Coronavirus has shown the nature of Chinese PR warfare. What defines this new threat?
In 2003, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission approved a new wide-ranging battle plan for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the catchily-titled ‘Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army’. At first glance it appears simply another guide to information warfare strategy, but the reaction to the Covid-19 crisis has shown that Chinese capability in the sphere of information warfare is both highly developed and defined by uniquely Chinese characteristics.
The document provided a distinct strategy, which would use the media to degrade any potential justification for action from within any potential adversarial state, utilising mass public opinion as a preventative measure. Chinese national security first requires victory in the ideological marketplace amongst the populace. The purpose of this information warfare is to pave the path to Chinese dominance by preventing foreign actors taking decisions which are contrary to the strategic goals the People’s Republic.
This it shares with Russian disinformation operations. Both are aimed squarely at civilian targets, with Russian disinformation designed ‘to incite mass socio-political upheaval through systematic propaganda,’ necessitating operations with a wide reach. But there are key differences, which can help define the uniquely Chinese characteristics of its strategy.
Firstly, the strategic objective of Russian disinformation is to destabilise an opponent by raising doubts regarding the veracity of information. Not every operation is about winning or losing — its goal is simply to undermine the notion that objective truth and reporting is at all possible. Chinese reinformation, on the other hand, seeks the establishment of a central narrative, scripted in Beijing, which is then given legitimacy by but overt support from NGOs. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has placed high importance on increasing Chinese influence at international institutions, seeing American control of these institutions as a major impediment to Chinese power. Support from the institutions allows China not to cast doubt on the truth, but rather, to found a new truth entirely.
China’s successful co-opting of the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the COVID-19 crisis provides an excellent example of such operations. Under the leadership of Donald Trump the United States, the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ proved reticent to engage with international institutions and agreements previously seen as the foundation of the international system. Under the doctrine — inasmuch as it can be called that — of ‘America First’, the US pulled back from commitments, perceiving insufficient benefit from the leadership of, and involvement in, international structures. The WHO provides a prime example of the President’s concerns. Since its inception, it has been accused of massive structural deficiencies and is widely recognised as overly bureaucratic, bizarrely structured, hamstrung by political concerns, and too dependent on a handful of major donors. The WHO’s praise of China in the wake of the outbreak was so egregious that President Trump saw fit to withdraw all American funding from the organisation.
Whilst the ‘China-centric’ reaction to the crisis features many well-documented mistakes, it is not the first example of Chinese influence demonstrated by the WHO. It has consistently blocked Taiwanese inclusion and in 2019 even included traditional Chinese medicine in its influential medical compendium, despite concerns from numerous groups.
How has China managed to achieve such influence in the organisation? Whilst not historically a major funder of the WHO, China wields a high level of influence in the organisation by exploiting structural deficiencies. China has exploited the political concerns of the WHO by campaigning — heavily — for its current Director General, Tedros Adhanom. This was part of a larger, long-term campaign to install Chinese officials — or proxies who rely on Chinese support — in leadership roles at international organisations. It is also rumoured that Tedros may be interested in running for the position of Secretary General of the UN, which would require that friendly relations with China be maintained.
To achieve its goals, Russian disinformation relies on dissemination of information and opinion on a mass scale, as sufficient volume of conversation is required in order to seep into mainstream political discourse. The industrialisation of covert cyber operations — such as hacking, troll farms and bots — is evidence of this. Chinese strategy, however, relies on the tight control of information that is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. The control of information is a well-established concept in China — after all, it reported no deaths at Tiananmen Square.
Following the outbreak of the virus, the Chinese state seems to have abided by the mantra that has guided so many authoritarian regimes during crises — authority is supreme to everything, including the truth. It immediately began to write a catalogue of sins of commission, such as silencing medical professionals, suppressing data and failing to act to control the spread of the virus. Following this, the Chinese state has also imposed extra vetting on academic papers relating to coronavirus. Papers tracing the origins of the virus are now subject to approval by central government. This came after research published in by Chinese scientists raised questions regarding the official government account of the outbreak. Information control is essential — Chinese strategy recognises that it will fail unless it uses verifiable information, and bogus statistics and findings are easily picked apart in nations with rigorous press standards and freedom of speech. This is easily shown by the public scepticism which Chinese death statistics were received in the West — particularly after they were revised up by 50%.
As well as controlling production of information, China also intends to control the distribution of information. Influence campaigns in the media are nothing new, even in China. ‘Making the foreign serve China’ is traditional methodology — Mao Zedong used Edgar Snow to raise awareness of Red China in the Western consciousness and Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was used by Deng Xiaoping to promote Chinese reforms. The Party has even made direct use of foreign media, with Jiang Zemin using the New York Times to lobby for Chinese inclusion in the World Trade Organisation. The current leadership has also used ‘foreign media to inform domestic audiences about accountability for accidents, recognizing that Chinese media won’t ask hard questions nor have the same credibility when it prints answers.’
However, Chinese operations have recently become more assertive and taken advantage of freedoms of press in nations with more liberal attitudes to peddle Communist Party lines. Whilst massively boosting the presence of state-run media outlets in western nations, China has employed traditional methods, such as advertorials, sponsored journalistic coverage and lavish press junkets. It is also exploring new avenues, employing a media strategy known as ie chuan chu hai — ‘borrowing a boat to go out to the ocean’. This is a far-reaching strategy, including the placement of propaganda supplements in publications such as The Daily Telegraph and the Washington Post, and providing state-approved radio content for eight stations in 35 countries, often masquerading as independent coverage. It is also training the next generation of propagandists by offering free communication graduate degrees for foreign students, through which it ‘educates’ students from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. These students are taught the fundamental tenet that underpins all Chinese media activity — ‘journalistic ideals such as critical reporting and objectivity are not just hostile, they pose an existential threat.’
Finally, Russian disinformation is ‘primarily not selling Russia as an idea, or the Russian model as one to emulate.’ Russian involvement in events such as the EU Referendum and Presidential elections is intended to stoke divisions within the populace of a target nation. Chinese reinformation, on the other hand, is aimed squarely at promoting a notion of Chinese utopianism.
It is this idea of Chinese state infallibility that has characterised China’s international reaction to the crisis. The narrative is deceptively simple — there are still doubts as to the exact origin of the virus, but China has demonstrated its characteristic effectiveness in containing the spread of the virus, as opposed to Western nations, whose response has been lacklustre at best. The declaration by Xi Jinping of a ‘Health Silk Road’ shows that China is positioning itself as a responsible world leader by exporting medial aid, co-ordination and advice to nations stricken by the virus. Thus, its authoritarian system shines in comparison to the ineffectiveness of Western democracy. Chinese officials have favourably compared their response to that of the United States, whilst seeking praise for its aid from less adversarial actors, such as Germany, and even from sub-state units like Wisconsin. Yet despite the seemingly heavy-handed nature of the PR programme, there is evidence that it I proving
somewhat effective, with Serbia — a long-time target of Chinese influence — heaping praise on China’s response following the decision of the EU to place a ban on the export of critical medical supplies.
Coronavirus represents both a threat and an opportunity for the West. China’s willingness to wage an information campaign shows it believes itself able to match the West in the public opinion war. The paths are clear; the West must either adapt improved countermeasures to combat Chinas’s rising capability, or accept that if the future does not belong to the West, it belongs to others.