In one year alone, 450 million social media posts — roughly one in six — were fabricated in China. This is part of one of the most impactful global information operations campaigns since the end of the Cold War, but it has largely gone unnoticed. China has been expanding its information operations campaign globally as well, portraying itself as the protector of internet stability. This narrative, promoted against the backdrop of U.S. investigations into Russian hacking and a broader U.S. retrenchment from global leadership, diverts attention from the realities of China’s great firewall, decades of digital intellectual property theft, and domestic surveillance. China’s leadership has mastered the art of domestic diversion and is now doing the same thing globally to promote its own model of cyber sovereignty. From Davos to the United Nations, China is putting a stake in the ground to shape the future of the global internet.
The Chinese model for information security is taking hold globally, with two-thirds of all internet users currently subjected to some degree of censorship of criticism aimed at the government, military, or ruling families. This trend threatens to undermine any vision of a global free and open internet. The United States must reinforce its commitment as a global leader for internet openness and security and work with international partners to establish global rules of the road and protect digital freedoms. Absent this leadership, China will fill the vacuum and continue to push its own version of internet stability and control.
Mastering the Art of Diversion
Chinese authorities have become experts at online diversion. As a recent Harvard study notes, China engages in “astroturfing,” otherwise known as reverse censorship, by “surreptitiously posting large numbers of fabricated social media comments.” In this way, the government controls the narrative by flooding social media with biased, pro-government information, distracting from real events while minimizing reliance on other forms of censorship. Known colloquially as the Fifty Cent Party, China’s state-backed internet commentators contribute to this strategy, and help the Chinese government publish hundreds of millions of posts a year. Like changing the topic of an uncomfortable conversation, astroturfing moves the discussion away from unpopular or controversial topics in favor of a more popular, self-aggrandizing narrative.
The use of this diversionary tactic helps explain the gap between China’s words and actions in the realm of international cybersecurity, where China portrays itself as a global leader in shaping a stable and secure internet. Their recent national strategy for cyberspace calls for the “international community to safeguard peace and security, promote openness and cooperation and foster a community of shared future in cyberspace.” One might reasonably assume this passage comes from an update to the 2011 United States International Strategy for Cyberspace, which similarly advocated for “prosperity, security and, openness.” But in fact, this statement is a core component of China’s International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace, released earlier this year. The strategy advocates for openness, when in reality China’s digital policy is the opposite.
Similarly, at the 2015 World Internet Conference Chinese President Xi Jinping noted,
Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom. We should respect internet users’ rights to exchange ideas and express their minds and we should also build good order in cyberspace in accordance with [the] law as it will help protect the legitimate rights and interests of all internet users.
China is using terms, phrases, and forums that historically have been the purview of the United States, except with a completely different playbook and objectives.
Under the pretense of promoting an open and secure internet, China is also gaining traction as the leading global advocate against other countries’ surveillance and interference. Shortly after the publication of China’s National Cybersecurity Strategy, news of the Wikileaks Vault 7 data dump, which purportedly revealed widespread U.S. hacking capabilities, spread across the globe. China quickly voiced opposition to what it portrayed as America’s massive surveillance and intrusion campaigns. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged “the U.S. side to stop listening in, monitoring, stealing secrets and internet hacking against China and other countries.” China responded similarly to the WannaCry ransomware attack, blaming the United States for the global attack due to the ransomware’s reliance on the Eternal Blue exploit, which was released as part of a Shadow Broker’s data dump.
This charm offensive masks the reality of China’s authoritarian control over information and ideas, and is completely orthogonal to a free internet. Domestically, China’s strategy entails the Great Firewall, the country’s system for controlling internet access and content. According to Freedom House, China’s “information security” policy ranks the country as the globe’s worst abuser of internet freedoms. From criminalizing the online spread of “rumors” to additional prosecutions for online expression to blocking news outlets, China ranks last in internet freedoms for the second year running and has remained at that level of censorship since the Freedom House study began in 2009. China’s online censorship of a train crash in 2011, coupled with leaked documents directing journalists not to investigate, is indicative of a multi-pronged strategy to divert attention away from and censor the event.
More recently, Tencent, a Chinese social media company, just overtook Wells Fargo to become the tenth most valuable publicly traded company in the world. It has achieved this level of growth with substantial government intervention and in turn, Tencent censors WeChat keywords and images within China in accordance with government requests. Chinese authorities use censorship and diversion to promote a favorable narrative, flood out negative critiques, and exaggerate the government’s role in economic innovation and growth. While Russia has understandably dominated the news for its propaganda expertise, China’s false narrative as the global leader in internet freedom may have even more far-reaching and long-term global consequences.
Taking the Domestic Strategy Global
China has brought its domestic approach to information control to the global stage, justifying its actions using the language of self-defense, self-determination, and the right to control information within its boundaries. This approach, known as cyber sovereignty, seeks complete government control of the internet, including economic, social, and political information. Ostensibly this control remains within sovereign boundaries, but in reality the strategy has global reach and targets. Cyber attacks such as those associated with the Great Cannon, which targeted users of specific sites to launch a DDoS attack against GitHub, are one example of the combination of censorship and offensive attacks against foreign targets. China has also aimed its propaganda resources outside its borders, such as at Taiwan and foreign newspapers, to shape narratives, while conducting cyber attacks against Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. Data theft of personally identifiable information (e.g. the OPM hack) and intellectual property from commercial organizations (e.g. stealing research from U.S. Steel and Lockheed Martin blueprints for the F-22 and F-35) are an additional example of China’s global cybersecurity behavior. Finally, China’s recent cybersecurity law, which requires governmental access to source code and data of foreign products, has been portrayed as a way to protect personal privacy, but leaves many international corporations concerned about intellectual property theft and invasion of personal privacy. All this, despite China’s supposed calls for “openness and cooperation […] in cyberspace.”
The cyber sovereignty model contrasts with the multi-stakeholder model advocated by the U.S. and its allies. This latter approach focuses on building a resilient, open, and secure global internet that respects individual liberties and privacy through global cooperation and the establishment of norms about what activities and targets are off-limits for attacks. Following the Shadow Brokers and Vault7 dumps, the multi-stakeholder approach has certainly had setbacks, as its proponents struggle to find the right balance between security and privacy. Nevertheless, the two models reflect very distinct visions of the internet’s future: on one hand, control of information through hard censorship, propaganda, and information control at any expense and at any target, and on the other, a free flow of information and a focus on data protection, openness, and identification of what actions are not permissible. This has significant implications not only for a free and accessible internet, but also for democratic versus authoritarian institutions. As Alexander Klimburg describes in his recent book The Darkening Web, “Ultimately, the goal for Cyber-sovereignty stalwarts Russia and China is simply a reconceptualization of the entire Western-defined global order.”
It’s important to note that China’s global charm offensive is not limited to cybersecurity. For example, while Xi has publicly advocated for globalization and free trade, his government continues to pursue China-first development, focusing on indigenous innovation and state ownership of key enterprises. Similarly, at January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi made a strong case for globalization and free trade, just as the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and argued that a trade war is in no one’s interest. Xi’s speech marked the first time a Chinese head of state has spoken at the global forum, and was noteworthy in encouraging global cooperation that would have been unthinkable for a previous Chinese leader.
A similar trend emerges with China’s statements regarding climate change and its aspirations to be perceived as the leader in renewable energy. Although China has taken major steps to limit emissions and be a leader of green energy, it remains the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide. Yet it questions whether other countries are doing enough, jumping into this leadership role just as the United States abandons the Paris Agreement. This trend is consistent across multiple areas, and illustrates the gap between rhetoric and actions for an authoritarian government focused on domestic stability while aspiring to attain global prestige.
Filling the Global Leadership Vacuum
China’s cyber sovereignty model is worryingly gaining traction as the United States signals potential global retrenchment and struggles to shape a coherent cybersecurity strategy. Previously, U.S. leaders spearheaded efforts for greater internet freedoms and stability at international governmental forums such as the United Nations and G20. For instance, U.S. State Department leadership played a key role in the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts, pushing forth and defining norms for acceptable behavior in cyberspace. The United States has also led bilateral efforts to define which targets are off-limits, including the agreement with China against the theft of commercial intellectual property, which has since been replicated between other countries. Despite the lack of compliance mechanisms, these were strong efforts to create global cyber norms. The United States has been the key proponent of internet diffusion and openness around the globe, but this role is now waning due to both external forces and domestic policies.
Many question the United States’ continued commitment to internet freedoms and privacy in light of foreign interventions, such as the Snowden revelations, Russia’s propaganda machine aimed at undermining democracy and weakening trust in U.S. government institutions, and the Vault 7 and Shadow Brokers data dumps. Each of these helps China justify a cyber sovereignty model ostensibly aimed at eliminating external influence.
Similarly, worrisome U.S. legislation such as the proposed Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act would permit “persistent unauthorized intrusion” by private entities (i.e. corporations or even private individuals), allowing them to access “without authorization the computer of the attacker to the victim’s own network.” This “hacking back” proposal contains great escalatory risks for conflict and negative implications for privacy. Legalizing access in this way can be interpreted as an attempt to justify some vast surveillance network or offensive campaign, and sends the wrong signal globally and domestically. Similarly, the latest anti-privacy joint resolution to allow internet service providers to sell customer data without consent will greatly undermine net neutrality, and provides additional fodder to authoritarian regimes seeking to undermine U.S. interests.
As U.S. soft power declines, China is quickly filling the vacuum by portraying itself as the global advocate for internet security and stability, with many countries adopting aspects of China’s cyber sovereignty model. We have already seen authoritarian regimes such as Iran, North Korea, and Russia replicate many aspects of China’s approach. In addition, countries from Brazil to Egypt to South Korea have all seen a rise in censorship, indicative of the practice’s global growth, which Freedom House reports has been on the rise for six years in a row. Similarly, the Mexican government was recently accused of using spyware to target domestic opposition and civil society. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has his own keyboard army of online trolls to control the domestic narrative and drown out opposition. And in Sudan, government-affiliated hacker group Electronic Jihad employs domestic surveillance to counter opposition and uprisings.
These countries may have individually reached similar conclusions regarding the desire for information control, but China’s well-publicized activities to gain information control give the cybersovereignty model legitimacy. At a minimum, they contribute to the decision process of other leaders who see the strategy succeed in consolidating domestic control. As internet freedom advocate Peter Micek notes,
A lot of governments would like to follow China’s lead, and exercise if not complete control then effective control over the boundaries of what people can say and do online.
In short, despite the protests within China, China’s lesson to the world is this: Censorship, surveillance, and propaganda are effective at maintaining domestic stability.
Shining City on a Hill?
The United States remains mired in countering the fallout from WikiLeaks and Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns. It is also pivoting resources domestically, stepping back from various global forums that are key venues for exerting soft power and democratic values. The anticipated closing of the cyber division within the State Department and the resignation of Christopher Painter, the U.S. State Department’s top cyber diplomat and longtime advocate for internet openness, only reinforces this retrenchment in the area of internet freedom.
China appears to be well aware of the growing global leadership vacuum and is taking the opportunity to spread government control of the digital domain, all under the auspices of a free and open internet. To counter these trends, the United States must work to ensure its domestic policies reflect its commitment to online freedom. Instead of pulling away from international forums, the United States should remain a prominent player in shaping global cooperation and build on its legacy to help actively shape and promote a free internet. Absent this leadership, cyber sovereignty is likely to continue its expansion and threaten not only digital freedoms, but also democracy across the globe.
Andrea Little Limbago is the Chief Social Scientist at Endgame, where she researches the intersections across geopolitics, cybersecurity, and data science, and directs the company’s technical content. She has previously worked in academia and at the Department of Defense. Andrea earned a PhD in Political Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she taught international relations and foreign policy courses.