The Third Road Threat: Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Information Warfare (Part 3/4)

Estimated Time to Read: 11 minutes
By Dan “Plato” Morabito

How China Fights the Information War

Abstract: This third essay demonstrates the utility of the IW taxonomy developed in part two to a critical analysis of China’s Information Warfare efforts.

The skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field . . . without losing a man, his triumph will be complete.

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The CCP has clear, ambitious goals to solidify their long-term political control over China while securing increased global influence at the expense of the United States. According to the 2017 US National Security Strategy, China is first among nations competing with the United States for global influence as it seeks to “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.”1 It is considered by the Biden administration to be “the only competitor potentially able to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”2 Most recently, Chinese media reported that Xi Jinping considers the United States to be “the biggest source of chaos [and] the biggest threat to China’s development and security.”3 China seeks to “displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”4 Globally, China seeks supplant the United States as the world’s superpower while securing access to energy reserves and other vital national interests that will bolster China’s continued growth.

How China Sees Itself

After a perceived “century of humiliation,” China sees itself as an ancient power, oppressed by foreigners but destined to return to preeminence as a regional hegemon. The CCP touts itself as “heirs to a great civilization.”5 Led by Xi Jinping, the CCP seeks power through “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” achieved through a narrative of China’s rejuvenation.6 According to the US Office of the Secretary of State, the CCP seeks to fundamentally revise the world order and international norms in a way that places China in the center and serves the CCP’s “authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions” through the establishment of a socialist international order.7 The CCP intends to displace “the United States as the world’s foremost power and restructure the world order to conform to the CCP’s distinctive way of empire.”8 This is the objective of the China Dream, China’s century-long unifying goal of restoring itself to preeminence by 2049.

How They Pursue Information Dominance

What makes China an especially formidable IW adversary is the CCP’s belief that it can “achieve its objectives through methods other than the use of brute military force.”9 With its propaganda-laden, Marxist past, authoritarian present, and ambitious future, the IW trinity and attack vectors present an elegant way for China to achieve Sun Tzu’s supreme art of war: “to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.”10 This is especially true against an American adversary that is slow to confront the vulnerabilities inherent to the information environment relative to the DoD and to the fundamental American values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

From its inception, the CCP used misinformation to achieve its political ends, considering thought management and propaganda against its own citizens to be the “lifeblood of the Party.”11 Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the CCP and founder of the People’s Republic of China, overtly advocated for propaganda stating, “we should carry on constant propaganda among the people . . . so that they will build their confidence in victory.”12 The CCP organizes its misinformation efforts through many bureaucratic government organizations focused on its internal citizenry and on the populations of other countries. The United Front Work Department is one such organization and is responsible for “building support for the CCP and its policies among domestic ethnic groups, religious groups, the world-wide Chinese diaspora, and political, economic, and social elites in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.”13

According to a 2019 Office of the Secretary of Defense report to Congress, “China conducts influence operations against media, cultural, business, academic, and policy communities of the United States, other countries, and international institutions to achieve outcomes favorable to its security and military strategy objectives . . . [the party] seeks to condition foreign and multilateral political establishments and public opinion to accept China’s narrative.”14 An example of this is the Ministry of Culture and Tourism which filters exposure to China’s country and culture by arranging free and low-cost trips for journalists, politicians, sports stars, and other social influencers who might be willing to present a non-critical view of China when grassroots foreign support is needed.15 Simultaneously, China denies access to individuals and corporations who portray China or the CCP in a negative light or who express sympathies contrary to China’s interests.16 This aggressive filtering extends to China’s printing industry which openly censors the content of books printed within the country for exportby demanding the removal of content that portrays China negatively or that doesn’t align with its strategic goals.17 It extends to the US sports and movie industries where threats to deny filming as well as lucrative distribution opportunities in China influence US production decisions while suppressing opinions counter to China’s aims.18 It is notable that Hollywood hasn’t made a movie critical of China since 1997; meanwhile China’s National Film Administration recently directed the country’s cinemas to show propaganda films a minimum of twice per week to commemorate the CCP’s centennial anniversary.19

These efforts contribute to China’s whole-of-government approach to achieving its national interests. To that end, China’s Science of Military Strategy doctrine includes a section on “effective control,” which describes the need to “energetically grasp military struggle while coordinating with political, economic, cultural, and diplomatic means under unified national deployment.”20 China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides a below-the-threshold-of-war example of how it applies the IW trinity and attack vectors to achieve effective control. Under the CCP’s guidance, China’s informatized organizations used all means at their disposal to shape public opinion by controlling access to information, generating uncertainty about narratives that depicted China negatively, and appealing to the biases in each targeted population through misinformation.21 China’s filtering and fragmentation of information from health experts and journalists, its global delivery of misinformation narratives using social and mainstream media, and its efforts to generate uncertainty about the nature of the virus by comparing its severity to the common flu while suggesting that it originated from the United States, all demonstrate the aggressiveness and robustness of China’s IW capabilities.22

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“We hope you can calm down and reflect on your behavior”

Further, China seeks information advantage through hacking and other illegal access to advanced technologies and trade secrets from companies, universities, and the defense sectors of multiple nations. China’s intellectual property theft has cost the United States upwards of $250 billion per year over the past decade, with some years exceeding $600 billion. According to the Policy Planning Staff of the Office of the US Secretary of State, China’s annual intellectual property theft approaches the US military’s annual defense budget and exceeds the total profits of the top fifty US companies.23 It has been called “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”24 The benefits to China include access to specialized knowledge, enabling it to pursue additional information advantages against governments, organizations, and persons across the globe.25 This presents the very concerning possibility that China’s sustained efforts to gain access to the intellectual property of the breadth of US industry and defense contractors may compromise the root of trust of US hardware and software systems, generating uncertainty about the reliability of US networks and infrastructure. Finally, it presents the possibility that China may have more information about US weapon system capabilities and vulnerabilities than that possessed by the US government.26

Finally, the CCP prepares its army to win Informatized Local Wars between information-based opponents.27 Xi restructured the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2015, including standing up the Strategic Support Force which conducts many aspects of IW. These include intelligence, technical reconnaissance, cyber espionage, cyber-attack, cyber defense, electronic warfare, and aspects of information technology and management.28 Some researchers claim that when Xi speaks of a “fully modernized force in 2035,” he “no doubt envisions a PLA capable of conducting joint informatized operations in the context of systems destruction warfare, giving the CCP a tool to achieve political objectives while controlling the scope and scale of conflict.”29 The PLA sees the information domain as “first and foremost in importance.” It treats information dominance in the form of controlled and persistent access within the cyber, space, and EMS domains early in a conflict as a pretext for achieving victory, while seeking to fragment or otherwise deny the same to its enemies.30

China has a robust IW capability honed from decades of IO performed against its domestic population and overseas adversaries. It is adept at using all elements of IW to achieve information advantage. This information advantage supports every Chinese national interest, and every national interest serves to reinforce the legitimacy and stability of the authoritarian CCP regime.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel B. Morabito is an Air Force cyberspace operations officer and recent graduate of the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Lieutenant Colonel Morabito has an undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Baylor University and holds masters degrees in Leadership and Information Technology, Cyberspace Operations, and Military Operational Art and Science from Duquesne University, the Air Force Institute of Technology, and the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a graduate of the USAF Air Command and Staff College Joint All Domain Strategist concentration. He can be reached at aptares@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.

[1] Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 25.

[2] Joe Biden, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington, DC: The White House, 2021), 8, accessed March 28, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.

[3] Ma Yuying, “He Bin Made a Speech at a Seminar on the Study and Implementation of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China at the County Level,” Qilian News, February 25, 2021, accessed March 3, 2021, https://web.archive.org/web/20210226222555/http%3A%2F%2Fwww.qiliannews.com%2Fsystem%2F2021%2F02%2F25%2F013341147.shtml. Speaker He Bin quotes Xi Jinping as saying, “the United States is the biggest threat to China’s development and security.”

[4] Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 25.

[5] US Office of the Secretary of State, Policy Planning Staff, The Elements of the China Challenge (Global Publishing Solutions, 2020), 6, accessed January 11, 2021, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/20-02832-Elements-of-China-Challenge-508.pdf.

[6] Michael Peters, “The Chinese Dream: Xi Jinping thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 49, no. 14 (November 2017): 1299-1304, accessed November 24, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2017.1407578.

[7] US Office of the Secretary of State, Policy Planning Staff, The Elements of the China Challenge, 1.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Dennis J. Blasko, “Special: Sun Tzu Simplified: An Approach to Analyzing China’s Regional Military Strategies,” Project 2049 Institute, April 10, 2015, accessed March 3, 2021, https://project2049.net/2015/04/10/special-sun-tzu-simplified-an-approach-to-analyzing-chinas-regional-military-strategies/.

[10] Roger T. Ames, Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare: The First English Translation Incorporating the Recently Discovered Yin-ch’ueh-shan Texts (New York: Ballantine Books, 2010), 111.

[11] Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought work in Contemporary China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 1.

[12] Mao Tse-tung, “On the Chungking Negotiations,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol IV, October 1945, 59-60, accessed January 13, 2021, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/red-book/ch21.htm.

[13] Larry Diamond and Orville Schell, eds., “Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance” (Research, The Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA, 2018), 138, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.hoover.org/research/chinas-influence-american-interests-promoting-constructive-vigilance.

[14] US Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report To Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (May 2, 2019), I, accessed February 4, 2021, https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/02/2002127082/-1/-1/1/2019_CHINA_MILITARY_
POWER_REPORT.pdf.

[15] Anne-Marie Brady, “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping” (Paper presented at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Conference, Arlington, VA, September 16-17, 2017), accessed January 23, 2021, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/magic_weapons.pdf.

[16] Sitong Guo, Andrew C. Billings, Kenon A. Brown, and John Vincent, “The Tweet Heard Round the World: Daryl Morey, the NBA, China, and Attribution of Responsibility,” Communication and Sport, December 24, 2020, accessed January 12, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2167479520983254.

[17] Harrison Christian, “Kiwi Publishers Face Censorship Demands from Chinese Printers,” Stuff, August 18, 2019, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/114985015
/kiwi-publishers-face-censorship-demands-from-chinese-printers; Sarah Wu and Joyce Zhou, “Editing History: Hong Kong Publishers Self-Censor Under New Security Law,” Reuters, July 13, 2020, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-security-publishers/editing-history-hong-kong-publishers-self-censor-under-new-security-law-idUSKCN24F09P.

[18] Victor Cha and Andy Lim, “Flagrant Foul: China’s Predatory Liberalism and the NBA,” The Washington Quarterly 42, no. 4 (December 2019): 23-42, accessed October 14, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2019.1694265; Ben Cohen, “LeBron James Says Tweet Supporting Hong Kong Protests Was ‘Misinformed,’” The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2019, accessed January 11, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/lebron-james-says-tweet-supporting-hong-kong-protests-was-misinformed-11571107697.

[19] Anne-Marie Brady, “China Wants Face and We Are Left with the Cost” (Commentary, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Ontario, Canada, 2020), 1, accessed April 7 2021, https://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/files/pdf/MLICommentary_March2020_Brady_FWeb.pdf; Rebecca Davis, “China’s Film Authority Orders All Cinemas to Screen Propaganda Films at Least Twice a Week,” Variety, April 2, 2021, accessed April 7, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/china-communist-party-100th-anniversary-propaganda-1234943360/.

[20] Xiaosong, The Science of Military Strategy, 112.

[21] Eric Chan and Peter Loftus, “Chinese Communist Party Information Warfare. US-China Competition during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs (Summer 2020): 146-154, accessed January 13, 2021, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jun/08/2002311968/-1/-1/1/DO_CHAN.PDF.

[22] Chan and Loftus, “Chinese Communist Party Information Warfare,” 146-154.

[23] US Office of the Secretary of State, Policy Planning Staff, The Elements of the China Challenge, 10.

[24] Josh Rogin, “NSA Chief: Cybercrime Constitutes the ‘Greatest Transfer of Wealth in History’,” Foreign Policy, July 9, 2012, accessed December 9, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/
2012/07/09/nsa-chief-cybercrime-constitutes-the-greatest-transfer-of-wealth-in-history.

[25] US Office of the Secretary of State, Policy Planning Staff, The Elements of the China Challenge, 6-7.

[26] Shannon Vivara, “NSA Warns Defense Contractors of Recent Chinese Government-backed Hacking,” Cyberscoop, October 20, 2020, accessed January 11, 2021, https://www.cyberscoop.com/defense-contractors-chinese-government-hacking-nsa/

[27] Burke et al., People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts, 7.

[28] Elsa B. Kania and John K. Costello, “The Strategic Support Force and the Future of Chinese Information Operations,” The Cyber Defense Review 3, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 111-115, accessed January 17, 2021, https://cyberdefensereview.army.mil/Portals/6/Documents/CDR%20Journal%20Articles/The%20Strategic%20Support%20Force_Kania_Costello.pdf.

[29] Burke et al., People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts, 6.

[30] Ibid., 7.

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