Chinese Information Operations : Here and Now by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

One of my articles and associated video, posted on social media was not getting normal traction and views. The other day the posts of a prominent writer on strategic affairs and national security were disappearing. Not surprisingly, both articles were critical of China. We came to know what was happening by chance when we compared notes. I nosed around. There seems to be a clear case where articles critical of China are being suppressed systematically even on international social media like Twitter, WhatsApp, and You Tube.  On the other hand, articles favoring China manage to reach me at hypersonic speeds!  It might sound strange, but to me, a sophisticated operation where information is being suppressed or propagated to influence and condition minds is underway. I thought to myself – welcome to the dark world of Chinese Information and Influence operations which India is being subjected to 24x7x365.


Information operations are powerful tools in hybrid conflicts and ideal for gray zone activities. We need to understand this phenomenon better to be able to counter it. Two recent outstanding articles underscore this issue. Gen Ata Hasnain in his article dwells on the Information Threats to India’s Security    and Ms Tara Kartha describes Chinese Inroads Through Influence Operations. Both these well researched articles have highlighted their arguments with examples. However, they have treated ‘Information’ and ‘Influence’ separately. In this article I will attempt to outline the net effect of the two plus delve into ‘Public Opinion’ and ‘Lawfare’ activities which constitute the other parts of China’s ‘Three Warfare Strategy’.  


Information is the basic ingredient used to build ‘Public Opinion’ and exert ‘Influence’. When these are used in conjunction with existing or specially crafted legal frameworks, it completes China’s Three Warfare Strategy whose cutting edge is salami slicing tactics. This is part of the Chinese full dimensional perspective in multidomain warfare as depicted in the graphic below and explained in detail in my article Disruption in Military Affairs.  Primarily, ‘Influence’ and ‘Information’ operations enable winning a war without fighting or fighting a war without too much kinetics. It is all about conditioning the mind of the opponent so that he feels a loser before fighting and eventually gives a walkover. These operations are most effective when the targets are loose, porous, democratic, and pluralistic by nature.  To that end, India is a vulnerable mark for Chinese ‘Information’ and ‘Influence’ operations. We should also not forget that Pakistan has consistently been using toxic radical ideology to wreak havoc since a long time in India. India is susceptible to such operations, and we must face up to that fact.  


Information used in the ‘here and now mode’ reinforces the truth/destroys it, to portray a picture as it is intended to be seen to mobilize and influence public opinion. Real-time, information-based picture/scenario building results in dynamic cause and effect cycles which can be local but can also escalate to geostrategic levels or vice versa. The way USA has unleashed a torrent of information regarding Russian military movements, co-related it with geopolitical events and synchronized it in time and space sequence has almost unraveled and headed off Ukraine’s full-scale invasion. While the kinetics have just begun, a multidimensional war underpinned by information is being fought in which diplomatic, energy and economic domains have now been factored in by USA and its NATO allies. Russia on the other hand is mostly basing its ‘Information War’ through the land, air, sea, legal and cyber domains.  A similar if not identical set of events was evident during the Sino India clashes at Eastern Ladakh. 


Long-term bombardment by focused ‘Information’ streams starts getting psychologically converted into ‘Influence’.  Information based ‘Influence’ operations condition the mind by using multiple sources of psychological manipulation for achieving a desired outcome or preventing it. Media is just a tool of war in this game. Influencing is the long-term outcome.  Information can be allowed/disallowed to percolate to targets to build an overbearing picture which will cloud the opponents mind and judgement. Such operations are being undertaken by China, proactively to enhance its influence or suppressively to reduce the opponent’s influence. Suppression is the intent to reduce the negativity attributable to China specially when international discourse is subversively interfered with. The other end is halo building through propaganda. China has been routinely doing both these simultaneously. Overall, a larger-than-life halo builds up to influence us to cower down in front of China in due course and reduce us to a sense of hopelessness or apprehension of loss. When we keep getting information, every alternate day, in piecemeal, about China’s, hypersonic ability, size of the navy, launch of a frigate, nuclear expansion, new infrastructure Tibet, new aircraft, a space-based platform, a missile system, a 6G network etc we tend to believe that China has an undefeatable armed force. When this kind of influencing is combined with political coercion, debt trapping, BRI influence, Chinese study centers, and infiltration of think tanks, academic institutions, workers unions, industry, political parties and even government officials, the overall effect is lethal. In addition in plural societies like India,  influence can also be generated from within by exploiting vested interests. Sheer ignorance, lack of awareness and not facing the presented facts tends to weaken the government in a crunch situation. It is the termite principle of generating rot from within. This has been very lucidly highlighted  by Ms Tara Kartha in her article under reference with many home grown examples.

The next effect of ‘Information’ is its simultaneous contribution to ‘Legal (lawfare)’ operations. China’s information releases regarding demographic changes, building border villages, enacting border laws, recruiting locals et al contribute in the long term to Legal warfare against India. Incidentally, lawfare has been recently focused upon by Xi Jinping. He has exhorted China to ‘use legal means to conduct international struggle, move faster on legislation relating to foreign matters, particularly around sanctions and interference and efforts to ensure lawyers voluntarily support the Communist Party and our socialist legal system’. ‘Lawfare’ will be a big tool in the Chinese kit to settle the LAC as per its perceptions in future and it is building to it steadily. 

A large issue in ‘Public Opinion’ and ‘Influence’ operations is use of ideology. China has consistently used hard core communism to create adverse public opinion. The pictures of Indian burning pyres set off against Chinese rockets being fired to highlight the strength of the Chinese communist system vis a vis a weak Indian democracy was disgusting but made its points. It generated nationalism within China to keep its authoritarian system intact. While it had a repulsively detrimental effect, an unsuspecting Indian mind would have fallen prey to it. Projecting hard core communism as a better way of life through all possible means has been a constant endeavor by the Chinese. Pakistan, on the other hand has used radical Islam to effect a generational change in the mindset of the Kashmir valley. The anti-India sentiment which pervades in the Valley is a product of long-term sustained ideological brainwashing through bit streaming misinformation/malicious content. It will take another generation for this kind of deeply ingrained mind sets to be diluted. Look at it anyway. Ideology cannot be defeated kinetically. It must be defeated ideologically. Hence a counter narrative is needed.


When Gen Ata Hasnain opines that ‘the time has come for a cogent and all-inclusive conversation within India’s strategic circles to comprehend how our country can utilise the information domain much better’, he is on the mark. India can ill afford to sit on its haunches or adopt an holier than thou attitude. India needs a  strategy to counter this Chinese tripe.  How do we counter it? First there is a need to understand that in a country like India the fault lines are too many to cement. A certain amount of our population will never be with us. Our laws are too porous, can be sidestepped or twisted. Many rules and regulations which look logical or normal elsewhere are non-enforceable in India. Accept the fact that India’s democracy is too unwieldy to put in an ideal, strict, or rigid system. Hence, we need a different approach.  


Look at the strength of the system. Try what China may, India’s population does not trust or believe what China dishes out. Maximizing this huge positive that India’s people are with it against either China or Pakistan is a great start point. If we can just convey this fact that all Chinese and Pakistani tricks will not work beyond a point, half the battle is won. That is the defensive part. As I had stated earlier, media is a tool of information war. We have a strong media. We need to weaponize it. Very funnily we have structures in place through 

which we can mount an Information campaign. The reach of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is humungous. They must start broadcasting in the right direction with the right content. That can be done only if we have  a strategic communication policy. As suggested  it is ‘perhaps it’s time India looks at a National Strategic Communication Authority, an organisation with multi-disciplinary presence that is then tasked to evaluate information-based threats and evolve India’s Information strategy’. We can hammer out the nitty gritty, we need to accept and implement the principle first. 


You must be wondering as to how it will get executed. Use Democracy. We have not really tapped the power of our diversity and democracy. For example, get hold of some of those innovative politicians from poll bound states who are currently using all the wiles in mounting an ‘Information’ campaign to ‘Influence’ voters. If these hopeful parliamentarians can useinformation and influence operations imaginatively during elections for personal gains why not use their abilities for national purposes. I think it is time to use the ‘dirty dozen’ principle and fight fire with fire. 

PS: The multi domain model configured in my article is standing the test of battlefield realism in the Ukrainian situation! Time India takes it seriously in the Sino-Indian and Indo-Pak context. We need to think about war differently. Otherwise it will cost our nation heavily. I will shortly come out with an analysis as to what lessons we need to drive from the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict. 


2 responses to “Chinese Information Operations : Here and Now by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. Sir, it would seem those who cannot do, talk. In this context, the West cannot do anything on the ground so it propagandizes but that doesn't change the facts on the ground or affect the leadership and people of Russia who are firmly rooted in their civilizational values. This gives some hope that when the time comes to force the issue kinetically on the paper dragon, it too would wilt. We just need to sharpen our swords, build our national sinews and bide our time.

  2. On point as always. Hope the relevant people are taking notes for implementation.

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