China’s first counter-terror law and its implications for Tibet

Our Movement

On 27 December 2015, China passed its first counter-terrorism law, rejecting concerns from international governments that draconian measures in the name of national security are being used to crack down on Tibetans, Uyghurs and Chinese civil
society and to undermine religious freedom.

International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), one of FIDH’s member organisations, published an analysis of the newly adopted law and how this repressive and vague legislation puts human rights in China at risk.

The new law, which will form the blueprint for China’s counter-terrorism strategy, was passed on 27 December 2015 [1] and follows the imposition of oppressive and counter-productive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, involving extra-judicial killings, torture and imprisonment, and crackdowns on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture. An aggressive ‘counter-terrorism’ drive in Tibet with a strongly political dimension has involved an expansion of militarization across the plateau despite the absence of any violent insurgency in Tibet. [2]

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: ”The sweeping measures introduced in the new law are not only about countering terrorism, but about silencing criticism of the CCP and in particular its ethnic policies. No one could argue against the need for China to protect its citizens, but this law provides a rubber stamp to legitimize persecution of peaceful dissent, and it emerges from policies implemented in Tibet and Xinjiang that have been deeply counter-productive. The intensification of militarization accompanied by efforts to crush expressions of Tibetan national identity have led to increasing tensions, not less. Peace and stability cannot be achieved through hyper-securitization and suppression of human rights – nor by a political campaign against a globally-renowned Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Dalai Lama, whose influence has been critical in ensuring that Tibetans do not turn to violence as an answer to oppression.”

- In conflating ‘terrorism’ with an undefined ‘extremism’ linked to religion, the Counter-Terrorism Law of the People’s Republic of China gives scope for the penalization of almost any peaceful expression of Tibetan identity, acts of non-violent dissent, or criticism of ethnic or religious policies, in a political climate in which the exiled Dalai Lama has been accused of inciting terrorism through self-immolations, and even terror through his teachings.
- Terminology in the counter-terror law is both broad and vague at the same time, and introduces further extra-judicial measures, increasing the impunity of the Chinese Party state, and reinforcing the powers of local police and officials to impose restrictive measures and use violence against individuals.
- While references to the link between terrorism and ‘separatism’ that appeared in the draft law have been dropped, this remains a strong element in the official discourse on counter-terrorism in Tibet. The ‘hyper-securitized’ environment [3] in Tibet and a counter-terror drive since May 2013 has a clear political dimension, involving training of police in Buddhist monasteries, the characterization of religious teachings by the Dalai Lama as incitement to ‘extremist action’ and the implication that Tibetan self-immolations can be characterized as ‘terrorism’. This is despite the fact that self-immolations do not harm others, the lack of terror threats in Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s consistent emphasis on non-violence.
- The new law broadens the reach of the state into lay society, for instance requiring the strengthening of “counter-terrorism education” in schools. In Tibet, this underlines the focus on political indoctrination in education, entrenching still further the negative impact of anti-Dalai Lama and “anti-separatism” propaganda.
- There are some notable differences in language following the earlier drafts, indicating efforts to narrow the scope for criticism on sensitive points such as ‘ethnicity’. [4] However blanket references to human rights and the protection of ethnic culture in the law are rendered meaningless given the broad powers assigned to the authorities by the law, the opaque terminology, the absence of independent judicial oversight over restrictive measures that can be applied. This is in the context of the authorities’ emphasis on ‘stability’, political language for the elimination of dissent and enforcement of compliance to Chinese Communist Party policies.
- European Parliamentarians warned in December (2015) that the human rights implications of a counter-terrorism structure with vast discretionary powers outlined in the law “may lead to further violations of the freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang as regions with minority populations”. [5]
- The Chinese authorities demonstrated their intention to eliminate criticism as part of their ‘counter-terror’ strategy by expelling French journalist Ursula Gauthier on December 31 (2015) – four days after the new law was passed – for an article on the government’s crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang and its link to counter-terror policies.

The counter-terror law: an escalation of policies witnessed in Tibet, and international government concern
The imposition of the new law in Tibet is an escalation of ‘counter-terror’ measures that have been imposed since May 2013, leading to intensified militarization of the plateau. This is linked to a stronger emphasis from the central authorities on political control over Tibet linked to the ‘stability’ of the whole of the People’s Republic of China. A major policy meeting led by Xi Jinping in Beijing in August 2015, the Sixth Tibet Work Forum, emphasized the importance of ‘stability’, specifically blamed the Dalai Lama for ‘anti-separatist’ activities, and underlined the importance of the Tibet issue to the Beijing leadership at the highest levels. [6]

Under the new rubric of counter-terror, in Tibet, the authorities have demonstrated their ‘surge’ capacity with large-scale military drills, intensified border security and training exercises for troops on responding to self-immolations and in monasteries. For the first time religious teachings by the Dalai Lama in exile in India in July, 2014, were described by the Chinese state as an incitement to ‘hatred’ and ‘extremist action’. An important Party official, Zhu Weiqun, was even cited by the Global Times in December [2015] as saying that: “The Dalai Lama, deep down, sympathizes or approves of ISIS”. [7] Earlier in 2015, the Chinese authorities even announced ‘rewards’ of thousands of dollars for information on ‘terrorism’ that is consistently conflated with ‘separatism’ in state media reporting.

Coinciding with the new counter-terror law, and in a disturbing example of the tightening political climate, French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who has reported widely on Tibet and Xinjiang, was forced to leave China on December 31 (2015) after a decade of reporting following an article about China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. The China correspondent for France’s L’Obs news magazine had challenged Beijing’s motives in expressing sympathy for the victims of the November 13 Paris attacks, arguing that they could be part of a broader strategy to justify the government’s clampdown on Uyghurs.

Beijing refused to renew her visa as a result, and in an official statement linked her expulsion to their ‘counter-terror’ campaign. [8] Gauthier said on departure: “France and Europe should be ‘concerned about what is going on here, not because it is a journalist, not only because of the freedom of press, but also because it is about China and what China is doing to its minorities, and even its majority, the problem is the same’.” [9]

Concern about the implications of the counter-terror legislation was raised at the 34th EU-China human rights dialogue on November 30-December 1 (2015) in Beijing, and by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis on his second official visit to China in November (2015). [10] The German government expressed its concern at the 30th UN Human Rights Council session in September 2015, with regard to potential restrictions for civil society and freedom of expression. [11]

In a major debate in the European Parliament in December [2015], [12] Parliamentarians expressed concern about the new counter-terror law (at that time in draft form), saying: “In recent years China’s anti-terrorism policy has evolved rapidly from a reactive ‘defence against terror’ approach to a proactive ‘war on terror’, along with permanent ‘crisis management’ entailing action to an unprecedented extent in affected regions and in society.”

’Distorted religious teachings’ and the ideological basis’ of terrorism: ICT observations on the new law
- The law implicitly intends to view “distorted religious teachings” as the “ideological basis” of terrorism (while not defining “distorted”), or other means to incite hatred or discrimination. [13] It thus places religious activities into direct correlation with terrorism or “extremism”. Religious policy in the PRC is shaped by the ideology of the ruling Communist Party and its political imperative of maintaining power. Importantly, while having used a broad definition of terrorism, the law refrains from defining “extremism”, a term that serves as a justification for prosecution.
- The opaque concept of ‘extremism’ in the new law is open to interpretation according to the political climate, and the authorities’ drive to secure convictions against specific individuals. For instance, in the context of the Chinese authorities openly blaming the Dalai Lama in exile for the wave of self-immolations across Tibet, keeping a small photograph of the Dalai Lama in one’s private possession could conceivably be termed ‘extremist’. Consistent with the strident official language used to emphasize the new counter-terror drive, a major religious teaching by the Dalai Lama in exile, the Kalachakra in Ladakh in 2014, was described by the Chinese state media in harsher language than before, saying that it incited terror. [14] The authorities linked their attempts to prevent Tibetans from attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in exile with ‘counter-terrorist’ work in the ‘frontline’ border areas of Tibet, including Ngari (Chinese: Ali) in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which borders India. [15]
- The draft counter-terror law included references to ‘separatism’ and ‘splittism’ – the concept of ‘splitting’ Tibet from China, which is used to criminalise certain expressions of Tibetan identity according to the political climate. While these are absent in the legislation that was passed, it is clear that these concepts are used as a basis for the legislation.
- The newly established “national leading institution for counter-terrorism” is the sole body that determines which organisations are suspected of, or defined as, terrorist. There is no appeal through a court possible, its decisions are final, and there is no judicial oversight. This institution is also not a judicial branch, as it is formed by the Chinese Party state, and its organizational principle is top-down. (Article 7: The State establishes a leading institution on counter-terrorism efforts, unifying leadership and command of counter-terrorism efforts for the entire nation.) [16]
- The definition of ‘terrorism’ in the law is vague. While there is no binding international legal definition of what constitutes terrorism, the Chinese definition appears to be very broad in its scope, and it goes far beyond suggestions made in the international legal debate. As reported widely in the international media, there are provisions in the law that compel telecommunications and internet providers to allow for and provide technical interfaces, decryption and other technical support to the authorities in case of a terrorist or ‘extremist’ investigation, or even for ‘prevention’. It is not specified in the law what constitutes lawful measures of ‘prevention.’ The law also includes provisions for disallowing and halting internet and telecommunications services with regard to ‘terrorist content’. As is already the case in Tibet, the law calls for the installing of public video surveillance at “key positions of main roads, transportation hubs and public areas”, “as needed”. There is already a comprehensive and secret ‘grid’ system of surveillance in Tibet, known as ‘Skynet’, involving an expansive system of cameras, police posts, high tech equipment to monitor individuals and security patrols. According to Article 19 of the law, “Network communications, telecommunications, public security, state security and other such departments discovering information with terrorist or extremist content shall promptly order to the relevant units to stop their transmission and delete relevant information, or close relevant websites, and terminate relevant services.“
- The law also provides for measures to curtail media freedom, and also aims at individuals, clearly targeting bloggers or social media with Article 20 focusing upon penalties for “[…] news media and other units [that] create or disseminate false information on terrorist incidents”.
- Despite the Chinese authorities’ declared abolition of the ‘Re-education through Labour’ (RTL) system, it re-introduces another means of such detention allowing for unlimited ‘educational placements’ for those being a ‘danger to society’ [17] – in other words, those who may express views that differ from the Party state, and have committed no crime according to penal law.
- Article 17 of the law states that: “Administrative management departments for education and human resources, schools and relevant vocational training institutions shall include knowledge of prevention and response to terrorist activities within their teaching, studies and training content.“ In Tibet, this could entail the strengthening of political indoctrination in schools.

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