China’s Information and Propaganda War


It is no secret that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is ever dynamic and sensitive to the geopolitical developments in policy formulation and strategizing its Armed Forces. The PLA recognizes the ever-evolving nature of warfare and, in keeping with that, has modified its doctrine from ‘people’s war under modern conditions’ then ‘limited local war’ then ‘limited war under high tech conditions’ and now ‘Local War under Informationalised Conditions.’ The Chinese have arrived at the latest doctrine by acquiring lessons from various conflicts and altercations from 2004-2014 like ‘Operation Allied Force’ in Kosovo, The Second Gulf War, and ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan. The White Paper states PLA’s primary objective as “The PLA, aiming at building an ‘informationalised’ force and winning an information war, deepens its reforms, dedicates itself to innovation, improves its quality and actively pushes forward the RMA with Chinese characteristics with informationalisation at its core.” The Chinese have also put the strategy of C4ISR into place wherein they aim to control and combine the elements of Command, Control, Computer, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.

The Chinese have attached significant importance to Information Operations after witnessing its strides in the Gulf War. China was amongst the first nations to develop an Information Warfare theory, and though it had its basis from the Western Countries, the PLA gets due credit as it moulded and conditioned the doctrine to suit the local geopolitical conditions and external environment. The Chinese philosophy of Information Warfare involves an amalgamation of IW and its Marxist military ideologies, and various generals of the PLA have emphasized the need for it since it can “defeat enemy’s superior technology by using inferior technology.” The Chinese have also realized that Information Warfare is a feasible option since the people waging it are not virtually soldiers; another benefit that makes IW a viable option is the recruitment that can be done as quickly as a click of a button an e-mail. September 2015 marked a sea change in the operations of PLA as it started to put more emphasis on a landmark new Strategic Support Force (SSF) whose responsibility was to bring about an overhaul on the methods with which the PLA conducted its operations. The SSF was also responsible for altering the PLA’s organizational structure and introducing new tactics for waging war. A large part of the overhaul was focused on bringing in various components of information warfare, which are cyberwar, the domain of space, Electronic Warfare, which included the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS); the main goal being to drift away from conventional warfighting methods of the battlefield. All these changes by way of white papers, organizational overhauls, and revamping of cyberspaces are nothing but proactive measures that have been launched by the PLA to catalyze their goal of being an undisputed power in the subcontinent and a concrete world power subsequently. To achieve their dream of establishing their hegemony over the subcontinent and the world after that, China faces two significant obstacles: India and the United States respectively; hence, it becomes targets for the PLA to wage what is now known as Information and Propaganda Warfare.

A poster with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed in Shanghai, China March 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

Information Warfare by China on India and USA

If we start to dig profound, it becomes more and more evident that China has been waging a covert Information War against India since the 1990s; at a time when the PLA realized the importance of Information Warfare through cyber-attacks which form an integral part of information warfare. The PLA has learned the efficiency, which can be achieved by waging Cyber War against an adversary as it is cheaper than conventional war, and it will be won by disrupting, paralyzing, or damaging the adversary’s operating systems’ operating capability. The PLA seeks to dictate political terms through a new, technological war and project itself as an emerging superpower. Information Warfare has become a necessity in any modern doctrine by the PLA. China has also stressed the information domain where it is generated, manipulated, and exchanged. PLA also recognizes Psychological Warfare as an integral part of its grand design of Information Warfare. The aim of psychological operations is often people and decision-makers to assault their will and attitudes to change their beliefs, goals, and behavior. It targets both Military and civil elements of an adversary’s population. Psychological operations include media manipulation to support military activities. The Chinese conducted a joint exercise with the Russian Military in 2005, wherein it was trained in various aspects of the Psychological War like radio programs, leaflet distribution, etc. The main aim of this exercise was to serve it as a deterrent to the US military. An incident involving the corpse of a US soldier being dragged in Mogadishu’s town was perceived to have deterred the Americans from indulging in any further action. The same was also highlighted in a Chinese book titled ‘Unrestricted Warfare.’ The US military’s report released in August 2020 of ‘Military and Security Developments involving the PRC’ has openly stated that the PLA has revamped its informative operations domain and can attack the US defense mechanisms with the IW tools in their possession. Another unnerving development is the Chinese combination of Electronic, Cyber, and Psychological Warfare, which can dismantle the enemy’s ability to execute offensive operations to deter, shock, and demoralize enemy military forces.

The PLA’s cyber operations have been most likely responsible for the crash of a Sukhoi aircraft on the Indo-China border in May 2017. In July 2016, the Union Bank of India was the victim of a phishing e-mail, which resulted in a fraud of US$171 million, which were subsequently returned. 2017 saw two significant cyber-attacks that involved data theft from Zomato and a Petya Ransomware attack, which affected the Moller-Maersk’s containers at the Jawaharlal Nehru port trust in Mumbai. Many websites, including those of the West Bengal State Government and Andhra Pradesh police, bore these attacks’ brunt. The year 2019 saw 50,000 cyber-attacks routed through Vietnam and the Philippines, which aimed at destabilizing the country’s financial sector and were targeted towards banking servers, Military and defence infrastructure. The report by Subex, a data analytics firm for telecom companies, said that surprisingly, these attacks were not intended to have an immediate effect, but they aimed to leak sensitive information by staying inside the system continuously. A recent report by the Indian Express found out that China kept tabs on almost 10,000 imminent personalities, including the President, Prime Minister, Opposition Leaders, MPs, journalists, and personalities of India through digital footprints. The absence of a concrete Data Protection Law ensured that even though this report was public, no action could be taken. 

Propaganda Warfare by China in India and the US

It is a well-known fact that the Communist Party and the PLA are notorious for waging what is now known as Propaganda Warfare against their adversaries, which essentially aims at destabilizing them from within. The ultimate goal is to portray the Government as dysfunctional, thereby creating unrest and achieving their motto without firing a single round. China seeks to be at the forefront of narrative warfare, which is waged on various platforms. The Chinese Military has incorporated the doctrine of ‘san zhongzhaqia’ better known as the 3W (Three Warfare) tactic in the Political Work Guidelines of the PLA in 2003. The 3W doctrine essentially includes strategic psychological operations, covert/overt media warfare, and Legal Warfare. China’s go-to mechanism for propaganda war against India has been the cartographic aggression it has repeatedly displayed since the 1950s. The Chinese have a strategy of ‘Jie Chuan chu hai,’ which means borrowing a boat to go out to the ocean. It is in furtherance of their policy of creating a better image of China abroad. It is a well-known fact that China Radio International (CRI) content is aired by more than 30 outlets in the US. China Daily, a state-run newspaper, has collaborations and deals with almost 30 foreign newspapers with newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post in their line-up. The primary objective is to keep channelizing these papers with China-related pieces to achieve the ultimate goal of glorification and image cleansing of China and the CCP. China has reportedly spent a sum of USD 20.8 million in the US alone since 2017 for the above-stated work alone. The Coronavirus era has sharpened China’s propaganda war against the US as the latter’s administration levels accusations against the former for the spread of disease. It is noteworthy that China is always quick and decisive in countering any narrative against it, as is apparent in a recent incident wherein China’s Foreign ministry’s spokesperson Hua Chunying asked the US administration to open its bio-defence lab in Maryland’s Fort Detrick for international inspection in response to allegations by the US. Misleading spin, concealment, and hyperbole were the hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda campaign. Mao Zedong emphasized, “We should carry on constant propaganda among the people on the facts of world progress and the bright future ahead so that they will build their confidence in victory” back in 1945; it is also not a hidden fact that Xi Jinping encourages and incentivizes the journalists to propagate China’s “positive image.” China’s ultimate aim, it seems, is to project itself as a global leader, and it seeks to wrestle this image from the US by strong-armed Economic policies, shrewd diplomatic tactics, and constant propaganda, which aids in projecting its positive impression on the global stage. China has also been known to revel in the United States’ worsening condition in the wake of the Coronavirus; Hu Xijn, the chief editor of China’s state mouthpiece Global Times, tweeted, “Loose political system in the US allows more than 4000 people to die of pandemic every day,”. The CCP has grown in its themes and tactics in the coronavirus information war, fighting to improve its credibility and weaken that of the United States. China’s propaganda war against the US has increased manifold since the latter increased and improved relations with Taiwan, which China claims to be an integral part of a unified China. Global times has repeatedly warned that the United States was “playing with fire” by supporting Taiwan. China drives home its propaganda by releasing video footage of testing missiles, aircraft, etc. to instil fear in the common man. A video featuring an H6 strategic bombing run, zeroing in on a satellite photograph of a runway at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, was released recently, deleted without any explanation. Footages like these show China’s policy of acing the propaganda war through fear-mongering. China also uses the debacle faced by the USA’s armed forces during the Korean War of 1950 to instil a sense of patriotism amongst its populace and to ingrain a feeling of hatred for the United States. To further this narrative on patriotism, the Chinese use a marital image of tackling a crisis, for example, the definition of the COVID turmoil as a “people’s war.” The propaganda machinery is not without fault lines, a critical case in point of the Chinese state media using clippings from Hollywood movies trying to ship it as their Air force deployment is borderline pathetic.  

Chinese soldiers browse online news on desktop computers at a garrison of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in Chongqing, China/ Image Global Times

It is pertinent to note that in July 2018, Global Times, which is a state-run newspaper, published an article which condemned Air India since it displayed Taiwan as a separate region and surprisingly, Air-India changed the name of Taiwan to ‘Chinese Taipei’ after being at the receiving end of heavy criticism from various state-sponsored news outlets of China. It is a classic example of propaganda warfare, which wonders for the Chinese top brass and the PLA. To boost its propaganda China’s Ministry of education has created Confucius Institutes set up in other countries. Their goal is to propagate the Chinese culture at the surface level, but the absolute authoritarian control over curriculum and close ties to embassies is a testament to the fact that there is a hidden political motive and more to it than meets the eye. Notably, India has 3 Confucius Institutes. Notably, the PLA highlights the Indian Army’s setback in 1962 in warning India during the on-going tussle at the LAC. As has been the Chinese’s modus operandi, the Global Times has turned into a first response mechanism rather than their Armed Forces. It responded with a couple of Articles that had quotes like “China claimed victory in the 1962 war which should be a lesson for India. Moreover, the military capability of the PLA is not what it used to be decades ago. Now, the PLA is a modern one with information capability, systematic combat capability and joint combat capability.” Another article stated, “the PLA does not fire the first shot, but if the Indian Army fires the first shot at the PLA, the consequence must be the annihilation of the Indian Army on the spot. If Indian troops dare to escalate the conflict, more Indian troops will be wiped out.” These quotes are testaments to China’s robust Propaganda Warfare machinery. These comments appeared on social media trying to influence the Indian public, opposition leaders, and peaceniks, aiming for pressure on the Government to scale back and withdraw from places that threatened Chinese positions. China has resorted to releasing video footage of advanced weaponry and troop deployments to deter the Indian Armed Forces. It is a classic example and a thumb rule in the PLA’s handbook for proactively engaging in Propaganda Warfare. Unfortunately, these tactics successfully influence many in the mainstream Indian media, which tends to have a percolating effect on the general populace. 

The CCP also actively recruits “third party spokespeople” whose portfolio propagates China’s image on various platforms; these include prominent academicians, journalists, and top brass of different think tanks. It is a known fact that China plants these spokespeople in the adversary country’s institutions to further its objectives and fuel its vested interests, and unsurprisingly there are many takers for this portfolio as the incentives are very lucrative. China has been proactive in capturing the media sphere too, as CGTN, a state-sponsored TV channel, now runs in 5 languages and hosts a slew of top foreign journalists. In itself, it is a clear indication of the CCP’s global policy to project a pro-China image to the world. China aims to ace the communication sphere with state of the art satellites and ever-increasing fiber-optic networks. The well-oiled state sponsored media machinery coupled with tie-ups abroad is nothing but catalysts to China’s goal of achieving supremacy through Propaganda War. Attacks by the Chinese spokesperson and their media counterparts on various US politicians who criticized China’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis are classic examples of diplomacy by propaganda. The repeated hammering of the same ensures that image cleansing is complete on the International Platform. 

China’s propaganda machinery was at its peak during the recent Galwan valley standoff wherein the Indian Army gave a bloody nose to the PLA expansionists in various altercations that took place along the LAC. Media outlets like CGTV and Global Times were frenzied in covering up the casualties and blaming India for illegally encroaching Chinese territory. The propaganda peaked when these outlets started releasing footage of advanced weaponry deployment and military exercises undertaken by the PLA troops along the LAC. In essence, a common person refers to repeated hammering, which drives the nail deeper into an object; case in point here, the nail is propaganda, and the item; the Indian diaspora. The ultimate goal here is morale fluctuation and dissent creation of the Armed Forces and the general populace of the adversary through fear-mongering and exploiting the fault lines of Free Speech in the democracy by creating divides on things as trivial as opinions on daily news gradually leading up to division on sensitive areas such as religion and caste which are unsurprisingly created by some of the adversary country’s own media houses; hence achieving the objective of bleeding the adversary with a thousand cuts.  

Conclusion and Suggestions

It is only in recent years that the world has been able to lift the veil on China’s orchestrated propaganda measures and decode the massive façade of what China masquerades as peaceful operations. The propaganda machinery in China is being oiled for more than half a century, and we as a country are no strangers to it. The Communist regime in China emphasizes soft power areas like diplomacy, propaganda, and information warfare as it does on tanks and ballistic missiles. It has been abundantly clear time and again that China wants to project itself as a “world leader” and a “model country” to look up at. And for this alone, China has spent trillions of dollars on furthering its propaganda alone in the US and India. It has been reported that China Daily, a mouthpiece of the CCP, has paid $19 million to American newspapers in advertisement and printing charges alone between 2016-2020. It is also pertinent to note that it was revealed by China daily in its report to the US Department of Justice that it had spent $11 million in advertising in prominent US newspapers like Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Houston chronicle, etc.; additionally, it also revealed that it spent $2,65,822 on Twitter advertisements. This clearly shows the robust media campaign that is going on; it also raised US President Trump’s eyebrows when he revealed propaganda ads in various newspapers by China, including The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. A more not-so-surprising fact is that these newspapers, which are notorious for running Chinese propaganda, defame India and each of the Government’s policies any chance they get by spreading fake news about the rise in hate crimes of the current regime. China has also been active on the Information front as has been indicated by its constant investments in the Cyber and Space domain; these measures aid in China’s quest for domination of the subcontinent and, ultimately, the world in every sphere. There have been repeated cyber-attacks that are mostly covert on India’s vital systems like Banking, Defence, and the financial sector to destabilize the country by bringing down its critical infrastructure. With zero accountability to its people and unlimited funding, China can engage in cognitive warfare in various domains on multiple fronts. Another unfortunate development has been the Chinese policy to host journalists from the mainstream media in China and subtly to incline them in furthering the China narrative by offering them incentives like doctorates, free travel, and lucrative stipends. Hundreds of Media houses from Asia and Africa have been a part of these programs whose official objectives are still unknown. The culminated result is that many mainstream media houses in India further the Chinese narratives, which often involve subtle fear-mongering and glorification of the Chinese regime in the garb of paid advertisements which vilify our Government and present our Armed Forces in a negative light. The Chinese dare to subtly threaten the Indian Media houses and the Government to deter them from telecasting anything that offers Taiwan a separate entity. It is high time that we taste China’s medicine to it, which is continuously questioning India’s sovereignty latently by every means accessible to them, this time being the atrocious “One China Policy.” 

A tested thumb rule to retaliate in the war of narratives forms an equally good counter-narrative and an ironclad policy of dealing with any form of propaganda from the enemy lines. Another measure would be to develop and fund information and propaganda campaigns from our side and counter any propaganda by giving decisive and befitting replies to the source. More development needs to do in the information domain in the sense that centers of knowledge like think tanks, educational institutions should be given more access to resources and sufficient backing both on the financial and political front; these tools can be proactively used in disseminating positive propaganda from India and effectively countering and negating any propaganda coming from across the border. Spending and investing in India’s intellectual infrastructure is the key to win more than half of the battle on the propaganda and information domain; similarly, developing the Cyberinfrastructure and bringing in Data Protection laws will go a long way in ensuring the prevention of data theft and ultimately ensuring citizen safety. 

The same measures can be worked in the Armed Forces after requisite moulding. Specifically, an integrated PR arm of the Indian Armed Forces, which is primarily dedicated to engaging in the information and propaganda front, is the need of the hour; we have already seen positive changes but a path-breaking response to counter the Chinese propaganda machinery is yet to emerge. Another concrete and the legitimate solution is to continually highlight the horrendous Human rights violations that China is engaging in on International platforms and bilateral/multilateral talks so that China’s integrity is subject to scrutiny by international organizations. Additionally, exploiting China’s fault lines in its meritocratic system of the Government and its inhumane persecution of Uighur Muslims needs to be brought to the attention of the International Human rights bodies, questions on horrific human rights violations at Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 need to be highlighted to uncover the façade of the so-called “China Model truly.” All these measures will go a long way in ushering a new era in discovering the prevailing situation in China and will serve as a befitting win for the world’s democracies, where unlike China, voices cannot be stifled. 

*With additional inputs from Vaibhav Kullashri

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Swaraj Kariya

Swaraj Kariya is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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