HONG KONG — Lawmakers in China are pushing for a national law to better protect the country from terrorism after a brutal attack earlier this month at a train station in the southwestern part of the country.
The assault at Kunming station occurred just days before the National People's Congress opened in Beijing, and left 29 dead and 143 injured. Critics say the incident underscorres the challenges the country faces in dealing with increasingly frequent unrest in Xinjiang, an area authorities say has become a breeding ground for terrorism.
Zhao Bingzhi, dean of the law school at Beijing Normal University, says recent terrorist attacks by groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement show the reality of terrorism infiltrating Chinese society and that China must learn from other developed countries and establish a comprehensive, systematic and specialized anti-terrorism law.
To prevent terrorism more effectively, governments need legislation to strengthen their investigative powers, Zhao said.
Together with religious extremism and separatism, terrorism is considered one of the three main evils threatening China's stability. That is why discussions about terrorism are deeply linked with long-running unrest in Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.
"To some extent China is filling in a hole which other countries have already filled in," said Barry Sautman, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "But of course this does not mean that up till now China has not had a mechanism for punishing people who are convicted of terrorism.”
To prosecute crimes of terrorism, China has relied on a number of different provisions in its criminal code, and punishment has varied depending on the charges invoked by the court. Since 2001, amendments to the criminal code have included provisions to punish those who financially support terrorism, as well as more severe punishment for terrorist acts.
With violent acts, individuals have been charged with crimes such as leading a terrorist organization, murder, arson, or damaging property. In other instances, such as with Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, individuals have been charged with separatism after they openly criticized government policy towards Xinjiang.
"It is not so much that the Chinese government feels it needs a greater set of laws to deal with terrorists actions," Sautman said. "Rather, it's to show that China is part of a war of terror in conjunction with similar other nations in the world who have similarly been affected by terrorists actions."
Ever since ethnic riots rocked Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi in 2009, violence has been steadily intensifying. Last year was particularly bloody, with dozens of attacks.
The Kunming train station attack and another incident in Tiananmen Square last October have raised concern that increasingly common dissent and violence in Xinjiang is now starting to spill over to other parts of China, threatening public safety.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, says Chinese authorities are under pressure to do more to prevent terrorism.
"How do you counter messages that are being put out by a terrorist organization to persuade individuals to carry out certain acts?" Pantucci asked. "How do you prevent the development of ideological networks which turn into terrorist cells? How do you identify this range of things that necessarily end up in violent acts, versus ones that may end up as political acts? The Chinese system has not connected all the aspects of this."
The government says terrorism is orchestrated by terrorist organizations committed to using violence to split China apart.
Uighur groups in exile have questioned the official narrative and say violence usually grows out of personal disputes between Uighur families and local authorities. They say it is not separatism that drives attackers, but rather a general frustration within Xinjiang of China's heavy-handed policies and tight control of religious and cultural practices.
It is unclear whether a national law on terrorism will address the varying perceptions of what is fueling the violence.
Analysts say that by standardizing laws there will be more clarity on what constitutes a crime and what evidence needs to be presented for a court to convict a suspect. However, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Sautman says Chinese laws often are worded in a vague manner that leaves considerable room for political and judicial authorities to rule on a case-by-case basis.
Law-school dean Zhao Bingzhi says that because of the complex nature of the issue, agreement on a draft anti-terrorism law will take some time.
Anti-terrorism legislation in the United States and other Western countries has spurred controversy about potential infringement of citizens' rights, and Zhao says China faces similar issues.
At the moment, anti-terrorism legislation is not included in the list of bills up for discussion at the National People's Congress.