Prediction time: China will experience unprecedented terrorism over the next few years
On October 27, a carload of Xinjiang
residents made headlines by crashing into a Tiananmen Square crowd, killing two
people while injuring 38. Then, on Wednesday, a series of explosions rocked the
provincial Communist Party headquarters in Shanxi province, killing one person
while injuring 8.
This recent uptick in political
violence is not an anomaly for China, but a harbinger of terrorist violence to
Several long-term trends put China at
China’s footprint on the world stage
is growing while the United States is retrenching internationally. The recent
travel schedules of Xi Jinping and Barack Obama are telling. At a time when
Barack was cancelling trips to attend the APEC Summit in Indonesia, the East
Asia Summit in Brunei, and his planned visits to the Philippines and Malaysia,
Xi was wrapping up tours of Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, Tanzania, South
Africa, the Congo, Mexico, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Kazakhstan,
Uzbekistan, Kurdistan, and Turkmenistan. Look for Xi and he’s probably
overseas. Look for Obama and he’s probably at home, wrangling with Congress.
Historically, Americans have been the
preferred target of international terrorism, while China has been virtually
spared. Americans have been the most popular target because of their country’s
hegemonic position around the globe, which inevitably breeds mistrust,
resentment, and ultimately counterbalancing. Professor Robert Pape at the
University of Chicago has found that foreign meddling is highly correlated with
incurring suicide terrorist campaigns. With its comparatively insular foreign
policy, China has understandably elicited less passion and violence among
But the trajectories of the U.S. and
China are now inverting. Reeling from its botched counterinsurgency campaigns
in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is engulfed in an unmistakable wave
of isolationism. Meanwhile, China is rapidly converting its rising economic
power into ever greater international leverage. This newfound orientation makes
sense geopolitically, but will not come without costs.
Moving forward, China will contend
with not only international terrorism, but also the domestic variety. This is
because China is likely to follow (albeit belatedly) the post-Cold War
Zeitgeist towards democratization. China will neither become a Jeffersonian
democracy nor continue to disenfranchise political dissidents. Instead, it will
inch closer to a “mixed” regime, a weak democratic state. This regime type is
precisely the kind that sparks domestic political unrest. Such governments are
too undemocratic to satisfy citizens, but too democratic to snuff them out.
Add to this brew globalization and
the government’s critics at home and abroad will be better informed about both
Chinese policy and how to mobilize against it, including violently.
Abrahms is Assistant Professor of Political Science at
Northeastern University and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He has published widely on terrorism and asymmetric conflict. His most recent
Credibility Paradox: Violence as a Double-Edged Sword in International Politics,
will appear in International Studies Quarterly.