In recent years, China has escalated its disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining democracies. Beijing has devoted significant resources to increasing their sophistication and efficacy. One prominent example is the Chinese disinformation campaign attempting to change the narratives surrounding COVID-19 even as the global pandemic worsens, by painting the picture that China’s authoritarian government is the best model for combatting the infectious disease.
With its increasingly menacing stance in East Asia—including Australia—China’s intention to compete with Western democracies in the military, economic, technological, and information domains has intensified. Though the West still has the competitive edge today, China’s enormous resources may give it enough ammunition to catch up in time. Democracies and like-minded partners should leverage an asymmetric information operations strategy to counter this growing challenge.
The Targets of an Asymmetric Information Campaign
The Chinese mentality to revenge the “One Hundred Years of Humiliation” (百年國恥) grows stronger as the country becomes ever more powerful. Suppose the Chinese “patriotic” (i.e., vengeful) mindset is not reined in: in that case, the Chinese “wolf warrior” practice is bound to become more prevalent, and the nightmarish scenario of the “China threat” will become a reality.
In the last three millennia, China’s succession of dynasties is, in essence, a history of revolutions. Each time an empire collapsed and was replaced by another, millions of people lost their lives. Chairman Mao’s aphorism that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” (槍桿子裡面出政權) is not only a manifestation of the communist regime’s violent nature but also an astute embodiment of China’s history.
China’s ancient proverb, “water can carry the boat but can also overturn it” (水能載舟, 亦能覆舟), serves as a constant reminder that a regime is kept afloat by the peoples under its reign. If the people were angry, they would overthrow the empire. The CCP is no doubt acutely aware of that notion.
Due to its extreme concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small number of elites, Beijing is afraid of what the truth may reveal to its people, thereby weakening the hold of the communist regime. In 2013, Beijing-sponsored hackers attacked the New York Times’ computer systems over four months, apparently in retaliation for a series of stories that the paper ran exposing vast wealth accumulated by the family of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).
In addition to setting up the Great Firewall to block western websites, the CCP also established the Cyber Police to monitor content and punish those who violate the CCP’s suppressive rules to fabricate its version of “truth” and prevent outside information from leaking into China. Beijing also employs hundreds of thousands of members of the so-called “Fifty-Cent Party” (五毛黨) to shift public opinion on social media inside the firewall in favor of the CCP. The purpose is nothing less than obfuscating the truth and brainwashing the Chinese people, lest the truth should endanger the regime. This is an Orwellian prophecy fulfilled in the 21st century.
That the CCP spends such great resources to control the flow of information says volumes about its deepest apprehension and profound weakness. Democracies can and should capitalize on the CCP’s vulnerability in the information domain.
High-Tech Influence Operations
Leaflet-filled balloons and radio waves epitomized the propaganda methods for crossing the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. In the 21st century, democracies can and should invent novel information technology to complement or substitute the old means to reach a far greater audience at the speed of light.
Influence operations are closely related to psychological warfare. Their purpose is to use information to manipulate an adversary’s perceptions without their awareness, and to compel them to make decisions that are to the originator’s advantage. Both offensive and defensive influence operations employ modern information and communications technologies to improve efficiency and effectiveness. China’s disinformation campaigns and audacious cyberattacks against Western countries must be analyzed in this context.
If the West wants to reverse the ominous trend of the China threat, influence operations can be one important tool to strike its Achilles’ heel. The strategy entails two major elements: technology and content. That means developing technologies to deliver outside information feared by the CCP directly to the mobile devices owned by the Chinese people (more than 96 percent possess one), thereby informing them that the real world is not what the CCP portrays.
There are at least 30 social media platforms in China, such as Zhihu (知乎, the Chinese equivalent of Quora), Douban (豆瓣, their IMDB or Flixster), Youku (优酷, similar to YouTube), Weibo (新浪微博, China’s Facebook), QQ (腾讯QQ, equivalent to MSN Messenger), and Wechat (微信, which combines the functions of WhatsApp and PayPal), to name a few. The West can take advantage of these platforms as a perfect battleground to conduct influence operations directly inside China.
A Multinational Approach to Information Operations
US Special Operations Command has recently created a joint task force in the Indo-Pacific region to thwart China’s information and influence operations in the theater. The US could conceivably go one step further by forming a multinational coalition—covert or otherwise—that would bring in countries such as Japan and Australia to create and deploy technologies at the coalition’s disposal.
While the task force can jointly develop the influence operations technologies, the second element of the strategy—content—is equally if not more important. Creating persuasive text, image, audio, and video content requires familiarity with the Chinese language and culture. In addition, the team needs to monitor and acquire a deep appreciation of what is currently trending on China’s social media to create content that can shift the target audience’s perceptions.
Taiwan can come into play here. The island country can play a pivotal role in the coalition to help create content because the Taiwanese are both proficient in the Chinese language and well versed in Chinese culture. Given the current geopolitical situation, Taiwan would be an ideal partner in the coalition.
At the operational level, such a multinational team would need to classify the socio-economic demographics of the audience and their preferences to formulate content-positioning parameters. To that extent, the technology will draw on behavioral data analytics, monitor social media discussion trends in real-time, and use machine learning algorithms to digest the vast amount of data collected over time as training data sets.
Since all Chinese social media apps require personal identification to register, the US-led task force would need to develop innovative methods to penetrate the Great Firewall and create active accounts. At the same time, it would need to identify topics of interest to Chinese netizens, and then join and create discussion groups in social media. To attract followers, the information the task force disseminates would have to employ the language of local discourse, so as to avoid raising suspicion among both China’s Cyber Police and its netizens.
The task force could also deploy artificial intelligence techniques to generate variants of narratives and analyze the netizens’ social networks to disseminate them to a greater number of the Chinese people. With the aim to attract attention and engagement among the Chinese audience, the task force would need to recruit and cultivate proxies inside China to help spread its messaging to the wider public. To assess the effects of such a campaign, the team can collect information paths, among others, for data analytics. All these activities must be based on a stealth architecture for plausible deniability, thwarting efforts by Chinese digital forensics experts.
There are at least four benefits to this strategy:
- The strategy can deter China from engaging in ever-more aggressive disinformation campaigns.
- The outside content can “de-brainwash” and help transform the mindset of the Chinese people to one that is more amicable to the West.
- The Great Firewall will crumble in time because of the damaging information to the communist regime, and because the CCP’s invincible and impenetrable image will be shattered.
- Last but not least, when the Chinese people who appreciate the truth reach critical mass, the strategy will jeopardize the CCP’s regime survival and may even liberate the Chinese people from its oppressive rule.
Transforming people’s perceptions and mindset is by no means an easy feat. The influence operations strategy outlined above will be longer-term, yet much less expensive than acquiring and maintaining some big-ticket weapons systems. Properly executed, influence operations can also serve as a deterrent against Beijing’s relentless disinformation campaigns where Australia, Japan, and Taiwan bear the brunt of the CCP’s mischievous deeds.
Given the CCP’s paramount fear of truth, and the ubiquitous nature of social media in China, there are grounds to believe that defeating the CCP in its own game of influence operations is possible. The time to act is now. The U.S. can instigate the transformation proactively by calling its friends and allies, including perhaps the Europeans, to join the coalition.
After all, the truth will set the people free.
The main point: To counter China’s disinformation campaigns, this article proposes an influence operations strategy and approach to beat China in its own game. While the West is wary of fake news, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is very afraid of real information from the outside world. China’s many social media platforms can serve as a perfect battleground for the West to conduct influence operations behind the Great Firewall by delivering real information directly to the hands of Chinese netizens.