China is condemning the Islamic State group’s execution of a Chinese citizen and pledging to bring those who carried out the act to justice. However, analysts say the tragic death of Fan Jinghui, the first known Chinese captive to be killed by the group, will not change Beijing’s overall approach to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
In the meantime, China has been using the recent coordinated attacks in Paris and Fan’s death to highlight the need for what it calls a more coordinated international response to terrorism.
Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting Thursday in Manila, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered condolences to the families of the victim and condemned what he called the “savage act of killing a Chinese citizen by the extremist organization,” according to a statement read on state television. “Terrorism is the common enemy of all human beings. China resolutely opposes all forms of terrorism,” the statement said.
The Islamic State this week claimed it killed Fan, a former advertising executive and freelance consultant, as well as a Norwegian captive, but did not give details about when or how they were killed.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it has confirmed that Fan, was “cruelly killed” by the group. The Chinese government also said it had taken what it called emergency measures to rescue him, but could not prevent his death.
The statement did not say what measures China took to try and rescue Fan.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the Chinese government, much like others do in response to such incidents, is trying to show that it will do everything in its power to get these people and that they won’t be able to hide forever. The reality is that it’s very difficult, he added.
“I can’t see China deciding now as a result of this to deploy its forces in some sort of forward posture outside of the country. It is something they have resisted so far and it is hard to imagine they are going to use such a difficult target such as Islamic State to start with,” Pantucci said.
Beijing has long advocated for a political solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria and its state media has been highly critical of regime change as a solution to the problem. But at the same time, in its public statements in response to Fan’s execution and to last week’s attacks in Paris, Beijing has also voiced how it too is wrapped up in the increasingly global fight.
“ISIS really is the most serious new terrorist threat that China has had to face, arguably for decades,” said Andrew Small, a Transatlantic Fellow at the George Marshall Fund of the United States. “They are clearly worried in a very different way and I think that is echoed in their public statements and in private from a lot of their CT [counter-terrorism] people.”
In the wake of the Paris attacks, China has called for more international cooperation in fighting terrorism and extremism. Foreign Minster Wang Yi has also accused the West of double-standards when it comes to terrorism.
In particular, Beijing is looking for support in dealing with what it sees as a growing problem of extremism in its restive western region of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to China’s largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority group. The vast area has seen a growing number of attacks in recent years, which China’s Communist Party blames on the spread of extremist religious ideology and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group many experts say no longer exists.
Uighur exiles and rights groups say the violence is the result of a backlash against Beijing’s harsh security controls as well as an increasing crackdown on cultural and religious practices, such as banning beards and veils in public and barring fasting during Ramadan.
China disputes the characterization and claims that it has provided western countries with ample information about the terrorist attacks on its territory. But China heavily censors media reports of violence in Uighur areas, making it difficult to determine what is happening during the attacks.
Part of the reason for this is that authorities say they do not want to fuel ethnic tensions in the region, which saw deadly clashes in 2009 between the majority Han Chinese and Uighur minority residents.
In other cases, it is because the problems may be related to official malfeasance.
“You never quite know what you are actually dealing with. You never quite know if you are getting the full story from them and if you are getting an honest assessment of what has happened and therefore it is very difficult to engage,” Pantucci said.
And that makes it difficult for foreign governments to figure out how they can cooperate.
“No one in the West would sit and say China does not have a problem with terrorism. The fear is that you are often not understanding or getting the full picture,” he added.
There's a difference, he said, between individuals who are angry at the state because of repeated warnings for things such as shaving their beard and a terrorist network that has launched an attack on a train station.