Gauging Beijing’s diverse influence operations strategy

Dr. Sriparna Pathak In December last year, China shocked the world by publishing a white paper titled ‘China: Democracy That Works”, especially as China is recognized globally as  anything but a democracy. Since Deng Xiaoping assumed the controls of power in the 1970s, China has been following what is known as socialism with Chinese characteristics, which saw a move away from the rigid commune system that was set in place under Mao Zedong. As part of Deng’s reforms, elements of the market were introduced in the economy. Despite an infusion of elements of capitalism, China chose to adhere politically to socialism, as the only political party-the Communist Party of China (CPC) was to be the only source of governance for the rest of eternity. The question that now emerges is whether China is actually willing to abort its adherence to socialism with Chinese characteristics? What needs to be remembered is that on July 1 in 2021, China celebrated 100 years of the existence of the CPC, and this in itself is a clear signal that neither is the one-party system going away any time soon, nor is China willing to move away from its model of governance. The answer to why China now claims to be a democracy lies in the fact that China under Xi Jinping seeks to shape not just narratives around international relations but also change meanings of political systems to suit its own narrow self-interests. China has long tried to show how democracies around the world are flawed and how its own systems of governance has successfully worked and is superior to those of its rivals in the liberal and democratic West. At the 19th Party Congress in 2019, Xi Jinping had even stated how developing countries could follow China’s model of governance, showing yet another sign that in the years to come as China actively starts increasing its influence operations around the world, it will focus heavily on showcasing how its system of governance is superior to that in the West. China seeks to increase its influence across the globe for a myriad reasons; an important one is its attempts at getting more acceptance of its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) —which has met with resistance from several quarters of the democratic world as projects under the BRI do not adhere to labour or environmental standards nor offer clear cut goals to leveraging opinion in favour of its autocratic systems. Also, as China seeks to project itself as the most powerful country of the international system it becomes pertinent that beyond just using money and muscle power, it showcases how its governance system is also superior to the other alternative of a liberal democracy. On the other hand, a  domestic reason behind the increasing influence operations abroad  lies in the CPC’s obsession with preserving its rule. The core factors that characterised Deng’s reform era, like those of relative political stability, ideological openness and rapid economic growth have all started unravelling in the 21st century. Thus, the leadership is consumed by the need to strengthen the waters of a turbulent society in check. China’s influence operations can be broadly defined as the coordinated utilisation of capabilities to affect changes in perceptions, practices and policies of foreign target audiences. These could range from election or governance interference as seen in the case of Nepal, or the bribing of key influencers and manipulation of media environments as seen in Bangladesh. The scope and numbers of these operations have increased massively in the last two years, coinciding with the pandemic and China’s heightened aggression in international relations. This massive increase in China’s influence operations is taking place amidst a confluence of broader trends including intensifying major power competition and deepening ideological struggles between democratic and authoritarian forms of governance. The use and abuse of the digital domain is an integral aspect of these operations- which has been a worrying facet for open societies. Such influence operations do not just use Chinese language content, but also include a large English language propaganda network which include television and websites. These websites promote stories and commentaries that aggravate political tensions while showing the targeted country in an especially bad light. In the case of the U.S., such ‘articles’ constantly highlight violent protests and racial strife to build a narrative around governmental incompetence. In India’s case, multiple sites and articles targeting governmental incompetence around the citizenship amendment act (CAA) propped up since 2019. The articles which these websites which do not disclose their copyright  details; get tweeted and retweeted by fake social media handles to push out false messages of disharmony.
lege (Hyderabad), Panjab University and Allahabad University

With regards to India’s CAA, China through its ‘articles’ along with statements from its officials, tried presenting a narrative which fulfils two of its motives. The narratives given out by editorials and articles presented a China that was worried about how India may fuel terrorism through its CAA. In an anonymous reveal, aChinese official told India’s leading daily The Hindu that Beijing apprehends that the law, if it alienates Muslims in India, could have repercussions in Xinjiang. Beijing has been systematically incarcerating Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang despite the fact that they are and have been legal residents of Xinjiang for years and decades, as juxtaposed to the CAA which seeks to curb illegal migration and aims at offering refuge to persecuted minorities from South Asia- the exact opposite of what internment camps in Xinjiang seek to do. Through this narrative, China seeks to equate its torture camps in Xinjiang with a law in India that seeks to offer refuge to the persecuted. The goal is clearly to show China’s actions in Xinjiang at par with India’s through the CAA. Furthermore, by putting forth the narrative that the CAA will lead to alienation of Muslims in India, Beijing seeks to divide India’s society along religious lines.

The same official, speaking to The Hindu, stated, “We fear that if possible Muslim alienation triggered by India’s new Act spreads, it could channel into international terrorism and eventually bolter separatism in Xinjiang,”. This, in essence, is an attempt to justify Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, stating that separatism exists in Beijing and if it gets bolstered, Beijing will have no option but to take tougher action, while all the time blaming India for triggering international terrorism.

In addition to this, Chinese state media has asserted that the new law mirrors India’s evolving geostrategic posture, in its South Asian neighbourhood, the Indian Ocean and beyond, fuelled by what it calls “Hindu nationalism”. An article in the state-run tabloid Global Times noted that “broadly speaking” the CAA “reflects the conflict between liberalism and nationalism. In India, the world’s largest democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on a path of nationalism. He tries to achieve a unified national recognition via the idea of having one country, one nation, one religion and one language and eradicate diversification and fragmentation in India’s society and culture”.

It added that the “rise of Hindu nationalism has broader implications for international politics…Hindu nationalism will not be satisfied to be only the dominant force within India. It will push the country to pursue higher international status – from permanent membership in the UN Security Council to dominance in the Indian Ocean and South Asia and eventually a major world power – to satisfy the need for victory and reputation”. In several Chinese language articles, the same narrative is put out, the crux of which is that India is moving away from promoting unity in diversity  and secularism. There are a host of such articles on the Chinese web trying to justify the fact that India is no longer a democracy and that authoritarianism is the correct path of governance.

The purpose also is to deflect international attention away from China’s own assertive gorvernance  divert the focus on India. The attempt also drives wedges between India and its neighbours as the Global Times article goes on to state that the CAA will have a major “spillover effect” on the Hindu minorities in the region, and that conflicts are likely to emerge between India and neighbouring countries, especially those having a Hindu population. Such present day strategies should be viewed vis-à-vis Beijing’s older overtures at the same; for instance,  in 2009 a Chinese think-tank in its report urged friendly countries to divide and bifurcate India into 20-30 small nations.

When India did undertake an internet blockade in Assam and Meghalaya in 2019 as a response to increasing protests against the CAA in 2019, China utilised it to state how sovereign states have a right to engage in censorship, trying to justify the excessively high and constant level of censorship which exists in China throughout. The article in People’s Daily titled, “India’s internet shutdown shows normal practice for sovereign countries”, used the temporary internet blockade in Assam and Meghalaya to defend against U.S. criticism of China’s perpetual internet blockade in Xinjiang.

In the aftermath of the death of India’s Chief of Defence, General Bipin Rawat’s death, China used it as an opportunity again to show flaws in India’s military and governance. An article in Global Times, titled, “India defense chief’s death shows flaws in Indian military, ‘deals heavy blow’ to its modernization” mentioned how India’s ‘backwardness’ is its biggest enemy. In December last year, the news about attack on security forces in Nagaland was a major trend on Weibo and the hashtag “Indian troops manslaughter 13 civilians” was viewed at least 107000 times. While the incident was indeed unfortunate, China utilised it to showcase weaknesses in democratic systems of governance and to shield its own violent methods of curbing unrest.

While China engages in content manipulation, the question that needs to be answered is how serious can the effects of this manipulation be. In democracies, civil societies play extremely important roles; they act as pressure valves, affect changes in governance and urge, protest and impact governments in power to change policies. China seeks to influence the opinions of these civil societies in democratic countries which in turn will create pressures on the ruling governments to make changes to existing policies. Such changes are those that will suit China’s selfish interests. By manipulating content, creating false narratives and using false equivalence among a host of other tactics, China theoretically engages in influence operations against powers that threaten its model of governance and power of the CPC. This has been recognised recently in a lot of Western liberal democracies ranging from the U.S. to Australia to Taiwan. However, given the relatively less volumes  of such influence operations in India as compared to the operations China undertakes against Taiwan or the U.S. for example, active cognisance must be  taken of China’s influence operations in the country. Noting the drastic fallouts these operations could have, it is pertinent that India takes urgent steps to shield itself from the impact.

Dr. Sriparna Pathak is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Centre for Northeast Asian Studies at the School of International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana. She teaches courses on Foreign Policy of China and Theories of International Relations. Her previous work experience covers Universities like Gauhati University, Don Bosco University; the Ministry of External Affairs; think tanks like Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and Kolkata respectively, South Asia Democratic Forum in Brussels where she is a Research Fellow and the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research in New Delhi where she worked as a researcher.

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