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China Creating an Orwellian World with Information Warfare; Cdr Sandeep Dhawan

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Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article 68/2020

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ― George Orwell – 1984

Chinese state and its leadership (Chinese Communist Party – CCP) are getting nervous at the pace of progress of their global pre-eminence and how the world is reacting to it. They firmly believe that history repeats itself. In their fervour to take China to its lost glory, they are ready to use every means available at their disposal, and they are unable to conceal that intention from the world. Public opinion and awareness are a very significant part of this activity. Governments and counties look for tools to create a favourable atmosphere. China has found one medicine for all its ills – Information Warfare(IW). With the advent of the internet age, which has widened its scope exponentially in the last ten years, it is getting alarming, what all can be achieved by individuals and countries like China. It is using this tool internally and externally very efficiently. Innocent ordinary citizens, ignorant of the hidden agenda keep justifying for the same Communist Party and country in the name of patriotism. George Orwell must be tossing and turning in his grave, looking at how Chinese leadership has rewritten ‘Orwellian World’.

Chinese General Sun Tzu, who is credited as the author of the famous book ‘The Art of War’, states: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. CCP is labouring overtime to make this ancient quote into reality. The Chinese machinery is working on a concept called ‘Three Warfare’. This comprises of – ‘Public Opinion Warfare’, ‘Legal Warfare’, and ‘Psychological Warfare’.


When anyone knows your past, they can influence your future”

Psychological warfare is an integral part of IW. China calls it – Xin xi Zhan zheng’ and they are aiming for total dominance in this area, calling it – ‘Zhi Xin xi quan’. 

Information warfare relies upon how fast one piles data, assimilates it, modifies or falsifies it, and retransmits it before the opponents get their wits about it. This includes two elements, modern information technology, and the age-old human component. Information technology consists of hardware and software. Every computer, Smartphone or the latest, Internet of Things(IoT) has its brain residing in its chip. China is desperate to monopolise this industry for apparent motives and that can be gathered from the nervousness in the western world. China is scurrying to buy the world’s biggest chip-making companies by hook or by crook. China owns wholly or partly, 10 Out of the 50 world’s largest chip-making companies. China exports 48% of the world’s mobile phones. They also export 40.9% of the world’s computing devices. They are trying to outdo every competition in the cell phone tower business. And now one can see the same desperation in cell phone 5G dominance. One may argue that every country has its right to do business under WTO. However, all is not well with China’s worldview. Something sinister is happening in that country.

What you are about to read about Chinese hardware and software, no government would tell you, for various reasons best known to them. The University of Toronto’s ‘Citizen Lab’ gives a glimpse into that dark reality. As per their findings, the Chinese government is not only surveying their people but a great deal more beyond their borders. Any browser/application used on a Smartphone, laptop, or tablet made in China transmits back to the host server, details like user search terms, websites visited, hard drive serial number, GPS coordinates of the user, and details of the wireless network being used. While downloading free applications we never comprehend that they come with ‘Software Development Kits’(SDKs). These SDKs have just about entered in every household and office environment keeping a close account of our every activity. All the above actions have one aim, obtain data. Now, this is an enormous deal of data, and how do they plan using it, is not clear. But surely if they want to keep a trail of a specific person or organization, it becomes very easy.

PLA and CCP work on multiple fronts in tandem keeping a long-term horizon to further their plans to tighten grip on Chinese citizens and to circulate disinformation internationally. And they have developed some very important and useful tools for that purpose.

Great Firewall of China

A firewall is an essential part of a system of any size. It safeguards the system from intrusion. China devised one for the whole country. China has created an impenetrable digital censorship program called “Great Firewall”. It sits quietly on the flank and looks for keywords. The technological innovation blocks foreign news, search engines, objectionable content like religion or sex and social media sites. It creates a shield against information that goes against the party line. Chinese populace is very upset with these restrictions and policing and often joke about their own country. The phrases “wall nation” and “strong nation” share a phonetic pronunciation in Chinese (Qiang Guo). Chinese citizens out of frustration began using the phrase “wall nation” to refer to China. Although the Firewall is very effective, however, it is not an offensive weapon. People were able to dodge the firewall using VPN and application ‘Psiphon’. Therefore the program of the Great Firewall was further broadened with the help of Great Cannon.

Great Cannon 

The Great Cannon is a little different from the Great Firewall. It acts as Man-in-the-middle(MITM). It intercepts traffic en route, alters the content, or redirects it to fake information. MITM inserts and attaches code along with the content to the user seeking information. This code can change the content, block all the following traffic to the site, or just congest the website to deny the information requested. The architects of the Great Cannon intentionally created an offensive tool, designed to selectively replace innocuous web content with malicious content.

Image courtesy: Citizenlab Canada

Golden Shield 

The Great Firewall and Great Cannon can restrict and deny information but do not keep track of the users. This task is achieved by the ‘Golden Shield’. It’s an enormous national database encompassing surveillance, speech and facial recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit cards, and internet surveillance technologies. These three technical platforms manage every information that enters and leaves China. China conducts everything as war and fights it unabashedly on many fronts. So it just doesn’t stop at fabricating available information but inserts its propaganda and fake news from time to time.

Chinese Propaganda Machine

Chairman Mao’s favourite strategy was “Making the Foreign Serve China”. He granted American journalist Edgar Snow access to the Chinese propaganda machine. This resulted in a book, ‘Red Star Over China’. This book was instrumental in gaining western sympathy for the Communists, whom it portrayed as progressive and anti-fascist. This was not the first or last example of the Chinese propaganda machine, playing the victim. They have become gifted masters of psychological games. When it suits CCP and its leadership they the country as a victim or else they project themselves as a future world power. Beijing is seeking to shift the global centre of gravity eastwards, giving birth to the idea of a new world order with a resurgent China at its centre.

YouTube is another great tool being used by China to spread disinformation and fear. China in the latest PLA propaganda film appears to show a simulated exercise on an American military base in the Pacific region. The video was intended to intimidate Taiwan.

Video of China’s PLA ‘attack’ on Pacific airbase uses footage from Hollywood movies – Watch here

In another video released on August 1, 2018, for China’s Army Day, emotionally underscoring the sacrifices made by service members of the PLA while showing off some of the country’s latest weaponry. At one juncture in the propaganda video, the narrator says “peace behind me, the war in front of me,” which could be comprehended to im ply the war is “inevitable”. This propaganda video exhibits a clear-cut warning and challenge to China’s neighbours in keeping with China’s long-term vision.

In India, the Chinese app ‘Helo’ was found exhibiting false quotes or graphic images designed to incite outrage along religious lines, capitalizing on the longstanding tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the country. India has seen a rise in violent incidents caused by fake news forcing the Indian government to threaten to cancel the journalist’s accreditations if they are found guilty of writing fake news. China’s invisible hand was very much visible during Indian anti-CAA and American Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. China has effectively utilized social media in spreading fake news, disinformation and religious hatred through WhatsApp and Telegram messaging Apps. It has been also accused of inciting military personal against both military and civilian leadership on subjects plaguing those organizations though social media.

In the past couple of months, Taiwan has also seen an unprecedented rise in fake news campaigns. Taiwanese media with the help of experts have traced several of these stories back to China. Various media outlets referred to a leaked document from Chinese authorities asserting that Beijing had launched an information war, using disinformation, online harassment, and trolling campaigns to manipulate public opinions in Taiwan. In addition to internet China is employing every possible means available at its disposal to plant fake news.

Radio, TV and Print Media

China is deeply active in the fourth estate businesses around the globe following top-down imprimatur from president Xi Jinping to “tell China’s story” to the world. Within the last few months, China has leapt into the front ranks of global media by launching its ‘Voice of China’ super-network. China has started an Asian blitzkrieg in Information Warfare. It has employed over 14,000 journalists and propagandists to neutralize American influence and spread disinformation on every continent. It is propelling to buy newspapers worldwide, and where it is not able to do so outright, it is taking the route of inserts. Cash-strapped newspapers are more than happy to help out China in spreading disinformation while helping them. In India in the recent past Chennai based newspaper, ‘The Hindu’ has been seen carrying many such inserts, glorifying China. China has a whopping $6.8 billion budget for this disinformation exercise called da waixuan (大外宣), or ‘grand foreign propaganda’.

Image Courtesy: The Guardian 

Way Forward 

A Harvard study demonstrated that the Chinese government fabricates as many as 488 million fake posts on Chinese social media annually. A more current study analyzed 50 million comments on Chinese news sites, only to find that one-sixth of them were fake. The Chinese manipulation of the internet and social media is unprecedented in history. Would this propaganda by the Chinese government continue unchallenged?

A few Chinese intelligentsias are trying to break that mould. It has chosen a very difficult path. Shanghai-based website ‘Sixth Tone’, promoted by Wei Xing is one of them. This has grabbed the attention of major international publications such as the New York Times and Foreign Policy. And inevitably, this relatively new online publication has raised the question of how far it can go in questioning the sophisticated Chinese censors. There is an explanation of why this new publication is called the Sixth Tone. The founding editor of the Sixth Tone explains Mandarin Chinese consists of five tones. This publication is aspiring to go beyond the CCP mouthpiece’s existing ways of propelling fake news and trying to provide a fresh and imaginative perspective for readers in English. BBC and many such mainstream portals frequently cite the Sixth Tone as their reference when reporting on Chinese social stories. How long this kind of reporting would be approved by the central leadership is going to be an intriguing wait-and-watch game for all the people who follow China.

‘Soft-Power’ is not a China thing and time is not ripe for ‘Hard-Power’, therefore China is using a unique approach: ‘Sharp Power’, a term coined by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the ‘National Endowment for Democracy’. Sharp Power is neither hard nor soft power. It has the potential of limiting free expression and misrepresenting the political environment. It is sharp in that it seeks to penetrate or pierce the political and information environments of targeted countries. China’s employment of direct propaganda and disinformation, according to RAND Corporation, is likely to question liberal democratic values. China’s expanding power is already strengthening competition with the United States for leadership, influence, and impact within the international system. However, China would never go beyond the tipping point to do the biggest harm to itself and its economy. That would kill the internet, bringing the Chinese house of cards crashing down.

Almost every non-Chinese person displays apprehension, thinking of a day when China would control the internet and every other media, using ‘Great Firewall’, ‘Great Cannon’, ‘Golden Shield’, and ‘CGTN’(CCTV) around the globe. They loathed the idea of China controlling their laptop and mobile phone’s data, spying through the CCTVs outside their home, and webcams of all their smart equipment inside their home. They trembled at the idea of living in an ‘Orwellian World’. 

The question is not “for how long world would accept this uncivilised behaviour”, the question is “Why should world accept this belligerent behaviour”. The time has come for the collegial world powers to come together and eradicate such behaviour while countervailing the perpetrators of these poisonous activities.

(Cdr Sandeep Dhawan was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Qualified Flying Instructor. He served in the Indian Navy between 1988 – 2009 ( PMR) with vast experience with Indian Air Force and Indian Coast Guard. He has been a civilian pilot since 2009 flying for commercial airlines with King Fisher, Spice Jet, Jet Airways and Indigo. The views expressed are personal and does not reflect the views of C3S.)













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