Chinese Influence Operations: Part II of Hack and Hype at Scale

Chinese Influence Operations: Part II of Hack and Hype at Scale

By Stephen H. Campbell

This is Part II of a two-part series on China. Part I focused on Chinese theft of US intellectual property. Part II explores Chinese influence operations.

For decades since the Chinese Communist Revolution the world has become accustomed to a soothing rhetoric of peace and harmony emanating from China’s leaders: “amity and sincerity”, “mutual benefit and inclusiveness”, “a community of common destiny for mankind”. The “peaceful rise of China” has been accompanied by a diplomatic strategy with an emollient quality: “The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” and claims by China that it is the champion of other developing nations around the world. China’s messaging has been shaped in large part by Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy of nonconfrontation and his mantra “Hide your brightness and bide your time”.

Don’t be taken in. It is easy to forget that subversion and manipulation of speech are still core competencies of a Communist state. In a manner akin to the former USSR, Beijing’s use of peace-and-prosperity rhetoric is designed to smooth the way for the advancement of its geopolitical power. In hindsight many countries in the developing world now see such bland slogans for what they really are: euphemisms for the debt trap of Chinese financing, the replacement of the US alliance system with Chinese-led regional security groupings, and the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party in “Belt and Road“ ports and cities throughout Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean Region.

Targeting think-tanks, universities, media, and government institutions around the globe, Chinese influence operations have sought to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese government and to amplify positive messaging about China, while hiding Chinese intent to apply economic and military coercion to gain the acquiescence of local populations. When potentially damaging criticism of the Chinese government has arisen, China has mobilized quickly to censor or neutralize the criticism. Nevertheless, despite the deceptive veneer, Chinese influence operations to-date have been largely defensive and non-antagonistic, certainly in comparison to Russia’s aggressive efforts to delegitimize Western institutions and widen schisms within Western society.

No longer. Taking a page out of the Russian disinformation playbook, the Chinese Communist Party has recently become far more aggressive in its use of offensive information warfare, shaping new narratives rather than simply censoring information. These new narratives combine all four quadrants of the deception matrix, concealing and revealing both fact and fiction. They exploit Western freedom of speech to the full by incorporating current Western events and conspiracy theories that are spun to Chinese advantage. For example, Chinese disinformation operatives have recently seized upon US footage of police actions during the protests inspired by the death of George Floyd to create a moral equivalence to the suppression of protesters in Hong Kong.    

The Party’s information strategy involves overt and covert means. Overtly, the Party gets its message out through official and unofficial channels. Official statements are reported through the PRC news agency, Xinhua, and the PRC newspaper, the People’s Daily. They are also pushed out through the Party’s nationalistic tabloid, the Global Times, and through the heavily funded foreign-facing China Global Television Network, China’s equivalent to Russia’s RT. President Xi Jinping demands “absolute loyalty” from these outlets, as he explained to Chinese media workers in 2016:

“The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name [sic….] All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity. They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics, and action”.  

Unofficial statements carry the advantage of plausible deniability. Although Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the Great Firewall, China’s diplomats around the world use these platforms to get out in front of rapidly changing international narratives. According to the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard run by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, China has nearly doubled its Twitter output during the COVID-19 information war, increasing the number of diplomatic Twitter accounts to 135 from just 40 accounts a year ago. There is some cross-pollination between the official and unofficial statements. The following examples serve to illustrate.

March 12, 2020, Zhao Lijian, a deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, accused the US Army – without evidence – of bringing COVID-19 to Wuhan. The accusation was shared by over a dozen diplomats on Twitter. A day later Zhao tweeted an article titled “Further evidence that the virus originated in the US” by the Canadian Center for Research for Globalization claiming that the US military germ laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, may have been the original source of the virus. The center is known for advancing conspiracy theories on topics such as 9/11, vaccines and global warming. Chinese diplomats were still spreading the Fort Detrick conspiracy theory two months later. See the tweet on May 8, 2020 by Hua Chunying, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

On March 25th, 2020, the official online newspaper, the Global Times, reported on the videos of a so-called “investigative journalist” in the US citing unnamed sources at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital stating that a US Army Reservist competing in the Military World Games in October 2019 had contracted COVID-19 and brought the virus to Wuhan as “patient zero”. The same conspiracy theory was translated into Arabic and aired in the Middle East on China Global Television Network. The “journalist” was actually conspiracy theorist George Webb Sweigert, who has nearly 100,000 followers on YouTube.

The Party’s covert messaging includes a social media campaign involving fake accounts. Between August 2019 and March 2020 ProPublica tracked more than 10,000 fake Twitter accounts involved in a coordinated influence campaign with ties to the Chinese government. The true scale of the campaign was much larger: in early June Twitter removed more than 170,000 accounts related to China-linked influence campaigns. Initially targeting political dissidents and protesters in Hong Kong, the accounts were quickly repurposed to focus on the coronavirus outbreak, becoming cheerleaders for the Chinese government, promoting its image abroad, trumpeting Chinese aid, and lambasting Western politicians for interfering in Chinese affairs.

Many of the fake Twitter accounts were automatically generated using fake profile photos and usernames. These accounts were used for liking, retweeting or commenting on tweets from real accounts with real histories which had been hacked and taken over. Eye-catching posts with provocative memes or videos were tweeted from these core accounts and amplified by the fake accounts. Hack and Hype. Of the accounts taken down by Twitter, 23,750 were core accounts and 150,000 were “amplifier” accounts. In some cases, owners of core accounts with large followings were bribed to tweet the desired content. Hacked accounts included a professor in North Carolina, a graphics artist and mother in Massachusetts, a web designer in the UK, and a business analyst in Australia.

Between March 13th and 15th, 2020, a particularly aggressive conspiracy theory was spread using Facebook, the online message 4chan, and text messages, warning that the US was about to go into lockdown. Once again, Chinese agents did not create the original messages. Rather, they scoured Western media for conspiracy theories, which they pushed out using fake accounts to sympathetic Americans, who in turn unwittingly spread them. One set of messages indicated that President Trump was about to invoke the Stafford Act to shut down the country. Another set of messages indicated he was going to deploy the US military across the country while imposing a one-week nationwide quarantine.  The messages became so widespread after 48 hours that the US National Security Council had to issue an announcement on Twitter that they were “FAKE”.   

 What’s behind such a sea change in Chinese information policy? Some argue that China is simply counterpunching, that China did not throw the first blow. While President Trump initially praised President Xi’s handling of the pandemic, he did turn to blame China once the impact of the outbreak on the US started to become clear. Trump’s labeling of SARS-CoV-2 the “China Virus” on March 10th may well have initiated a tit-for-tat blame game that abated only slightly one month later when a tentative truce was reached with President Xi Jinping over the public sniping.

Still, there is evidence that Chinese operations to influence international opinion about the pandemic were already in full swing. On February 3, 2020, recognizing the potential for an enormous global backlash, President Xi Jinping gave a publicized speech to the Politburo Standing Committee in which he urged the Party to “take the initiative and effectively influence international public opinion”. China’s premier think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was tasked with developing a coherent multi-channel strategy to respond to Western, particularly US-based media criticism of the CCP’s handling of the pandemic. Covert components of the strategy appear to have been outsourced by the United Front Work Department, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party responsible for foreign influence operations, to a Beijing-based internet marketing company called OneSight.

There is also evidence suggesting the change to a more aggressive information policy is not just confined to the “Trump Effect” or to containing reputational damage from the pandemic. Already in 2019, President Xi Jinping was calling on his diplomats to show more “fighting spirit” and to take a tougher stance in the face of deteriorating relations with the US. Clearly, young and upcoming diplomats like Zhao Lijian were more than ready to answer the call. All told, what we are witnessing in the information space may be more of a Maoist strategic counteroffensive than a tactical counterpunch.

China analysts are observing a new generation of anti-Western diplomatic hawks who have come of age in an era of hyper-nationalism and who are challenging the restraint that has long characterized the country’s engagement with the world. The new pugnacious style is sometimes labeled “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”, after the country’s highest-grossing film of all time, in which Chinese special forces fight and prevail against African rebels led by American mercenaries. It seems that these young hawks are encouraging their disinformation colleagues to exchange best practices with their counterparts in Moscow via dedicated diplomatic channels and forums.  

To fully understand China’s shift to a more aggressive information policy, we must first acknowledge that China is a counterintelligence one-party state. Because the Chinese Communist Party does not enjoy the free consent of the governed, it expends enormous effort spying on and controlling its own people, at home, in the disputed territories within its sphere of influence, and abroad. China spends almost as much on internal security as it does on its military. Its program of social control includes the social credit system, media censorship, internet policing, the Confucius Institutes, secret detentions and the suppression of human rights.

It complements these measures with indoctrination: patriotic education, reeducation camps, and ongoing auto-propaganda. An analysis of China’s covert Twitter campaign by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute concluded that the campaign’s major objective was to reach Chinese-speaking audiences outside of the Chinese mainland, with the intention of influencing perceptions on key issues, including the Hong Kong protests, exiled Chinese billionaire Gui Wengo, and, to a lesser extent, COVID-19 and Taiwan.  It turns out that the #1 target of Chinese influence operations abroad is the Chinese diaspora, the 50 million “Overseas Chinese” who are potential agents of influence or espionage. The Chinese Communist Party’s information operations are designed first and foremost to keep their own nationals motivated to spread their propaganda and to steal Western intellectual property. Hack and Hype comes full circle.                    

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