Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare
Disinformation studies have been engaged in a pivot to Asia. A growing number of scholars and governmental experts around the globe who were once fixated on Russian operations are now increasingly concerned with Chinese operations, especially since the beginning of the Hong Kong crisis. The danger in this evolution is looking at China through a Russian lens, an already widespread mistake. As J. Michael Cole rightly noticed, “Applying the Russian model to the PRC’s efforts would be both misleading and dangerous as we seek to counter its more nefarious impact.” Both cases are very different, and any intellectually rigorous analysis encompassing both should start by contrasting them.
A great effort has been made in that direction already, with many publications focusing on such a comparison. In the first installment of War on the Rocks’ “Ministry of Truth” series, Peter Mattis convincingly demonstrated that three distinctions differentiated the Russian and Chinese approaches to influence operations, illustrated with many historical examples: set-piece operations vs. playing the man; service-led vs. service-facilitated operations; and agents of influence vs. influenced agents. However, there are three reasons to come back at it in order to complement this model: First, if this helps to explain how different strategic cultures sedimented, it does not reflect the current geopolitics, i.e., the differences between Russia and China in terms of power, strategic priorities, and image projection on the international stage. Second, much work has been done on influence operations in general, but much less on the information manipulation segment of it — this is sometimes and could here rightly be called “information warfare,” because this is how both Russia and China see it. And third, as it has been two years since Mattis’ model, in a fast-moving field, an update could also be useful.
Some Things in Common, Many Things Not
There are obviously some commonalities: Both China and Russia see influence operations, including disinformation, as a normal activity. Both are using such operations domestically, to suppress dissent and control what people think, even though they are doing it differently: Russia and China actually represent two different models of domestic control of information — the former based on manipulation and the latter on censorship — and these two different models of “digital authoritarianism” are exported. Moreover, both consider this activity as a part of normal politics, while Western democracies tend to limit it to a wartime activity.
However, there are important differences as well. First, their position in the world: China is stronger than Russia and fights from a dominant position, with many other levers, including money (economic incentives, corruption). Most of the time, it does not need to resort to disinformation to influence. Also, benefiting from the current world order, China’s goal is not to break it, but to shape it. And the Chinese leaders believe time is on their side, so they can practice strategic patience.
Russia, on the other hand, is weaker. A declining power, it does not have many levers against others and therefore resorts to weakening them internally, to lower them to its level. Not benefiting from the current world order, it is disruptive; and not knowing what its future will look like, it does not have time on its side and is, therefore, more proactive and prone to risk. In other words and from an American perspective, Russia is a rogue, while China is a peer.
This first difference is exemplified in this quote from Rob Joyce, the National Security Agency’s senior cybersecurity adviser: “I kind of look at Russia as the hurricane. It comes in fast and hard. China, on the other hand, is climate change: long, slow, pervasive.”
Second, another difference is their ethos: Even though it clearly and often acts immorally (as the world has witnessed in Xinjiang and Hong Kong), China is more preoccupied with its moral image (respectability) on the international stage, being a good global citizen, as demonstrated in its commitment to peacekeeping operations, its reaction to the “responsibility to protect” concept (reinterpreting it rather than just rejecting it), the deployments of the Daishan Dao hospital ship (Peace Ark), its “new role as a global climate change mitigation champion,” etc. This ethos even prompted Beijing to request the main Chinese banks to enforce Western sanctions on Russia in order to demonstrate its willingness to accommodate the United States. Therefore, the Chinese Communist Party is more reluctant to use certain methods potentially presenting a greater reputational risk, like hack-and-leak operations (the Guo Wengui 郭文贵 case could be one of the few exceptions): It hacks a lot, and so accumulate an enormous amount of data, but contrary to the Russian state, Chinese agencies do not yet engage in hack-and-leak, “kompromat” operations. When they do engage in reputationally risky operations, they are extra careful and value plausible deniability: Beijing’s success “relies on its ability to keep its actions hidden.”
Russia, on the other hand, not only cares less about its reputation (it has less to offer but also less to lose), but on the contrary it cultivates an image of a strong state using security and military with audacity, and given the worldwide reputation of its intelligence services, it can always use the “too obvious” argument to deny.
Third, they are differentiated by their targets. China’s target is more specific: It is mainly its diaspora, the “overseas Chinese community” conceived in a broad manner (and which in itself is similar to Russia’s approach of its “compatriots abroad”). All ethnic Chinese, no matter if they have been nationals of Canada, Australia, or France for several generations, are considered Chinese and therefore a target of influence. This includes even those whose Chinese origin is ancient and partial, as demonstrated by the case of the Musqueam Amerindian population in Canada (whose reserve extends to the very city of Vancouver): Because in the 19th century, some Chinese workers had children with Musqueam women, and so part of the current population is of mixed ancestry, Beijing invites them to visit China to discover their “roots,” and reciprocally sends Chinese students to visit the Musqueam reserve.
In general, the most at-risk populations among the diaspora are (in descending order): newcomers (not yet connected to the host country); older generations that are unintegrated (those who do not speak English, for example — however, at the same time they are online less and therefore less vulnerable to online falsehoods); and those with business relationships with mainland China.
Although the Chinese diaspora is often portrayed as a vehicle of Beijing’s influence (and sometimes even as a fifth column), Peter Mattis has shown that it is also seen as a potential threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly of power. The Chinese diaspora is indeed in the strongest position, through its grasp of cultural codes, to spread liberal ideas in China and thereby compromise the longevity of the regime. It is therefore critical for the party to impose control of the narrative on China first within the diaspora.
Russia, on the other hand, in its main interference cases — for example, the American and French elections — targeted the general population, and more specifically some political and ideological parts of it (far-right, far-left, anti-Europe, anti-NATO, etc.). It is no coincidence that such operations happened in deeply divided and polarized societies. As Puma Shen (沈伯洋) puts it, “It’s not that Russia is hardworking, it’s that the countries it seeks to influence have certain political fault lines.” Russia is of course also targeting its diaspora in countries where it counts, in Latvia or Ukraine, for instance, but it has a broader target of attention.
Fourth, another difference — and a consequence of the previous point — is the narrative: Being mostly preoccupied with its image, China is egocentric or narcissist. Its efforts focus on positive messaging (why China is great and non-threatening) and on controlling the narratives from the “five poisons” (五毒) (Taiwanese, Uighurs, Tibetans, Falungong and pro-democratic activists). On the other hand, Russia stopped prioritizing positive messaging in 2009 after the Georgian war, when it realized it was not working, and focused instead on negative messaging: Its goal is not to convince others that Russia is great, but that their Western society is decadent, weak, divided, etc. In other words, China is mainly engaged in self-promotion, while Russia focuses on discrediting others.
Finally, another distinction could be that in foreign and security policy, as in other areas, the Chinese administration suffers from greater fragmentation and dysfunctionalities, which limit its effectiveness: a plethoric multiplication of offices and agencies at all levels of the state, administrative redundancy, lack of coordination, recurrent conflicts of jurisdiction, difficulty in controlling the application of central directives at the local level, competition for access to resources, etc. Information warfare is no exception to this trend, and the evidence gathered on the ground reveals obvious divergences in the interests and strategies of the various Chinese actors involved, when they are not simply in competition with each other.
However, these difficulties being common in most bureaucracies around the globe, the same could be said about Russia, where security and intelligence services are also overlapping and competing with each other, leading to turf wars. Therefore, the difference may be one of degree — in particular due to the specific trajectory of state formation in China — but probably not of nature.
In any case, all the previous points make it clear that we should not look at Chinese disinformation with Russian glasses. Overall, that is because China has “a holistic approach in which language and messaging are used in tandem with other elements of statecraft, including diplomatic, military and economic efforts.” That holistic approach, sometimes called “comprehensive engagement,” makes it difficult, in practice, to distinguish specific “information warfare” cases from the more general group of influence operations to which they belong. For that reason, most of the conversation on China deals with elite capture, corruption of many kinds, or the use of students as agitators or for intelligence purposes, which is certainly related to but different from information warfare strictly speaking.
As far as information warfare is concerned, examples go from buying Chinese-speaking media all over the world (Beijing controls probably 95 percent of the Chinese-language media content — therefore pro-China — in the West), to paying local lobbying firms (as the Karen Woods affair revealed in Canada), to the production of fake pictures (like the one of a Chinese bomber flying near Taiwan’s Jade Mountain) and videos spreading fake news (like the one from a journalist claiming that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party are selling Taiwan to Japan).
An increasingly studied aspect of it is the use of social media, WeChat in particular, which is interesting for a couple of reasons: Its use is increasing among non-Chinese speakers (politicians willing to reach some of their constituencies, or agreeing to use it to please their Chinese counterparts when they travel to China); the Chinese government has a backdoor on it and removes the content it does not like, even in private, closed groups; and Beijing uses WeChat as a vector to reach Chinese communities overseas. In France, for example, United Front agents used WeChat to mobilize the population of Chinese origin during the last presidential election (without giving a voting instruction yet, which can be interpreted as a way to test the efficacy of the channel before using it for real) or in favor of demonstrations, like after the death of Liu Shaoyao (刘少尧).
The “Russianization” of Chinese Operations
The use of social media is also interesting in the comparison between China and Russia. Beijing has many more means at its disposal, including the so-called 50-cent army (五毛党) of hundreds of thousands of trolls. Great numbers give an advantage in terms of dissimulation because they make it possible to put a real human in charge of one or a few social media accounts, and make it easier to mimic genuine social behavior, rendering detection more difficult.
Another difference is that China has indigenous means: Its platforms such as WeChat but also TikTok (international version of Douyin 抖音短视频) are increasingly used all over the world, including in the West. The Russian indigenous platform VK, on the other hand, is not very popular outside the Russian-speaking world, so Russian operations have mostly used Western platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which they master perfectly. For a long time, China has been clumsy on Twitter and Facebook, because of a lack of experience (they are banned in China), but this is changing rapidly. China is increasingly comfortable on those Western platforms, just like it is increasingly targeting a wider audience than just its diasporas, as demonstrated by the growing number of Chinese propaganda outlets published in a number of foreign languages (Global Times, China Daily, CGTN, Xinhua, etc.). This way, they are also reducing the behavioral gap between China and Russia.
Another symptom of convergence is the fact that Chinese ops gradually incorporate more aggressive Russian-like techniques. Initially, the Chinese trolling factory, fabricating half a billion social media comments a year (2017 estimate), did not engage in controversial issues, its goal being “to distract the public and change the subjects, as most of these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime.” And that was an important difference from Russia’s St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency troll farm, for example, which exclusively engaged in sowing division abroad, fueling anger on the most polemical issues. However, more recent cases showed that Chinese trolls changed their behavior and became more aggressive. In the cases of Taiwan and, more recently, Hong Kong, mainland China has been resorting to negative messaging and Russian-like techniques, as Jake Wallis explains: “there was something familiar about the playbook: cross-platform coordinated networks of fake and automated accounts amplifying messages designed to mobilise online audiences and drive offline effects.”
Some of these campaigns (出征, a term used for military campaigns) are led by a powerful Weibo group called Diba (帝吧), which conducted attacks against the Facebook page of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016, a Swedish TV station in 2018 (because of a show that “insulted China”), and, more recently, played a significant role in attacking the supporters of the Hong Kong protests in a campaign known as “the Diba military expedition to defend Hong Kong” (帝吧出征守护香港). The banner of the group is: “When Diba sets off on a military expedition, not even a blade of grass grows” (帝吧出征，寸草不生). These actions originating from mainland China show the ambivalence of internet censorship: As much as Beijing wants its population to be contained within its Great Firewall, it also needs these patriotic trolls to be able to bypass it (“to jump the wall,” 翻墙) to reach their targets in the outside world. Therefore, it tolerates that Diba provides instructions and technical advice to its troops to leap the Great Firewall using virtual private networks.
It would be a mistake to believe that this change of behavior is somehow linked to and therefore limited to the exceptionality of the Taiwanese and Hong Kong cases. On the contrary, these territories should be viewed as “patient zero,” or laboratories of what China is capable of: They are in the comfort zone of Beijing, which does not consider them as foreign, and is testing there what it will likely gradually apply to the rest of the world, following its concentric circles of interests. Taiwan has long been a unique spot for analysts: “It’s an early place where stuff shows up.” More recently, Hong Kong became a similarly interesting observation deck.
In the West, there are a growing number of signs that China is already working on dividing both externally (in external relations) and internally (within a given society), which is what Russia has been doing for decades. Two examples involving Canada: Externally, surfing on widespread anti-American sentiment, China successfully reframed the Huawei affair as a dispute not between Canada and China, but Canada and the United States (it is Trump’s fault, Canada has been caught in the middle, etc.). Internally, and following the legalization of marijuana, Chinese media (through WeChat) alerted the diaspora about the risk presented by cannabis candies, as an attempt to encourage the Chinese-Canadians’ mistrust of Ottawa, and convince them that their values are closer to those of China than to Canadian decadence.
Taking into account this evolution, it can be said that in any target country, Chinese efforts go in three directions: controlling the diaspora, shaping the national discourse on China, and (to a lesser but increasing extent) dividing both externally and internally.
While China is increasingly drawing inspiration from Russian-style operations, now assuming direct manipulation of information to achieve its political objectives, and while it undoubtedly has the means to carry out large-scale operations, it must be said that they remain, at least for the time being, rather clumsy and unsophisticated. “China isn’t as skillful at disinformation as Russia,” yet. It often takes only a few minutes, and at most, a few hours, to debunk them and to expose their origin.
That being said, Chinese actors are learning from their mistakes (information operations via Twitter in Hong Kong reveal an increased sophistication in just a few weeks). The failures are more associated with human causes (lack of coordination, lack of knowledge of public debates where they operate, vague objectives, etc.) than with a lack of technical control, and we should be concerned about the impact that artificial intelligence and “deepfakes” (an area in which China is making impressive strides) will have on the design of future information operations.
Finally, getting back to the hurricane/climate change metaphor, one can add two remarks. The first is that fighting a hurricane is supposed to be easier than fighting climate change but, as a matter of fact, it is not. While being different in their objectives, style, and methods, Russia is no less a challenge than China. The second is that climate change makes hurricanes more likely, which raises the question of Russia-China interactions on information warfare: To what extent are they emulating, copying each other, or even exchanging good practices, from the Donbass to Hong Kong? There have been reports about Russian media backing Chinese propaganda in Hong Kong, and the two countries’ state-owned outlets having “regular people exchanges” and advocating closer coordination. As the U.S. director of national intelligence noticed in 2019, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” To what extent does such alignment involve formal or informal cooperation in information warfare? That is a question worth investigating.
Dr. Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer (@jeangene_vilmer) is the director of the Institute for Strategic Studies (IRSEM, French Ministry of the Armed Forces) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of the reports Information Manipulation (2018) and The Macron Leaks Operation (2019). Dr. Paul Charon (@PaulCharon) is the head of the “Intelligence and Strategic Foresight” program at IRSEM. A China expert, he worked for more than 10 years as a senior intelligence analyst. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not represent those of any institution to which they are or were affiliated.