequently used by China, not only to seek cooperation from western neighbors against independence movements in restive Xinjiang, but also for smooth implementation of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, as its progress/security can be adversely affected by it. A deeper look to decode “Chinese strategy of combating three evils” is being attempted in this paper.
Demographic Profiling of China
A White Paper issued by the Information Office of the State Council of China on 28 February 2005[ii], reiterates the that out of the fifty-six ethnic groups identified in China, fifty-five (other than the Han) are ‘relatively small; hence customarily referred to as “ethnic minorities”. It quotes the fifth national census of 2000, in which the total population of the fifty-five ethnic minority groups was recorded as 104.49 million, which was 8.41 per cent of the total population of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Chinese population profile therefore makes it overwhelmingly a Han Chinese state with 91.6 percent population and Zhuang 1.3 percent (2010 census). Out of the remaining 7.1 percent population bracketed as others includes Hui, Manchu, Uighur, Miao, Yi, Tujia, Tibetan, Mongol, Dong, Buyei, Yao, Bai, Korean, Hani, Li, Kazakh, Dai and other nationalities. The analogy of three evils is more applicable to the minorities with restive tendencies located at the fringes of China, closer to western border areas, which as per Chinese perception were prone to external influences, had lesser influence of heartland, located in difficult terrain and relatively lesser developed areas. This indicates that the density of ethnic minorities, as well as their restiveness keeps increasing as the distance from developed eastern seaboard and Beijing increases; hence western fringes, with Xinjiang is most restive, followed by Tibet.
Backdrop of Restive Xinjiang and Tibet Problem
Xinjiang Historically, to summarize the problem, Xinjiang was keenly contested by various Turkic groups, Mongols and Chinese until the 18th century, when the Chinese Qing Dynasty brought it under its control. Later it remained under Russian influence after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The Soviet Union supported an Uighur-led separatist East Turkestan Republic there in 1944-1949, till Communists took over PRC. As Chinese tightened control over local people of Xinjiang, over half-million Uighurs fled to CAR and got in contact with Muslim radicals from other countries. Protests against Chinese showed significant increase in 1990s. China reacted forcefully, leading to clashes like the one in 1997 in Yining, followed by execution of some of the alleged separatists. Xinjiang became a center of ethnic tension, with repeated violent clashes, bombings and riots since 2007. Coinciding with the Olympic Games in Beijing, protests resumed in March 2008 in Urumqi, Hotan and Kashgar. Xinjiang again became the focus of global human right organizations in July 2009, with fierce clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi leaving over 200 Uighurs killed. This led to the Chinese government sending large numbers of troops to control the situation. At least 1,000 rioters clashed with the police after days of rising tensions between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese[iii].
Xinjiang currently houses over 47 ethnic groups mainly the Uygur, Han, Kazak, Tajiks, Hui, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Xibe, Tajik, Ozbek, Manchu, Daur, Tatar and Russian, and continues to witness the influx of Han Chinese over many decades. Its home to at least 11 million Muslim Uygurs, constituting the largest segment of population (about 45 per cent). 90 percent of Uighurs are concentrated in Southern Xinjiang; hence they have links with militant groups of Af-Pak region. They speak Asian Turkic language, practice moderate form of Sunni Islamic religion and continue to fight for an independent East Turkistan since last 150 years. Han Chinese account for 40 percent of the population of Xinjiang, excluding large number of troops located there and unregistered migrants, making it much more than recorded numbers. Chinese continue to move Han Chinese to Xinjiang and insist on their assimilation to change the demography in favor of Hans, bulk of them residing in northern Xinjiang along hub of communication to CAR, along BRI Corridors.
Tibet After annexation of Tibet in 1950, a large number of Tibetans fled to various countries, with major chunk getting into India. Since the Tibetan uprising in 1959, India is host to thousands of Tibetan refugees, including the 14th Dalai Lama, their tallest Buddhist leader. The Government in exile in Dharmsala under him continues to remain a bone of contention between India and China. The Budhist monks in Tibet have been protesting against their annexation, demographic changes, religious interference, environment issues and sinicisation in general. The degree of restiveness in Tibet in last few decades has been varying from moderate to intense involving self-immolation by Budhist monks indicating extreme disgust. 2008 saw one of the fierce clashes between Tibetan Budhist monks and Chinese Security Forces leaving few Tibetans dead, but the security forces could quell the dissent. Chinese however consider this area as restive with separatist tendencies (although lesser than Xinjiang) and continue to monitor it rigorously. China has added additional police stations in Tibet to maintain social stability, on the excuse of providing security and safety residents and tourists.
Insecurities of Communist China to Three Evils
Chinese believe that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), now being called as Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)/ Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM), which has links with al-Qaeda and Tehriq-e –Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are responsible for such militant activities in Xinjiang. They keep the region restive with spurge of violence at regular intervals. 2013 saw another upsurge in violence in Kashgar leaving 21 dead, followed by similar actions in 2014. There are some exiled Uyghur groups accused by China of exaggerating the controlling actions of the Government as oppression like World Uyghur Congress (WYC), set up in Germany in 2004 by followers of Rebiya Kadeer[iv]. The WYC describes itself as a non violent, peaceful movement opposing Chinese occupation of East Turkestan, and advocates rejection of totalitarianism, religious intolerance and terrorism as an instrument of policy. China continues to show concern over growing radicalisation in Xinjiang with international connections and support to Uyghur Muslim communities. The use of electronic media for communications, propaganda under the cover of anonymity is gaining grounds in Xinjiang, duly inspired by the success of methodology of recruitment and operation of ISIS. The ISIS after its dissipation in Iraq and Syria is looking at Xinjiang as a region to regroup is another challenge to reckon with for China.
China realizes that BRI cannot be executed unless the ethnic unrest and militancy in Xinjiang is under control and surface transportation can operate smoothly. Insurgency prone Xinjiang is a weak link in BRI; hence effective control over militant organizations of Uyghurs is a must, even if it amounts to change in demography, lifestyle, and manipulation of their religious habits. There have been few militant attacks in heartland of China as well, like the one in Tiananmen Square in 2013, however, CCP regime wants to ensure security of Chinese heartland including developed eastern seaboard at any cost for its leadership to claim for internal stability; hence the need to quarantine the problem in the western fringes.
Strategy to fight three Evils
In formulating the strategy for fighting the three evils there are certain measures adopted by China, which are common to many countries struggling with terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. Two such measures are highlighted below.
Regional Autonomy The White Paper issued by the Information Office of the State Council on 28 February 2005,[v] indicates clearly that Chinese do rely on the existing structures of regional autonomy including Xinjiang and Tibet. Regional autonomy is ‘critical to enhancing equality, unity and mutual assistance among different ethnic groups, upholding national unification, and development’ says the White paper.
Development Strategy In case of China the ‘Western Area Development Strategy’ or ‘Go West Strategy’ was launched in 2000, to accelerate the development of China’s western region and ethnic autonomous areas. This grand strategy covers five autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 83 of the 120 autonomous counties. It has been followed up by the ‘Action plan on the BRI’ released on March 30, 2015[vi], which includes development in its Western Areas as domestic compulsion, besides its international, strategic and military dimensions. It indicates long term Chinese strategy of integrating the restive Xinjiang and Tibet. Besides infrastructure projects like the West–East Gas Pipeline, Power Transmission Project, Qinghai–Tibet Railway, highway projects, airports in Xinjiang and Tibet, preferential financial support including subsidies, tax benefits and special funding for minority areas have been some appeasing measures. The claims of Chinese are impressive, because improvements in infrastructure of the western regions are visible, but most of the locals feel that bulk of these facilities and concessions are being enjoyed by Han population and have been made to encourage them to settle there to change the demography.
How is Chinese Strategy to Combat Three Evils Different from others?
Shaping External Environment Chinese President Hu Jintao, during first meeting with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in 2003, said that both nations must battle the “three forces” — extremism, ethnic separatism and terrorism [vii]. It was in context of some of separatist Muslims from Xinjiang trained in al – Qaeda camps in Pakistan. Hu Jintao linked it with assistance to Pakistan, thus tried to get Musharraf on board to prevent his soil being used to train ETIM. The attempt was not successful as sporadic incidents like Uighur women caught with explosive in a flight immediately prior to Beijing Olympics having linkage with al Qaeda was noticed. In the Lal Masjid takeover, when Muslim extremists kidnapped Chinese in Islamabad, China quickly pressurized Musharraf to launch military operation on the mosque in order to free the Chinese hostages. It is learnt that President Musharraf held a meeting with various imams/ religious leaders and urged them to work for the betterment of China[viii].
China continued working with its neighbors to step up the fight against the “The Three Evil Forces”[ix], in many forums including SCO. It started linking its assistance to CAR countries also with their efforts in addressing Chinese concerns in Xinjiang. Lately China has been working with Afghanistan to deploy forces in Wakhan Corridor to restrict movement of terrorists to Xinjiang. China has been quite critical of India due to hosting Tibetan Government in exile. India, however, continues to follow a robust independent foreign policy. India maintains that it will not allow its soil to be used for any terrorist action against China, but Tibetans will not be forced out, having come voluntarily. China seeks improvements in ‘Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure’; however its soft approach towards Pakistan and some terror groups located there, shows Chinese inconsistency in combating three evils.
Hard Hand with No Velvet Gloves Chinese Policy to deal with the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang has been of a mixture of extremely hard action, sidelining all human right organizations, along with some inclusive development, visible infrastructure progress, demographic changes and well planned long term indoctrination of population. The media reports point out Chinese government’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslim population of Xinjiang, involving mass detention and re-education of Uygurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities. A United Nations panel on racial discrimination recently cited “credible reports” that as many as one million Muslims in Xinjiang are being detained[x]. China has denied the crackdown justifying that the citizens guilty of minor offences were sent to vocational centers.
Re-education or Psychological Transformation China’s muscular approach to de-radicalization of these violent groups, as national security need has remained under cover due to strict media censorship. In the recent past UN Human right organizations are voicing against restrictions placed on Muslim community, in practicing their religious customs/needs. It is learnt that a large number of children of Uyghurs have been separated from their parents and sent to boarding school to provide Chinese oriented education as part of long term indoctrination. The nature of preventive strategies undertaken to control vulnerable individuals against the lure of terrorist cause are peculiar to China. It remains to be seen whether these strategies are useful in de-radicalizing or are counter-productive, leading to further hatred towards the state, creating a situation ready to explode anytime, whenever the grip of occupation force in the form of PLA and PAPF gets loose.
China feels that Uyghur Diasporas in US and other locations and Human Right Organizations like HRW, Washington-based Uygur Human Rights Project (UHRP), are inciting the terror groups. Notwithstanding the above the information War and perception management will continue by Chinese as well as Uyghurs and their sympathizers to influence the region.
Legislative Changes Xinjiang People’s Congress passed China’s first legislation to prevent terrorism in the region on 01 April 2017. It prohibits people of Xinjiang from wearing full-face coverings and long beards, and thirteen other behaviors involving religious practices and dietary regulations like having halal. Chinese feel that it will be able to check/control extremist activities. As per them “The new regulation mainly focuses on prevention and education rather than punishment”[xi]. The violators will be dealt with according to China’s Anti-Terrorism Law and Criminal Law, after due caution. Xinjiang has become China’s main battleground in the fight against terrorism and the penetration of extremism from abroad. Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping called for a “great wall of iron” to safeguard Xinjiang[xii].
In a bid to make Islam more compatible with socialism, Beijing has passed a law to “implement measures to sinicize” Islam within the next five years. The move came after Chinese government officials met with representatives from eight Islamic associations, as per reports published in the Global Times. Practicing Islam is illegal in some pockets of China. People caught fasting, praying, growing a beard or wearing a hijab may attract arrest.
Change in Hierarchical Structure and Social Engineering in TAR China has consistently made efforts to change Tibetan hierarchical structure, to have religious leaders supporting Beijing, besides structured administration monitoring them. In recent years the demographic pattern of TAR has appreciably changed in favor of Hans. Hans constitute a major chunk of population in Lhasa and are encouraged to settle in other cities of TAR. The tourism industry in TAR, tightly controlled by the Hans is heavily concentrated in the Han-dominated urban areas. The ‘Go-West’ campaign also includes sending Chinese graduates to Tibet. Chinese have instructed all conscripts posted in TAR to apply for change of residential registration, which will facilitate the demobilised cadres (approximately 50,000 every year) in finding employment in TAR. During the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), 2.6 billion Yuan was invested in public cultural projects in Tibet. [xiii]
Long Term Psychological Transformation On 15 Oct 02, in a conference named “National Education to Aid Tibet’ made education compulsory up-to ninth grade to be achieved by 2010. Reportedly, US $ 54 million have been spent to promote education in TAR, yet the officially quoted illiteracy rate is more than 40 percent, which is higher than any other region of China even now. Chinese has been made as the medium of instruction in schools, which will necessitate more number of Han tutors to come from the hinterland, thus helping sinicisation. The Chinese have resorted to closing down Tibetan schools teaching traditional Tibetan language. Educational projects with Chinese characteristics are measures to change the psyche of younger generation.
As per Tibet Daily reports, the autonomous Communist Party Commission had improved the management of 1,787 temples in Tibet since 2012, quoting the need to check corruption. It is to lead religious groups to align themselves to the country by touching their religious chord. An annual fund of 26 million Yuan is provided to lamas and nuns in Tibet for social insurance. Chinese have been actively working to display the image of a “socialist new Tibet” to the world. This is claimed as a stable international environment for the reform and development of Tibet[xiv]. China has also adopted a policy for preferential training and promotion of ethnic minority officers, especially in TAR. This has resulted in the increase of Tibetan officers in units, better educational standards and acceleration of their promotions. In the past few years, Tibet has been relatively harmonious and stable in terms of religious and ethnic issues. This policy is likely to reduce the influence of the Dalai Lama over Tibetans and contribute towards their assimilation into the Chinese mainstream, tightening China’s grip over Tibet.
Exhaustive Surveillance and Mental Profiling Chinese have confiscated passports of suspected Uighurs and forced the population to compulsorily download a mobile app recording their biometric profile. China is also using many modern innovative techniques for exhaustive surveillance like mental profiling using artificial intelligence. These techniques have unleashed unprecedented hardship to people, because stern actions are being taken against them for some predictive action, which they were expected to do in future, deduced through artificial intelligence. It is learnt that there are 7300 police stations in Xinjiang and exhaustive network of monitoring mechanism.
Will Chinese Strategy be Successful in the Long Run?
China is managing its terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists without much regard to international opinion or HR violations. Their idea of laying restrictions on religious practices, social engineering and manipulating the thinking of public by re-education camps and sinicisizing thinking of future generations is its strategy of dealing with it. The disgruntlement of Uighurs and the terrorist groups is not reducing. The HR organisations claim that the people of Xinjiang sent to re-education camps are being brainwashed to follow Chinese identity. Chinese government however continues to deny any arbitrary detention policy, claiming that the citizens guilty of minor offences are being sent to vocational centers for better integration. In the long run such stern actions may not deliver positive results, as it is learnt that the number of hardcore Jihadis has increased tenfold.
Chinese Gamble with Terrorists ISIS had been highlighting since formation of their caliphate that “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China”. After disintegration of their caliphate, Xinjiang emerges as one of the obvious choice for fragments of ISIS to recoup. In this context Chinese strategy is looking at appeasing some terrorists groups to seek security for China or CPEC projects, by putting pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan has deployed 15,000-strong force for Chinese security, yet kidnapping of Chinese workers has caused serious concerns for China. Chinese may be looking to induct more of their own troops for protecting CPEC workers or directly striking deals with some sponsor militant groups. They may not mind buying some of them for security of China/CPEC.
Chinese realization that dealing with terrorists through Pakistan is a risky experiment will happen only when terrorism strikes hard in its heartland. China cannot keep distancing itself from terror gaming of Pakistan, if it wants CPEC to succeed. Pakistani debt to China on account of CPEC and sale of military hardware will make Pakistan a colony of China or enter into a client- Patron relationship, where strategic choices of Pakistan will be hostage to China. Those in power in Pakistan, including Pakistan Army may not mind, so long the fund flows to them. The people and most importantly the Jihadi’s do mind it and do not want to see any foreigners including Chinese because it disturbs their well established terror industry. This will bring China into a new conflict arena risking their country exposed to terrorism, a lesson which US learnt too late, after going through the entire cycle, which China has just commenced. Now China will have to take a call of fighting terrorism by reigning Pakistan or keep quiet till terrorism strikes them.
The analysis of the strategy being adopted by China brings out few significant features. The fact that some of the actions of Western area development are more than five decades old indicates that China has a cogent, long term Strategy to deal with minorities and tackling terrorism, separatists and religious extremists. Certain hard actions taken by them are possible because of Communist Regime and one party system, where there is no room for dissent. Certain actions like placing religious restrictions are unimaginable in the vibrant democratic world of today. In fact Sajjan from ‘Combating Terrorism Centre’ argues that the terrorism in China has reached the Seventh Stage[xv] in 2014, citing the number of militant attacks in the heartland including the most guarded places in Beijing and on critical infrastructure like railway line. With tough policies and curbs, it’s likely to increase further. The events however indicate that China has been able to largely quarantine the extremism and the future will depend on many other factors other than three evils in controlling the internal restive elements. Externally China continues to engage CAR, Af-Pak region and Iran with BRI and CPEC promises, with an eye to control ‘Three Evils’ besides economic, strategic and infrastructure benefits.
Major General S B Asthana,SM,VSM
(The views expressed are personal views of the author, and do not represent views of any organisation. He is a globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst on international affairs. Major General S B Asthana can be reached as Shashi Asthana on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, asthana_shashi on Twitter and S B Asthana on Youtube. website http://www.asthanawrites.org)
[i] SCO Secretariat from Russia (2010), Fighting three evils, What areas are the RCTS’s priorities? SCO 2010, URL http://infoshos.ru/en/?idn=7678
|[ii] Permanent Mission of People’s Republic of China to UN, White Paper 2005: Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China (2005), February 28,2005, URL http://www.china-un.org/eng/zt/xzwt/t418939.htm
[iii] Wong Edwards (2009), Riots in Western China Amid Ethnic Tension, New York Times July 5, 2009. URL https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/world/asia/06china.html
[iv] Kadeer Rabiya (2009), A civil rights movement for Uighurs, The Guardian, July 14,2009. URL https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jul/14/china-uighur-equality-xinjiang
[v] White Paper, 2005, Loc cit.
[vi] The state council, the people’s republic of china, Full text: Action plan on the Belt and Road Initiative , Mar 30, 2015. URL http://english.gov.cn/beltAndRoad/
[vii] China, Pakistan Pledge to Fight ‘Three Evils’, China Daily, November 4, 2003) http://www.china.org.cn/english/international/79110.htm
[viii] Shen Simon and Jean-Marc F. Blanchard ( 2010,) Multidimensional Diplomacy of Contemporary China, Lexington Books, United Kingdom, 2010, pp165.
[ix] Dupont Sam (2007), China’s war on the “three evil forces”, Foreign Policy, 25 July 2007. URL https://foreignpolicy.com/2007/07/25/chinas-war-on-the-three-evil-forces/
[x] Churchil Owen (2018), Speaking out: Uygurs in the United States break silence on China’s crackdown, South China Morning Post, September 12,2018. URL https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2163939/speaking-out-uygurs-united-states-break-silence-chinas
[xi] Weihua Mao and Cui Jia(2017), New Xinjiang regulation aims to prevent extremism, China Daily, March 31,2017. URL http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-03/31/content_28747922.htm
[xiii] Jie Shan (2017), op cit.
[xv] Gohel Sajjan M (2014), The “Seventh Stage” Of Terrorism in China, Volume 7, Issue 11 Combatting terrorism Centre Sentinel, West Point, Nov/Dec 2014, URL https://ctc.usma.edu/the-seventh-stage-of-terrorism-in-china/
Major General S B Asthana is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. Presently he is the Chief Instructor of all courses for military officers at USI of India. He is a globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst on international affairs.
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