Why Won’t the United States Call China Killings a Terrorist Attack?

by Julian Ku

While Russia was stealing all the attention over the weekend, a small group of assailants wielding knives killed at least 33 people and injured over a hundred in the main railway station of Kunming, China.  China’s government has called these “terrorist attacks,” and has hinted it is linked with Uighur separatists in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province.  But the failure of the U.S. State Department to use the term “terrorist” has drawn outrage in Chinese social media.

I understand the U.S. government’s reluctance to endorse the Chinese government’s description of these attacks, but I still think the term “terrorist” is perfectly appropriate for this situation.  The attackers indiscriminately killed and injured civilians in a train station, and there seems plenty of evidence that it is motivated by politics and ideology.  To be sure, the international definition of terrorism remains contested, but the US law definition seems applicable.

the term “international terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
Look, I get that this definition is quite broad, and is controversial in many countries. And I get that the Uighurs have real grievances. But the US government is already on the record in favor of the broad definition. So why hold back from using the term for an act the US already calls unjustifiable?

5 Responses

  1. Three reasons.
    1) We don’t have any/much information about purposes (ss. (B) in the above definition). 
    2) Politically, the controversy around definitions of terrorism has not just focused on the breadth of the definition, it has concerned its subjectivity (reflected in the (tired) aphorism “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”). I can’t think of too many occasions when the US has labelled forces “terrorists” where (a) they were not a threat to ‘strategic allies’ of the US; and (b) they were not a threat to the US itself. This isn’t a defense of this posture, but rather an observation on practice.
    3) While I profess little knowledge of Chinese criminal procedure or anti-terror laws, I would imagine that treatment of these criminals as terrorists could erode their basic due process protections below the low standards already enjoyed.

  2. Response…I agree w Miles #1. We don’t really know who did this and why. Do school shootings in the US constitute ‘terrorism’?

  3. Why? Nothing but hypocrisy. US/many Americans are happy to see China/Chinese suffer. So even terrorists if they attack the Chinese, they are no longer terrorists by US definition. When comes to terrorism against China and Russia, US is a terrorist-sponsor state.
    Would it make any difference when applying your 3 points to 9-11. Again, hypocrist.

  4. Many dictionaries can define “terrorism” in an objective way, i.e., to include the need for (1) an intent to cause terror, and (2) a terror outcome (or intense fear or anxiety, “terror” — otherwise it might be an attempt), but the U.S. and other states can’t do so.
    Given an objective definition of “terrorism,” the question should be: was there an intent to produce terror (perhaps) and was there a terror outcome?

  5. Julian is right on the money here. This wasn’t a random attack by a lone psycho.  It was plainly a coordinated attack, targeting innocent civilians, for political purposes.  It is irrelevant that the Uighurs have legitimate complaints about Chinese policy.  This was a terrorist attack. It’s embarrassing that the US is fiddle-fadding on this point. 

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