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Should the Family and Friends of Terrorists in China Be Punished Too?

China has once again been hit by a violent attack targeting its civilians, prompting authorities to announce a crackdown on terrorism activities. More than 200 suspects have been arrested.

But for some, that isn't enough. Following the latest tragedy, some web users in China advocated for the collective punishment of terrorists’ families and associates to deter further attacks.

39 people died and around 90 people injured on last thursday's violent attack in Urumqi. Photo from Weibo via Boxun. Non-commercial use.

Thirty-nine people dead and about 90 people injured in an attack in Urumqi. Photo from Weibo via Boxun. Non-commercial use.

On Thursday, 22 May 2014, two vehicles drove through an open-air market and threw explosives in Urumqi, the capital of the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. Thirty-nine people were killed and around 90 people were injured, according to state media.

The police identified five suspects responsible for the attack, who all belong to the ethnic Muslim minority the Uighurs. The next day, Chinese authorities announced the launch of a yearlong crackdown on violent terrorist activities. President Xi Jinping called for the terrorists behind the attack to be “severely” punished.

Xinjiang has experienced a spate of attacks in recent years, with at least two happening in Urumqi. On 30 April 2014, a bomb hit the South Railway station of Urumqi, killing three people and wounding 79 others.

Since ethnic riots broke out in July 2009, leaving at least 197 people dead in Urumqi, violent attacks have begun to rise in frequency.

Chinese authorities put the blame on the Uighur separatists, including the attacks at railway stations in Kunming in March 2014 that killed 29, and have already stepped up security measures in Xinjiang. According to state media, more than 200 people were arrested and 23 extremist groups have been broken up this month. According to Xinhua agency, “many of the suspects were in their 20s and 30s and watched terror videos online to learn how to make explosives and other physical training.

Tian Shui police announced the year-long crackdown against terrorist in their Weibo. Tian Shui is a small city in Gansu province.

Tian Shui police announced the yearlong crackdown against terrorism on their Sina Weibo account. Tian Shui is a small city in Gansu province.

China’s online community lamented the latest violence while also discussing the necessary punishments. In recent days, the “lianzuo” system (collective punishment) became the trending topic on Weibo. Lianzuo is an ancient tactic of Chinese governments. By putting several households into one unit, if any member of that unit commits a crime, all members of that unit would be subject to punishment. The word lianzuo, thus, reminds people of a form of authoritarianism that builds upon terror.

Wu Bihu (@吴必虎), a professor of tourism at Peking University, first brought up the issue and immediately heated up the discussion on popular microblogging site Sina Weibo:

极少数伊斯兰极端宗教分裂暴恐分子严重妨碍了包括维族群众在内的生存底线,我同意一些网友的意见,恐怖分子很难预防,不易清除。他們也不怕死,怎么办?連坐。其家屬、鄰居、所在清真寺的阿訇,應該連坐,因為他們理應承擔監視可能的死怖分子的責任。通過野蠻實現文明。

Very few Islam extremists and terrorists are severely deteriorating the living standards of the Uighurs. I support some netizens’ opinion that it is very difficult to prevent and eradicate terrorism. They are not afraid of death, what can be done? Lianzou. Their families, their neighbors, and the monks at the Muslim temples should be collectively punished. Because they should be responsible for monitoring the terrorists. Civilization has to be achieved through barbarism.

Although he later apologized for his misuse of the word “lianzuo” and deleted the original Weibo post, many other netizens responded.

Famous critic and writer Lian Yue (@连岳) replied:

杀人偿命,天经地义,主张宽恕欠下人命的恐怖分子,那是伪善。但鼓吹连坐,指望以屠杀无辜反恐,这是抱油救火,还不如伪善。

It’s given that the killers must pay for their crimes. And it’s hypocritical to advocate forgiveness for the terrorist. But to advocate for “lianzuo”, to depend on killing the innocent to crack down on terrorism, is like saving the fire with oil, which is even worse than the hypocrisy.

User @lalunazhan suggested that “lianzuo” should be first applied to another sever issue – corruption:

如果反恐要实行连坐的话,建议先从反腐连坐试行,提拔的领导,直属上级,家属等都连坐。

If lianzuo is applied to counter-terrorism, I suggest that we should begin it with anti-corruption. The embezzler’s family members, the promoted subordinates, and his direct superiors shall all be punished.

In contrast, those who live in Xinjiang are more likely to support the ‘lianzuo” system. Qian Quiren (@千求人) said:

疆乱不等同身受基本没有发言权,连坐只是借鉴俄罗斯普京的一些事实证明有效的反恐经验,何罪之有,来新疆生活几年再发言.

Those who didn’t suffer the terrorism have no say in the matter. “Lianzuo” is the anti-terrorism experience that has been proved to be effective, learning from Russia and Putin. Why bother to criticize it? Come and live in Xinjiang for several years and then speak.

Another user, “@n919″ (@优雅的诗意), who also lives in Xinjiang, echoed Professor Su’s “lianzuo” policy:

苏教授的连坐政策未尝不可,新疆维族人法律意识淡泊,家族观念很重,每个家庭成员对家庭中其他成员的行为负有不可推卸的责任

Professors “lianzuo” policy is not impossible. Uighurs in Xinjiang have less awareness of the law, but they are big about their family. Everyone is responsible for the behavior of other family members.

Compared with the overwhelming anger, sadness and blessings that swept social media after the Kunming attack in March, the latest attack received less attention from netizens throughout China than from the Han Chinese who are living or used to live in Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang autonomous region is located in China's far west and is home to 8 million Han Chinese and 10 million Uighurs. Most Uighurs are Muslim and Islam is an important part of their life, culture and identity. The tension between Han Chinese and Uighurs has escalated in recent years, with the target of attacks shifting to civilians. 

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