China: A War with Disinformation

"All warfare is based on deception."

- SUN TZU: THE ART OF WAR

By Gábor Papp

A Plan to Rule Them All

Every historical period has its own “source of power”. Unlike that of the previous one it is now not just material, it is not land or factories but something far more complex. With the appearance of mass media, new media, social networks and many others, information (also big data) became the “first source of power”, but at the same time it is also a threat. Information disorder has many faces but disinformation and political propaganda that can easily domesticate and/or divide entire nations have an enormous impact on our democracies. Radicals and populist politicians are using them – and because of their democratic legitimacy the very institutes that were supposed to stop them – to gain and keep their power.

We already have many examples, mostly from Europe (Central and Eastern Europe) and the US (especially the 2016 Presidential election) that proves us the efficiency of Russia’s propaganda machine.

What if I say that I know something far more ferocious than the Big Old Bear of the North? And that is the Dragon of the East. Rather than splitting fire, it uses another tactic.

For a while we thought that China was happy to be in the shadow of the United States, and it is ready to accept the world as it is, ruled by the West. Then it had a great boom economically and after that it was clear that China wants more than we had thought.

One of the best examples of its divergence from the high expectations we had is when Xi Jinping was allowed to remain “president for life” as term limits were removed in 2018. So the West’s 25 year bet on China has failed. Western leaders hoped that economic integration would encourage China to evolve into a market economy. The idea was that as they get wealthier, the Chinese would be keen on democratic freedoms, rights and the rule of law.

China has very serious ambitions now. It is also a very important player in this game, as its military rivals with Russia's and gets better and better. Not to mention its economy that is the second largest in the world if not the first.

China uses neo-imperialism by investing over a trillion dollars in more than sixty countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, Middle-East and the Pacific, mostly poor countries to spread its influence. They are about to rebuild the Silk Road – or in other words BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) or Globalisation 2.0 to become the star of the new world order.

The trade war with the US only escalates the march towards this goal and motivates China to push it even further. So to invest more in the military and find new ways to defeat those who act against its interests. This new kind of economic cold war is only the beginning of an era as the US' containment strategy is much more dangerous this time because of China’s economic strength and military might.

We shouldn't forget that China got so powerful because of us in the first place. We used its enormous population, and cheap labour and now we are being used by them. Our most trusted pioneers of technology who speak so much about moral and human rights from the safe haven of the Silicon Valley forgot to use the same principles to use when they wanted to dominate China. Google was kicked out once, but it didn't give up that enormous potential that being there means. Now it is handing the future of the internet to China, by quietly collaborating with the government on a new, censored search engine code-named Dragonfly that will filter websites and search terms that are blacklisted by the Chinese government.

The First Line: An Army of Digits

As every government, the Chinese one also tried its new abilities of deception on its own civilians first. Those characteristic political propaganda posters that we have seen in history books are no more. On the one hand I mean the Great Firewall of China that created its own restricted Internet. On the other hand, I mean applications that were meant to spread the word of the government. Like Weibo, Baidu or WeChat where usernames have been linked to police database. “Xuexi Qiangguo” is the number one of China’s hi-tech propaganda tools. The name means “study to make China strong”.

Its goal is simple: to spread the Communist Party’s message and teach the youth the “correct” political thought. It was developed by Alibaba. Those who download it – which is often obligatory – are ranked based on their scores in the quizzes and even get prizes. What is that if not the encouragement of digital authoritarianism?

And how powerful are the Chinese tech giants? While in 2013 the world’s 20 largest tech giants included 13 from the US and only 3 from China by 2018 this had changed. Now it is 12 from the US and 8 from China.

They even went further by creating a society in which you are rated by the government on your trustworthiness. This is the “citizen score”. It might sound pretty Orwellian at first, but the truth is that it is not another dystopia in our mind. China is currently building a vast surveillance system that can make it all come true. And it is already happening in Xinjiang where millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups are being monitored. Some described Kashgar as "the city that was turned into a prison".

Taiwan might be a great example of this new kind of foreign influence that China is about to perfect.  Some say that it is the frontline of the disinformation wars. In 2018 during a big flood there was a PTT (Professional Technology Temple - similar to Reddit) user – claiming to be a Taiwanese citizen – posted that he had been rescued by the Chinese government. Chinese language news like Apple Daily, Sanlih TV News, Xinhua news agency, Global Times quickly picked up that other Taiwanese were also rescued and “swore alliance to China”.

China was represented as the Big Brother who is always there when you are in need. But as it turned out it was the work of state-sponsored Chinese actors aiming to destabilize Taiwan.

According to the Sigur Center for Asian Studies the increasing role of social media in Taiwan’s elections caught China’s attention. Chinese universities began heavily researching Taiwan’s social media usage and the government began to develop a strategy on how to utilize the technology to its advantage.

During the 2016 election cycle in Taiwan, Chinese internet users were suddenly granted access to Facebook, which had been previously banned. Mainland users—easily identified by their use of simplified characters, parroting of Chinese government slogans, and an “unwarranted degree of animosity”—spammed the Facebook pages of Tsai and Taiwan’s major media outlets in January 2016 with anti-independence documents.

In a nutshell I chose this topic because I strongly believe that the West is not ready for the coming wave of Chinese misinformation. Beijing’s social-media operations are larger and more effective than we thought.

While Russia is playing a short game, China is playing for a long one. China’s goals are a larger role in and greater influence on the current international system. It wants to propagate the "Chinese Dream”, and it aims to change the perception about China.

The method is also interesting: they are using coordinated messages that is positive and non-threatening.  Unlike the Russian troll farm that attempted to sway US voters and that employed at most 600 people. While estimates of the size of the Chinese operation vary, one study put the estimate at above half a million people.

Just imagine: if they could domesticate more than one billion people, what can they do to us?

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