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Political Violence in China: Terrorism, Official Media, and Political Priorities

Philip B.K. Potter and Chen Wang, University of Virginia, explain what’s happening inside China when it comes to terrorism and address the new terrorist incidents in the country.



Most scholars agree that autocracies enjoy a key counterterrorism advantage, namely the ability to control information. However, much of this work remains stuck in a dichotomy between transparency and absolute censorship. In reality, the information strategies of autocracies are much more sophisticated. To better understand these strategic considerations and the political sensitivities that drive them, we explore why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promptly highlights some domestic terrorist incidents in the official media, but acknowledges others slowly or not at all. Drawing on original, comprehensive datasets of all Uighur terrorist violence in China and the official media coverage of that violence, we demonstrate that the CCP consistently favors stability over the legitimacy that can accompany transparency. While highlighting terrorist violence in the official media can satisfy the public’s demand for information and bolstering diplomatic relations, our findings indicate that the CCP is only willing to take advantage of these opportunities when both domestic and international conditions are favorable enough to ensure domestic stability.

The outside world is slowly awakening to the events unfolding in China’s western Xinjiang region. Members of a United Nations human rights committee announced in August of 2018 that the Chinese government is holding as many as one million ethnic Uighurs in “massive internment camps,” “shrouded in secrecy.” 1 Numerous articles, opinion pieces, and editorials are calling for an international response—as the Washington Post Editorial Board wrote in a scathing headline on August 14, “We can’t ignore this brutal cleansing in China.”(2)

While this situation has taken observers in the western media by surprise, these “re-education” camps are just the latest manifestation of a long-standing political struggle with major implications for China, the region, and US foreign policy. Within China, high profile attacks in Tiananmen Square (2013) and a crowded railway station Kunming (2014) raised the salience of terrorism for the Chinese public and, by extension, the government. What had been a distant concern that was safely bottled up in far-off Xinjiang spilled irreversibly into the centers of political and public life. Internationally, counterterrorism has major implications for the “Belt and Road Initiative” (the centerpiece of China’s global grand strategy) and is the glue that holds together the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the centerpiece of China’s Central Asian regional policies). However, despite this significance, little is known about the scale of domestic terrorism in China and official sensitivities and policies toward it.

This article takes a step toward remedying these deficiencies by cataloging all known incidents of domestic terrorism (1990-2014), analyzing the coverage of that violence in the official Chinese Communist Party (hereafter “CCP” or “the Party”) press, and using these data to better understand both the extent of the threat and the political logic of Chinese policy toward it. Specifically, we ask why coverage of domestic terrorism in China’s official media oscillates dramatically between prompt, prominent reporting of some instances and delay or silence in others. While this variation is often casually attributed to policy indecision or a lack of coordination, (3) there are revealing patterns governing the decision to discuss or not discuss political violence in the official media. We argue that the essential tradeoff is between legitimacy and stability. Highlighting terrorist attacks in the official media is a highly-visible investment in domestic and international legitimacy: domestic legitimacy in terms of the credibility that accompanies transparency; and international legitimacy that arises from bolstering regional and global relationships built around counterterrorism efforts. But officials are only willing to make this investment when both domestic and international conditions are favorable enough to render instability arising from public unrest or external criticism very unlikely.

Drawing on event history models of comprehensive data on Uighur terrorist violence emanating from Xinjiang and the media coverage of that violence in the People’s Daily, we demonstrate that only when both the domestic economy is thriving and China’s diplomatic positions are in line with those of broader international community will the official press choose to promptly highlight terrorist incidents. We establish the robustness of the finding with alternative operationalizations of domestic and international conditions in terms of natural disasters and the state of US-Sino diplomatic relations. In further tests that draw on CAMEO events data, we reconsider the models using two continuous measures of domestic and international conditions derived from monthly “intensity scores” generated from those data. We find, regardless of operationalization, that only when both international and domestic conditions are favorable are authorities sufficiently confident that an investment in legitimacy will not come at the risk of the Party’s immediate grip on power and individual officials’ paths toward promotion. In contrast, when these conditions are not in place, delay allows time for authorities to gauge the political sensitivities of the moment and the impact of the incident.

These findings contradict the common supposition that Chinese authorities might use their control of media to stoke fear of terrorism (or the nationalist sentiments it tends to provoke) as a diversionary tactic. They also contribute to a growing body of work on the motivations guiding China’s policies toward media censorship and collective action. (4) The patterns that we uncover reveal a complementary but underappreciated element of Chinese authorities’ information policy—they seek to control uncertainty—whether in terms of collective action or the consequences of unfavorable domestic and international policy environments. Thus, when it is unclear how the public will react to a potentially inflammatory piece of information, Chinese bureaucrats are rarely willing to risk transparency, even when the long-term rewards might be high.

More broadly, these findings have significant implications for the substantial literature on regime type and terrorism, and specifically how autocracies handle transparency in an era where absolute information control has become increasingly challenging, if not impossible. Much of the existing literature remains stuck in a dichotomy between the decision to censor or not censor, but, as we show here, the information strategies of modern autocracies are sophisticated and the current technological environment means that their choices are more about highlighting or obscuring information than about absolute prohibition.

Terrorism in China

China’s experiences with and policies toward indigenous political violence have evolved substantially over the course of the country’s post-WWII history. Though it varied by time and place, Maoist policy was often heavy-handed, with substantial crackdowns on minority populations from Inner Mongolia to Tibet. (5) Maoist thought equated intercommunal conflict with class conflict, and ethnic expressions in terms of religion, custom, or practice were therefore ideologically “incorrect” and discouraged. (6) Ethnic unrest on the borders was also seen as a pressing threat to national security. As was typical for the period, there was little discussion of resistance to these policies in the Chinese media, and none at all when it came to ethnically based violence, since such narratives would have belied the idealized portrait of a post-ethnic communist society. (7)

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Suggested Citation:

Potter, Philip B.K. and Wang, Chen, Political Violence in China: Terrorism, Official Media, and Political Priorities (October 23, 2018). Available at SSRN: or


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