A Uighur man in front of military police during a counter-terrorism drill in Xinjiang. Photo: Reuters

China’s national security chief has warned of a growing insurgency threat in southeastern provinces as jihadists radicalised by Islamic State are flushed out of strongholds in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In a rare admission of China’s terrorism problems, Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi said the jihadists were heading for wealthy and populous coastal provinces to “engage in infiltration and subversive activities”, the Global Times reported on Wednesday.

Calling for more vigilance, Kezhi said the south could become a new frontier for terrorism in China after the fortification of major cities and infrastructure brought an insurgency under control in Xinjiang Uyghur. The number of security incidents last year was the lowest since the capital city, Ürümqi, was shaken by serious unrest in 2014.

Beijing believes that jihadists from the heavily Muslim province were radicalised by Islamic State after receiving training in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. Kezhi said some insurgents might be trying to return to the region via southern routes.

“We must always keep alert on terrorism, intensify border controls and enhance international cooperation in counter-terrorism,” said the senior official who also overseas national security issues.

Ji Zhiye, head of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told an international relations forum in Beijing last month that China faces a “substantial” risk of a terror attack, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported last month.

“The number of jihadists captured along China’s borders [in 2017] was more than 10 times the number in the previous year,” Ji said.

Beijing’s openness in acknowledging antiterrorism challenges has made some observers wonder if an attack is imminent

Li Wei, a counter-terrorism expert at the same institutes, said terrorists were no longer trying to enter Xinjiang through central Asia, as the  border had been heavily fortified at that point. The mountainous terrain also made it difficult to enter China along this route.

Instead, they were using easier coastal routes or slipping in through the southwestern province of Yunnan province, near Myanmar and Vietnam.

Li Shaoxian, head of the Arab research institute at Ningxia University, added: “They just fly to cities like Beijing and Shanghai with their Chinese passports, posing like any other tourists or students who returns from another country, which makes counter-terrorism more difficult.”

Chen Dingwu, head of the Border Control Department at the Ministry of Public Security, said in March 2017 that the government had vowed to strengthen border controls and information gathering, screening and patrols to ensure the safety of key coastal cities that were the pillars of the Chinese economy.

Eighteen coastal border cities and provinces have issued stronger policies on border controls, Legal Daily reported in August 2017.

Inland provinces have also boosted their vigilance. Yunnan and central China’s Henan province recently conducted anti-terrorism drills at college campuses. In January, police were sent to a school in Henan’s Weishi county to teach faculty and security staff the basics of counter-terrorism; they ordered that security guards be armed with shields and steel forks, the People’s Daily reported on Friday.

Beijing’s openness in acknowledging antiterrorism challenges has made some observers wonder if an attack, especially affecting one first- and second-tier urban centres in eastern and southeastern provinces, is imminent. But a Ministry of Public Security spokesman said last week that there is no information of any organized, systemic attack targeting major cities.

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