Terrorist training exercises are not unprecedented in Tibetan areas, and also occurred some years ago, before the current political emphasis. This image depicts an anti-terrorist training in Kardze (Ganzi), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) in 2007. Photo courtesy ICT.
Despite international concern, China has passed its first counter-terror law. Rights groups and international governments say 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. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) 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 December 27th 2015 and follows the imposition of oppressive and counter-productive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang that have been imposed since May 2013, involving extra-judicial killings, torture and imprisonment, and crackdowns on even mild expressions of religious identity and culture, says ICT. 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. An aggressive ‘’counter-terrorism’’ drive in Tibet with a strongly political dimension has involved an expansion of militarization despite the absense of any violent insurgency in Tibet.
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 major criticisms of the law outlined by ICT are:
- 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 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’’. 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, says ICT.
The U.S. government expressed strong concerns when the law was in draft stage as it includes articles that require telecom and Internet companies to hand over encryption keys and install backdoors to their software to aid counter-terror investigations.
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”.
Concern about the implications of the counter-terror legislation was raised at the 34th EU-China human rights dialogue on November 30-December 1st 2015 in Beijing, and by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis on his second official visit to China in November 2015.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.
In a major debate in the European Parliament in December 2015, 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 ‘defense 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.”
ICT expressed concern over 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.
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.
Additionally, 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.
ICT also warned that 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. 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 installation 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 Labor’ (RTL) system, it re-introduces another means of such detention allowing for unlimited ‘educational placements’ for those being a ‘’danger to society’’ – 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.
‘’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,” Matteo Mecacci added.