Chapter 7 - China's approach to information and influence

Under Xi Jinping China has intensified its efforts to control cyberspace in order to reinforce the domestic rule of the Communist Party and to spread Chinese soft power abroad. Propaganda efforts have been successful domestically in shaping the views of the population, which is isolated from the global Internet. Abroad, China has effectively portrayed itself as a rising power. However, propaganda to promote Chinese foreign-policy objectives on a global scale have not always achieved their objectives.

China has moved into a new phase in its international relations that reflects a growing sense of power and accomplishment, often expressed in terms of reaching the summit or returning to the centre of the world stage. This is expressed by a greater willingness to reject Western norms (or replace them with norms with ‘Chinese characteristics’) and to assert a larger role for China globally. Domestically, this means tighter and more extensive controls over information. Internationally, it means an effort to garner soft power for China.

China’s long standing defensive effort to avoid political risk through information and information technologies, a central inheritance from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Leninist heritage, is now complemented by an effort to reshape global opinion and rules to better serve China’s interests and the Party’s world-view. The goals of China’s information policy are to reduce risks to political stability and continued Party rule; promote Chinese content and technology; reshape global rules to favour China’s interests; and defend against perceived US hegemony. Beijing, in the last few years, has created policies and regulations to make the information environment in the country more controllable, most recently with the National Cyberspace Security Strategy released in 2016. China has also become much more confident in its rejection of universal values, claiming that these are instead ‘Western’.

China’s leaders see the Internet as an existential threat to stability and continued CCP rule. This view has intensified under Xi Jinping. Xi inherited in 2012 a slow-moving crisis that threatened continuity, and the Xi government has moved forcefully in response. His efforts to ensure economic stability, reduce corruption, reform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and impose expansive controls on the Internet reinforce his authority and reduce the risk of political instability.

The threat posed by the Internet is also now seen as an opportunity. Since the Chinese Communist Revolution, China has used propaganda and information to control its population, but since Xi has taken office, it now also aims to reach a global audience with this same approach. This reflects the belief that China is on a steady path to becoming the most powerful nation in the world, displacing the US and, therefore, able to extend and perhaps impose Chinese values. Beijing began its pursuit of soft power a decade ago, when former CCP leader Hu Jintao called for making “socialist ideology more attractive and cohesive”. Party officials talk about the imminent return of China to the summit of global soft power as it becomes a “powerhouse of discourse” to match its economic power.Footnote 34

Part of China’s approach to the threat of information has been to isolate their national networks as much as possible, to build national industries to produce indigenous technologies, and to populate the media with government controlled news and information. China uses censorship and trolls (the ‘50-cent party’) to shape social media in ways favourable to the regimes and damaging to the US. This approach is very effective for domestic audiences, but largely ineffective for foreign ones.

China has a coherent view of cyberspace that places sovereign control by governments at the centre of information policy. It promotes a very different vison of international order that reasserts the primacy of national sovereignty and devalues international agreements that constrain sovereignty, particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The country is not alone in this and receives significant support from some non-aligned nations and, of course, Russia. There is a correlation between a nation’s willingness to restrict freedom of speech and the likelihood that it is sympathetic to China’s views on the Internet and cyberspace.

The emphasis on sovereignty has been accompanied by a major reorganisation of the government and Party apparatus for dealing with cyberspace, including the creation in 2014 of a Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatisation, chaired by President Xi, and a new agency, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Other actions to reinforce domestic control include restrictions on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and disruptions to the service they offer, and new limits on social media by deleting posts and closing accounts. The Leading Group sets policy which the CAC implements, improving China’s control over domestic networks and Internet users. These changes are the result of a deep interest by President Xi in extending control over cyberspace, which he has identified (along with corruption) as a considerable threat to political stability and CCP rule.

China uses its World Internet Conference (WIC) to gain support for its ideas of ‘cyber sovereignty’ and a multilateral approach to Internet governance, but since 2014 (the first WIC) the focus has become more domestic than international. This first reflected the failure of the WIC to attract an influential foreign audience, and reflected greater Chinese confidence in their ability to manage the Internet and extend sovereign control over networks even without being able to expand their control of Internet governance. In general, many Chinese policy-makers believe that the trend in international events favours China, so that they will, over time, achieve their objectives. This may explain, in part, why the WIC held from 3 to 5 December 2017 drew high-profile technology leaders from around the world.

The Party, not the individual, has primacy. The National Cyberspace Security Strategy asserts that “National sovereignty extends to cyberspace, and cyberspace sovereignty has become an important part of national sovereignty”. Xi defined the elements of cyber sovereignty at the 2016 WIC as “respecting each country’s right to choose its own Internet development path, its own Internet management model, its own public policies on the Internet, and to participate on an equal basis in the governance of international cyberspace—avoiding hegemony and interference in the internal affairs of other countries”.Footnote 35 China’s views on sovereignty seeks to reassert the dominant role of states in an approach to globalisation that seeks to amend rules, institutions and standards in ways favourable to its own interests and more consistent with its own political views.

Beijing has been successful in extending sovereign control to the Internet. It blocks access to and traffic from foreign sites of which it does not approve. Equally important, it shapes the domestic news in ways favourable to the party, emphasising strength, economic growth, China’s growing prestige and, recently, the wisdom of Xi Jinping. It is easy to discount the effectiveness of these efforts, and there is a substantial population of Chinese ‘netizen’s’ who mock or express skepticism about the official positions. China uses the full spectrum of media—print, television, film and Internet—to advances its narrative. Survey data from the Pew Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences shows that the Chinese public’s interest in online content focuses on entertainment, sports and Chinese-source news and that, in fact, the propaganda is effective.

However, the CCP also fears that it could lose control of nationalist sentiment; it is an imprecise tool that Beijing uses with caution. Chinese interlocutors say that social media and ‘Colour Revolutions’ are a threat, as they could lead to domestic unrest, but believe that the Party is in the process of learning how to deal with and use them for its own purposes, such as by using government employees (the Chinese equivalent of Russian media trolls) to plant millions of positive messages about the Party and Chinese policies on social media sitesFootnote 36. China has found ways to use the IT revolution to extend social control through ubiquitous surveillance in urban areas and online activities.

This sovereign manner is reflected in China’s approach to multilateral cybersecurity negotiations, information technology standards, and Internet governance. Its goals are to promote sovereign control and to advance its security and commercial interests. China’s new National Cyberspace Security Strategy emphasises “increasingly fierce competition” to “seize the right to develop rules”.

The Chinese are cautious and inflexible in international negotiations on cybersecurity in the UN and elsewhere, concerned with defensive requirements, to protect themselves from what they see as a hostile and technologically superior US whose actions are largely untrammeled by international law and are motivated by plans to disrupt Chinese society. China pursues international agreements that would reduce political risk and move in the direction of increasing governmental authority over the Internet. Part of the rationale for opposing norms is a rejection of ‘Western’ values, but China also blocks agreement on norms that could potentially be used to justify retaliation against China for its cyber activities.

Promoting indigenous information technology

Beijing has sought to build a strong information industry since the opening to the West more than three decades ago. This is an important part of its strategy for dealing with cyber and informational risk. China’s motives in expanding its IT industry are both commercial and political. China employs various strategies to displace Western IT companies, using non-tariff barriers, security regulations, procurement mandates, and the acquisition (both licit and illicit) of foreign technology, as well as through strategic investments and the acquisition of Western firms.

China has increased its involvement in international standards-setting for information technologies (previously the domain of Western companies), both to garner commercial advantage and to revise standards, protocols and architectures to improve governmental ability to control cyberspace. Some are calling the race to develop ‘5G’ mobile Internet standards “China’s chance to lead global innovationFootnote 37”.

China hopes to repeat the success of Huawei, and use government investments and barriers to entry to produce globally dominant national champions. It has a well-financed strategy to create a domestic industry intended to displace foreign suppliers. A senior Chinese official once remarked that if China had not blocked Google from the China market, there would be no Baidu. Creating a counterpart company and blocking Western services (such as Weibo instead of Twitter) was an effective policy for controlling social media use by a domestic audience, but it is not effective overseas.

Projecting soft power

Chinese propaganda is effective in shaping the views of a domestic Chinese audience, but is far less useful in other countries. China’s information operations suffer from a lack of subtlety and attractiveness, and are undercut by China’s harsh dealings with its neighbours and its domestic repression. Propaganda has been most effective in persuading the world of its inevitable economic ascendency and in exposing US shortcomings, but it has not succeeded in persuading a non-Han audience that China is an attractive alternative.

Chinese discomfort with the dominance of Western media (such as the BBC or CNN) and their ability to create a global narrative has led China to create competitors to challenge ‘information hegemony’. Global Times was remade in 2009 to provide English-language content promoting a more positive view of China, complete with its sometimes-shrill, anti-American commentary. Similar views can be found in CCTV (China Central Television), which offers foreign-language broadcasts in eight major languages, with the explicit goal of creating a more positive narrative of events in China. State-supported Chinese firms have purchased media outlets (such as the South China Morning Post) and may reshape reporting and editorial policies along these lines. Executives at Alibaba, the Chinese purchaser, said their goal was to “improve China’s image and offer an alternative to what it calls the biased lens of Western news outletsFootnote 38”.

Chinese outlets use Western media formats to shape foreign and domestic views of both China and the US in ways favourable to Beijing, even releasing a music video with Chinese rap music interspaced with official pronouncements to extoll Xi and the 19th CCP Congress—even the opening words are in English. While these information operations are very effective in influencing the views of a Chinese audience, they are much less successful in other cultural and linguistic arenas. A gaming app that allowed users to use a smart phone to ‘clap’ for President Xi went viral in China but received little notice overseas.
China has taken both a hard and soft approach to engendering a degree of self-censorship among Western firms, which do not wish to alienate Beijing or lose market access. Western film producers are careful not to offend Chinese censors (such as when the army invading the US in the remake of Red Dawn was suddenly changed from the PLA to North Korea’s, or when China saves NASA in The Martian). Shows that portray the US in a negative light, such as Netflix’s House of Cards are permitted for rebroadcast in China (and many Chinese saw it as a quasi-documentary).

How effective these efforts have been in reshaping foreign views of China is open to question. It is too early to assess the effect of the country’s media purchases, but when Alibaba purchased the South China Morning Post it was with the explicit goal of creating more positive coverage of China. The creation of Confucius Institutes, a heavy-handed effort at soft power in the US, where most of the Institutes are located, had mixed results, attracting criticism from a range of sources without noticeable improvement in US views of ChinaFootnote 39. Similarly, Chinese efforts to influence Australian views, using political donations and student or immigrant organisations. China’s message remains most attractive to Chinese nationals resident in other countries.

The Chinese do not have doctrine to create ‘cognitive effect’ and disinformation similar to what has been developed by Russia. China appears to rely on extending techniques developed for domestic control to foreign audiences. An initial assessment is that Chinese efforts have been more effective on the country’s own population. Beijing has not been able to devise an attractive alternative. Its own ideological constraints, which increasingly contain elements of the personality cult seen under Mao, are unpersuasive to non-Chinese audiences. A mixture of domestic coercion and financial pressure on overseas audiences remains China’s most effective tools for influence.

In looking at all these activities, they point to a coherent strategy to control information, centrally developed and overseen, to minimise political risk, and advance a Chinese agenda and narrative internationally. The Chinese state sees information and information technology as a tool in ways not found in Western democracies.

Détails de la page

Date de modification :