China may be developing techniques to subvert societies in rival nations
A key tenet of Imperial Chinese military philosophy is that if one knows one’s own strength and that of the enemy’s, then one need not fear the result of even a hundred battles. However, the adage cautions that knowing one’s métier but being unaware of the rival’s strong suit may lead to short-lived gains in battle.
Thus, for China, a nation that has not seen battle for more than four decades, the Ukraine conflict offers valuable insights, and, more importantly, lessons to imbibe. While Chinese intentions are obfuscated on account of the opacity of their system, there is now a line of thought that places a higher premium on capabilities, rather than on intent. China’s own state-sanitised discourse on modern warfare betrays its strategic vulnerabilities. In such a scenario, one must try to analyse what is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) top brass’ prognosis of modern warfare, priorities, and vulnerabilities.
On this topic, a paper published by Gen. Wang Haijing, a serving PLA officer, offers a peek into the Chinese elite’s thinking. First, it echoes the thoughts of Chinese President Xi Jinping—who also sits atop the apex defence body, the Central Military Commission—that China faces tough challenges on account of the campaign of suppression and containment by a United States-led alliance. Gen. Wang predicts that the situation has the potential to get out of hand at any point in time. Second, the paper states that modern warfare not just gauges the army’s strength, but it tests the overall national strength. Additionally, it lays emphasis on building up comprehensive national strength to prepare for a protracted war, arguing that China needs to marshal its non-military aspects, like the economy and science and technology, to strengthen strategic national capability. Third, it warns that it is not possible to contain conflicts only to a battlefield; they will inevitably spill into unconventional theatres like cyber space, technology, and even the financial system. Fourth, the paper suggests that China should build its capabilities through continuous military exercises, international tours of duty involving peace-keeping missions, and through induction of advanced technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI).
While Chinese intentions are obfuscated on account of the opacity of their system, there is now a line of thought that places a higher premium on capabilities, rather than on intent.
The article goes on to caution that military threats will be reinforced with non-military elements and will take the form of attacks on cyber assets, economic coercion, and non-state military groups.
However, there is a big fear in the minds of the PLA and the Communist Party of China (CPC) with respect to disinformation. Wang specifically warns that forces waging a modern war will first try to weaken society by sowing doubt in the minds of the population to destabilise a regime. This anxiety is also reinforced by other institutions of the Chinese regime like the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). In its official report, China’s internet regulator warned that new technologies like Web 3.0, quantum computing, satellite communication, and generative AI pose a big challenge to China’s governance. Echoing General Wang’s argument, the report specifically cites the threat to the Communist regime from ‘jiàzhí shèn’ (价值渗), meaning ‘infiltration (of society) using values’. These commentaries come out at a time when Sino-US relations have nosedived and there is growing worry over potential flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea. They give us a sense of how the PLA generals see the Ukraine conflict and how China’s military could be preparing for battles of the future.
Wars are tricky business for any government. Perceptions matter, as also the state’s ability to convince the people that the war is justified. The anti-war movement in the US in the 1960s was the result of a perception among a section of the American population that the US’s involvement in Vietnam was not justified on moral grounds. This strained the relations between the people and the executive and had a bearing on the American conceptualisation of the conflict. The anti-war agitation and America’s subsequent defeat in Vietnam ensured that the US Army didn’t foray into foreign lands till the early 1990s when the first Gulf War presented an opportunity.
China’s internet regulator warned that new technologies like Web 3.0, quantum computing, satellite communication, and generative AI pose a big challenge to China’s governance.
Similarly, in an authoritarian regime, the elites and people are incentivised to come out in larger numbers in support of a regime’s military campaigns. During the CPC’s National Congress in October 2022, Xi’s assertion on Taiwan that “China will not renounce the use of force and will take all measures to put a stop to separatist movements” was met with a thunderous applause.
However, there is a divergence in the aspirations of the Chinese elite and the people. In their paper, titled ‘Assessing Public Support for (Non-)Peaceful Unification with Taiwan:
Evidence from a Nationwide Survey in China’, academics Adam Y. Liu and Xiaojun Li state that public support for the armed reunification of Taiwan by the People’s Republic is merely 55 percent of the people (mostly urban) surveyed. Further, around 33 percent of the respondents in China are downright opposed to the use of force to reintegrate Taiwan. Around 57 percent and 58 percent of mainlanders back options like economic and military coercion, and measures short of full-scale conflict respectively. Meanwhile, around 55 percent preferred the current status quo.
Now contrast this with a poll published in 2022 by the National University of Chengchi, Taiwan, which puts the number of Taiwanese willing to fight a war against Chinese aggression at a staggering 73 percent. The slender support among the population to forcibly integrate Taiwan seems to be the force driving China’s mobilising its population. It may be too early to predict, but the recent incident of a stand-up comic in China poking fun at the PLA could represent a silent backlash against Xi’s mobilisation.
China’s military strategists may have factored in that its people will have to see Taiwan’s forceful reunification as a rightful war. Besides, it must also prepare for the eventuality of a protracted conflict with Taiwan. In the event of China suffering losses, there is an existential fear of a hostile power sowing doubts among the population in China with respect to the conflict, and this can have a bearing on the CPC’s stability. The anxiety that his people might not remain on his side must be weighing heavily on Xi’s mind. This can be evidenced by Xi’s recent address to the PLA and People's Armed Police Force in which he emphasised that it was imperative to consolidate the solidarity between the regime and the armed forces on the one hand, and the military and the people on the other, further pitching for protecting national defence through society.
China’s military strategists may have factored in that its people will have to see Taiwan’s forceful reunification as a rightful war.
Back to the dilemma regarding Chinese intentions vis-à-vis capabilities. If Chinese military strategists fear that hostile forces may try to foment disaffection among its people, then it is safe to assume that they are building the same capability themselves. In 2024, important elections are scheduled in India, the US, and Taiwan; this may serve as an opportunity for China to try and use these disinformation techniques to cause disarray in these societies.
Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation
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Kalpit A Mankikar is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme and is based out of ORFs Delhi centre. His research focusses on China specifically looking ...Read More +