India and other countries would do well to study how China employs Media Warfare to try to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions, fracture national unity, demoralize the public and military, and create social instability in pursuit of its goal of annexing this sovereign country.
Alexandria, Va.: In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines”, we speak with Prof Kerry K. Gershaneck. Prof Gershaneck, author of the influential book, Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting”, is a former US Marine officer with extensive national-level experience in strategic communications and counterintelligence.
He has been a Visiting Scholar (Taiwan Fellow) at the National Chengchi University in Taipei for more than three years and was the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Thailand’s Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy and the Royal Thai Naval Academy for six years. We talk to him about the findings in his new book, Media Warfare: Taiwan’s Battle for the Cognitive Domain.
Q: You’ve recently published a book about China’s Media Warfare against Taiwan. What is Media Warfare and how does China’s Media War against Taiwan affect India?
A: Media Warfare is central to China’s goal of achieving totalitarian thought control in its quest for global dominance. Media Warfare involves weaponizing all forms of media to shape public opinion in order to weaken its adversaries’ will to fight while ensuring strength of will and unity on the Chinese Communist Party’s side. To this end, Beijing leverages all instruments that inform and influence public opinion, such as social media, newspapers, radio, movies, television programs, books, video games, education systems, and global media networks.
China’s Media Warfare against Taiwan is expansive. It entails means such as co-opting individual journalists and media organizations, Social Media Warfare that effectively serves as online terrorism, military psychological warfare, election interference, subversion of the education system, purchase of key opinion leaders, and coercion of the business community. Beijing exploits media across these broad fronts to disseminate a wide array of propaganda, misinformation, covert disinformation, and fake news.
India and other democracies will benefit from this book because Taiwan is often the test bed for China’s general Political Warfare operations. Media Warfare is a central pillar of China’s Political Warfare. Consequently, the Media Warfare strategies, tactics, and techniques that China finds effective against Taiwan will eventually be used in other countries. India and other countries would do well to study how China employs Media Warfare to try to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions, fracture national unity, demoralize the public and military, and create social instability in pursuit of its goal of annexing this sovereign country.
Armed with this knowledge and the recommendations in the book, India and democracies worldwide can better detect, deter, counter, and defeat China’s potentially lethal Media Warfare.
Q: How has China employed Media Warfare regarding the Covid-19 pandemic?
A: As the Covid-19 pandemic began to engulf China and the world, Beijing’s global Political Warfare apparatus aggressively attempted to deflect blame for the virus from China. Beijing generated false stories assigning blame for the virus to the United States, and used its media apparatus to discredit, divide, and scare those who attempted to properly investigate the origins of the outbreak. Concurrently, Beijing used the virus to intensify military and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan and attempted to demoralize and panic its people.
Beijing attacked Taiwan on a number of levels. For example, it aimed its Media Warfare apparatus directly at the people of Taiwan, with a disinformation campaign designed to spread panic and undermine support for the Tsai administration’s response to the outbreak. Early on in the pandemic, Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau reported that the vast majority of “fake news” cases in Taiwan related to the pandemic originated from the Peoples Republic of China.
Of particular interest, social media outlets aligned with China tried to use Covid-19 for voter suppression in the national elections in early 2020. For example, the theme of many Facebook postings was “beware getting pneumonia on election day” and “voting is risky.” These “friendly reminders” contained false allegations of a high number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Taiwan, with postings such as “Taiwan’s epidemic is out of control” designed to induce general panic and distrust.
At the military and diplomatic levels, while the world was distracted by Covid-19, Beijing ratcheted up its threats to take Taiwan by force as it massively increased its aviation incursions and other menacing military operations against Taipei. Media Warfare plays an important part of China’s intimidation strategy: Beijing uses its own propaganda to advertise the increased incursions as it conveys its threats and narratives via media coverage within Taiwan and globally.
Regarding military intimidation, one Media Warfare tactic China has employed is to get foreign publications to generate uncertainty and fear that Beijing may be pushed by “nationalist fever” of its citizens to invade Taiwan during this opportune time. This South China Morning Post headline is indicative: “Loud calls on social media urge Beijing to strike while world is busy with coronavirus crisis, but observers say the authorities do not want to be rushed.”
Beijing reinforced this political warfare gambit with a prominently highlighted Global Times article in May 2020 that asserted that, after three decades of Beijing espousing “peaceful re-unification,” the Chinese Communist Party policy no longer called for that reunification to be peaceful. To put a more blunt point to this “news”, Global Times then ominously threatened that military force remains a “final solution” for the worst-case scenario.
Q: How does China use Media Warfare to attack Taiwan’s education system, and those of other democracies?
A: China’s Media Warfare on Taiwan’s education system is, in many ways, similar to the way it attacks education systems in other countries. In addition to co-opting educators and school administrators, China targets Taiwan’s school books.
Books, including textbooks, are media. Through its United Front operations, China has co-opted pro-China “Pan Red” academics in Taiwan to revise public school textbooks to reflect the CCP’s narrative of history and current events. These narratives—such as “Taiwan is a province of China”, “Tibet, including Arunachal Pradesh, has always been a part of China”—are familiar CCP propaganda themes to your readers, who can easily see through the propaganda and dismiss it. However, children are particularly vulnerable to this type of Media Warfare indoctrination via authoritative school textbooks.
It is also important to note that many democracies have allowed the CCP to establish Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and Confucius Institutes (CIS) and related programs. The US alone has roughly 265 CSSAs. These organizations are directed by the Chinese Communist Party, and often work closely with the Ministry of State Security and United Front organizations in Political Warfare operations. The CSSAs and CIs have censored films show on campuses as well as professors and texts critical of China. Even children’s books are targeted for censorship.
Another form of Media Warfare the CCP wages against education systems is to control the research published on China by manipulating China studies programs at key universities. Methods Beijing uses to achieve this include putting pressure on book publishers, printers, and booksellers, co-opting PhD academic advisors, and blackmailing and otherwise co-opting university officials. These pressures, along with other forms of intimidation have resulted in a well-documented pattern of self-censorship at American and Canadian universities and those of many other universities in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America. This constitutes a massive Media Warfare victory for the CCP.
China also employs a concept called Indoctri-tainment to indoctrinate students, through media such as movies, video games, and television programs.
Q: How has China used Social Media Warfare against Taiwan, and how might it do so against India and other democracies?
A: China views Social Media as both a threat from its adversaries and a weapon with which to wage media warfare against its adversaries. It censors Social Media quite heavily internally and, increasingly, globally to reduce the threats Beijing believes Social Media poses.
China’s Social Media Warfare arsenal includes Cyber Attacks, Artificial Intelligence, and a form of Online Terror and Intimidation that employs Trolls who provoke controversy or attack those targeted by the CCP, Sock Puppets which are social media accounts created under false personas that support China’s objectives, Bots that are automated (robot) accounts that amplify information China wants disseminated, Netizens, and the so-called 50-cent Army as well as the large organizations within the PLA.
Taiwan is a prime target for China’s Social Media Warfare. Ironically, Taiwan’s sophisticated technological environment facilitates Beijing’s attacks: Taiwan has one of the highest internet usage and smartphone penetration rates in the world, and one of the fastest Internet speeds in the Asia-Pacific region.
The PLA reportedly has approximately 300,000 soldiers serving with its Strategic Support Force, while more than 2 million Chinese and others are alleged to be members of the “50 Cent Army” that manipulates public opinion and attacks PRC critics and other targets. They spread disinformation, create and/or circulate negative propaganda about Taiwan and other adversaries, propagate fake news, and coerce targeted individuals such as entertainers.
In fact, the careers of entertainers and other key influentials are savagely destroyed by orchestrated online terror attacks if these influencers do not toe China’s line. The CCP is quite clear in what it expects: it has issued edicts ordering members of Taiwan’s showbiz industry to vow to stay “politically correct” in order to be allowed to perform in China. To support the CCP edicts and threats, its online terrorists rapidly deploy trolls, bots, and sock puppets and netizens to swarm targeted individuals and pages, increase share volume, and interfere with algorithms.
In addition, China and its agents “blacklist” popular YouTubers who criticize it, or who have not supported CCP-favoured candidates in Taiwanese elections. In addition, Beijing employs Internet celebrities and other key influentials (some from Taiwan) to wage infiltration campaigns against Taiwan on video platforms or attack certain targets through social media, such as WeChat.
- What is Indoctri-tainment?
A: Indoctri-tainment is a key form of Media Warfare, as it deceptively indoctrinates audiences under the guise of seemingly harmless entertainment. To this end, China employs such mediums as movies, soap operas, and video games to convey the CCP’s narratives.
For example, a recent blockbuster production out of China, The Battle of Changjin Reservoir, is a $200 million propaganda film that glorifies China’s 1950 attack against UN forces fighting in Korea to resist communist North Korean aggressors. The movie, which was financed largely by China’s military and other government entities, has both internal and external Media Warfare objectives. Internally, the film supports Xi Jinping’s efforts to hyper-nationalize the people of China in support of his expansionist agenda—in effect, to prepare them for war. Externally, one key objective is to convince audiences worldwide that China is willing to pay any price to achieve its national objectives, so it is pointless to resist China’s pre-ordained dominance.
Of greater concern, Beijing has co-opted much of the Western film industry. For example, by virtue of the scale of its domestic market, China ensures that Hollywood avoids offending the Chinese Communist Party in any manner. China’s “Enforcers” in Hollywood censor scripts—and intimidate studios and producers to self-censor—so that Hollywood portrays China in a strictly positive light. They quickly edit or outlaw movies that criticize China, even in minor ways, and punish those that fail to obey Beijing wishes.
Examples of how Hollywood has prostituted itself to the CCP’s Enforcers include the soon-to-be-released Top Gun: Maverick, which censored the flags of Japan and Taiwan from the star Tom Cruise’s flight jacket and the remake of Red Dawn (2012), which was digitally edited to make the forces invading America to be North Korean and not Chinese as originally filmed. Ironically, amidst increasing indications that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan lab, the movie World War Z (2013) was censored by China’s Enforcers because the script mentioned that the zombie-producing-virus pandemic originated in China.
Q: What is the scope of China’s investment in Media Warfare?
A: Unfortunately, China does not publicly disclose its annual Political Warfare budget, so analysts must make best guesses regarding China’s malign influence investment. We do know from the evidence readily available that China invests massive time, effort, and funding into its Media Warfare operations. Here are some clues regarding the scope of investment:
First, it’s important to understand that China’s Media Warfare operations are directed from the highest levels of the Party-State apparatus. At the top of the hierarchy is Xi Jinping, who holds the senior-most Party-State leadership titles and is responsible for overall Media Warfare agenda-setting and ideological work. This is quite unlike democracies such as India and the US.
This senior-level Media Warfare oversight ensures that China’s propaganda platforms, such as People’s Daily, China Central Television (CCTV), China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International (CRI), China Daily, Xinhua, and military organizations such as the PLA News Media Center and Strategic Support Force are funded quite well. Conservative estimates are that funding tops at least tens of billions of US dollars a year.
But this funding is only a fraction of Beijing’s investment in its Media Warfare, as indicated by the record $200 million cost of The Battle of Changjin Reservoir and the costs absorbed by supposedly private entities such as TikTok that provide apps that censor smart phones and computers searching for information that China does not like. Other costs mount up as well, such as the roughly $19 million that China Daily paid American newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times for “advertising and printing costs” to carry its propaganda insert China Watch over a recent four-year period. Roughly 30 daily newspapers worldwide publish about 13 million copies of China Watch on a systematic basis.
Calculating the value of the millions of so-called netizens and the cyber army is quite impossible, but its equivalent value is likely worth billions more.
Further, China’s propaganda platforms are active globally, directly in disseminating the CCP’s propaganda but also indirectly by signing content sharing, partnership, and journalist training agreements with news organizations in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. For example, CCTV alone recently provided free video footage and television scripts to 1,700 foreign news organizations and media groups globally over the course of one year.
The outcome? Foreign news media organizations, looking for easy profits or perhaps simple personal payoffs, willingly post Xinhua or CCTV products as their own to their national audiences. Astonishingly, hundreds of millions of news consumers globally read, view, or listen to CCP propaganda on a daily basis, unaware that the CCP originated the report.
Further, journalists provided “training” in China for as long as a year are often co-opted there to serve China’s interests, through such means as bribery, persuasion, sexual enticement, or blackmail. These “journalists” become China’s agents of influence upon return to their countries, better able to convey China’s messages than, say, a Beijing-based propagandist who does not look and speak like a native of the journalist’s home country.
Q: How does the CCP wage Media Warfare to influence the Chinese diaspora outside of China?
A: The worldwide Chinese diaspora is a primary target audience of the CCP and of its United Front and Media Warfare operations. Under Chinese law, overseas Chinese must be loyal to communist China and not their adopted or home countries abroad.
To influence or control media within largely Chinese-speaking audiences, China has established at least five umbrella groups, to include the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (ACFROC), the Chinese International Media Association (CIMA), the Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union (GCMCU), the International Chinese Media Union (ICMU), and the Overseas Chinese Media Cooperation Organization (OCMCO). These umbrella groups act as intermediaries that indoctrinate foreign media outlets and foster their connections with the PRC-CCP party-state.
Specifically, these organizations facilitate the indoctrination of foreign journalists, editors, researchers, and social media influencers. They also provide access to internet- and mobile-based dissemination platforms that upgrade user outlets’ audience reach, and provide free propaganda content and foreign policy statements favourable to Beijing. They cultivate relationships with key individuals in the foreign media hierarchy and invite them to the PRC to be honoured.
In addition, they coordinate the signing of “agreements” that formalize foreign media outlet relations with PRC-CCP propaganda and United Front entities. Member publications must often agree to an umbrella organization policy of “telling China’s story well”—which translates into agreeing to spread the CCP’s ideology and improve the CCP-PRC’s image abroad. Regarding Taiwan, members agree to “positively propagate the political, economic, and social situation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”; this translates into providing the PRC’s narratives such as Taiwan is a “renegade province” that must be “re-united” with the PRC by any means necessary.
It is important to recognize that these umbrella groups do much more than just host foreign journalists to receive direction on propaganda themes and for training sessions and meetings. For example, CGMCU has opened a Global Editorial Office to (in its words) “streamline the organization and production of media content” in print media and new media (internet- and social media-based) publications. It also seeks to integrate overseas Chinese media globally, and it offers free access to foreign outlets that provide page space for its content. The platform is apparently fed by China’s propaganda platform data centres across the globe.
Q: What can democracies like India, Taiwan and the United States do to combat China’s Media Warfare?
A: Democracies must get serious about publicly identifying the Media Warfare threat and systematically confronting it if they want to survive as democracies. This includes the US, so India and other democracies cannot afford to wait until the US regains the capacity and will to fight this battle: they must act now!
A prudent first step is to develop a national strategy to counter general PRC political warfare, with appropriate organization, training, manpower, and funding.
A sound second step is to pass legislation that allows for aggressive prosecution of Media Warfare-related activities in order to diminish the offensive power of PRC news media and social media.
Related to legal prosecution, raise the cost of the PRC’s Media Warfare, both to the CCP organs and to those in our countries that engage in such malign influence or facilitate it. To this end, publicly expose covert and overt PRC political warfare operations on a routine basis.
Finally, democracies must encourage academic study and thesis development at government and public education institutions that focus on PRC Media Warfare and how to detect, deter, counter, and defeat the threat. Strong democracies, such as India and Taiwan, should establish regional centres focused on this study and on regional cooperation in combatting the threat.