China information warfare capabilities have been a subject of concern and study by various analysts and experts. The Chinese government has recognized the importance of information warfare and has invested significant resources into developing and expanding its capabilities in this domain.
“Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine”
So said Peter Sondergaard, Senior Vice President of Gartner Research…And no country has embraced this reality more fervently than China.
The Chinese government has made it clear that they aspire to be the world leader in technology and data, and its efforts to gather, analyse, and control information have been relentless. They have ensured their stronghold in information gathering through variety of means like surveillance, espionage, businesses & overseas projects and unwarranted data collection both domestically and internationally. But that’s not the only things that’s interesting – the Chinese government has been very successful in using this data (gathered through illicit means) to launch targeted attacks and propaganda campaigns within China and outside.
Domestic Surveillance: Censorship and Social Credit System
China has become notorious for its extensive and highly sophisticated surveillance system, which monitors millions of Chinese citizens in real time. The scale of the system is unprecedented, and the misuse of this technology has raised significant ethical concerns. This discusses the scope of China’s surveillance apparatus, instances of misuse, and how the social credit system works in conjunction with the surveillance system to exert control over the population.
The integration of cutting-edge technology into China’s surveillance system is a key factor in its vast scale. The country has deployed more than 200 million surveillance cameras, making it the most heavily surveilled nation in the world. These cameras are equipped with facial recognition, AI algorithms, and machine learning, which enable them to identify and track individuals in real time. This massive surveillance network is further complemented by the widespread use of mobile devices, which are often pre-installed with government-approved apps that monitor users’ online activities. The Great Firewall of China, the country’s internet censorship system, also filters and controls the flow of information in and out of China, allowing the government to maintain a tight grip on the digital lives of citizens.
The misuse of surveillance in China has led to multiple instances of human rights abuses and privacy violations.
One of the most striking examples of this is the treatment of the minority in the country especially in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have leveraged the surveillance system to identify, track, and detain Uighurs and Tibetans based on their ethnicity and religious practices, resulting in more than one million people being held in internment camps. The surveillance system has transformed Xinjiang into a virtual police state, with pervasive monitoring of Uighurs’ daily lives.
Another instance of misuse is the crackdown on political dissidents and activists. The Chinese government has frequently used surveillance to monitor, harass, and detain individuals who express dissenting opinions or engage in activism. This has led to a chilling effect on free speech and political expression in the country, as citizens are increasingly aware that their every move is being watched and recorded.
But the effects of this surveillance gets worse with the ‘Social Credit System’.
The Chinese government has been developing a Social Credit System (SCS) since 2014, which assigns individuals and businesses a social credit score based on their behaviour. The SCS is designed to encourage good behaviour and punish those who are deemed untrustworthy. The surveillance infrastructure plays a critical role in the implementation of the SCS, as it provides the data used to assess and monitor citizens’ behaviour. It evaluates individuals based on a wide range of criteria, including financial creditworthiness, adherence to laws and regulations, and even personal habits such as smoking and playing video games. A low social credit score can have severe consequences, including restricted access to loans, travel bans, and exclusion from certain jobs. The surveillance system and the SCS work in tandem to create a powerful and pervasive tool for social control. The constant monitoring of citizens feeds into the SCS, enabling the government to identify and penalize those who engage in undesirable behaviours or express dissenting opinions. Critics argue that this combination of surveillance and social credit creates an Orwellian dystopia, where citizens are constantly monitored and evaluated by an all-seeing, all-knowing government.
International Espionage: Spy, phoney Establishments and business deals
Apart from domestic surveillance, China has deployed several espionage tactics to gain dominance over the info-gathering network of the world.
How does China do this?
Three major ways have been come to light are these –
(1) establishing a covert spy team under the guise of ‘Chinese Overseas Police Stations’,
(2) disguising spies/agents as students, scientists and industry workers, and
(3) through IT companies and their entrepreneurs.
Overseas Police Stations
According to reports, China has set up more than 50 overseas police stations in major cities around the world, including New York, London, Amsterdam, Budapest, Kampala, and Tokyo. These stations are staffed by Chinese police officers and are officially touted as providing diplomatic and logistical assistance to Chinese citizens living abroad. However, there is evidence many of these stations are involved in intelligence gathering, especially on Chinese students and dissidents. The police officers at these stations can put pressure on Chinese citizens to become informants for Beijing. They monitor the activities and allegiance of Chinese student groups, businesses, and other diaspora organizations. They have also been accused of harassing and intimidating Chinese dissidents and activists to get them to return to China. In some cases, individuals who refused to cooperate have threatened or detained their families in China.
The overseas police stations are part of China’s broader intelligence strategy to gain more control and oversight of the large numbers of Chinese citizens living and working abroad. It is a way for Beijing to project its power beyond its borders and stifle dissent even outside China’s territory. The stations have become outposts not only for Chinese police but also for Beijing’s intelligence agencies. They add a layer of surveillance for Chinese nationals regardless of where they travel. They act as an extension of China’s techno-authoritarian policies by infringing on civil liberties and facilitating spying at a global level. Many countries are now concerned about the influence and espionage these police stations enable, especially as some cities like Paris have given their Chinese police official office space and diplomatic status. However, China claims they are simply providing lawful services to Chinese citizens in need of assistance. The opaque nature of these stations and their activities remains controversial and suspicious.
China Information Warfare Through International Students and Scientists
There is evidence that China gathers intelligence using Chinese students, scientists, and researchers in foreign countries. They have been accused of conducting surveillance, censorship, and influence operations targeting Chinese student groups and research institutions in democracies like Australia, Canada, and the US. The Chinese government also pressures Chinese citizens abroad to become informants and report on fellow Chinese students or academics.
Technology Companies Exporting Censorship and Surveillance
Chinese companies like Huawei, ZTE, and Dahua have been accused of enabling Chinese government spying by selling telecommunications equipment and smart city surveillance systems to foreign countries that have security vulnerabilities or allow data sharing with Beijing. The US and Australia have banned some Chinese firms over spying concerns. Organisations like NASA and SpaceX refuse to work with Chinese tech firms due to this issue. Tik-Tok was banned in early 2020 and Huawei was also denied the bid for 5G bandwidth in India due to such spying concerns.
The scale of China’s surveillance system is unparalleled, and its misuse has led to numerous human rights abuses and privacy violations. These surveillance apparatuses are a potent tool for social control, discouraging dissent and promoting conformity. As China information warfare refine its surveillance capabilities, the international community must remain vigilant and advocate for the protection of privacy and human rights.