Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Chris Wozniak is an independent analyst. He holds a BA in Political Economy from the University of Washington. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  China is seeking to reclaim their historical role in Asia. Under current international norms this is seen as revisionist by the United States which holds the post World War 2 system as the status quo.

Date Originally Written:  July 31, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  October 21, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the United States seeking options that erode Chinese influence abroad and interfere with China’s ability to reassert historical tools of influence.

Background:  The steady rise of China’s relative power on the international stage has placed it in competition with the United States and the international system of which the U.S. is the steward and chief stakeholder. While the international system is currently Westphalian in flavor, a resurgent China sees the world in starkly different terms. Traditional Chinese political philosophy took the view that their place in the world was as the center of a system based on influence and coercion. Today, China seeks to restore this system through the Belt and Road Initiative which extracts resources, establishes leasing agreements, and enhances influence abroad with the intent to secure resources and control commercial flows.

Significance:  Expansion of Chinese influence abroad presents a challenge to the interests and values of the United States. U.S. politics and business interests have often compromised diplomatic initiatives while military options remain prohibitively costly. A third path may be found in covert actions designed to subvert the information control that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership enjoys domestically and deprive them of access to technologies that support force projection.

Option #1:  The U.S. undermines Chinese ambitions abroad by creating diversionary doubt at home. This diversionary doubt would create an environment for political dissent by targeting CCP social control mechanisms.

A U.S. cyber campaign designed to delete or corrupt data in the Social Credit System administered by the People’s Bank of China is launched to reduce the level of scrutiny the population is under. Simultaneously, the U.S. promotes awareness or access to tools that circumvent information controls to break the information monopoly of the CCP.

Risk:  Chinese citizens have an extreme aversion to foreign interference rooted in China’s historical experience with Western powers. Coupled with the intense focus the CCP has on maintaining political orthodoxy, any discovery of meddling with Chinese domestic sphere would elicit severe consequences in diplomatic relations, trade, and military postures in the region. The sophistication that a cyber operation would require to disrupt, let alone cripple the PRC Social Credit program – and undermine its credibility in the same manner as the anti-Maduro TeamHDP attack on Venezuela’s much less robust social credit system did – would implicate the United States[1]. Moreover, tools such as virtual private networks for circumventing China’s Great FireWall (GFW) as an information barrier is publicly known information that most technically unsophisticated individuals can use.

Gain:  The obsession of the CCP on assuring the pervasiveness of the party in Chinese life would mean that even an unsuccessful Option #1 would likely result in extensive efforts to preserve the status quo information environment. Any subsequent diversion of resources into domestic programs fraught with difficulties would put other ambitions abroad on hold until a level of control was re-established. Any discovery of responsibility for the cyberattacks could be explained away as analogous to the Chinese theft of Office of Personnel Management data in 2015 to mitigate blowback.

Covert action aiming to lower barriers to foreign information would further roll back controls over China’s population. Undermining the GFW by promoting circumvention as a gateway to electronic gaming, sports broadcasts, and other media in demand but blocked in China is one promising area of focus. An estimated 768 million gamers are projected for China by 2022[2]. Enabling access by a growing population that trends young presents an opportunity to influence a substantial slice of the population with narratives that run counter to those government censors allow.

Option #2:  The U.S. subverts Chinese progress towards the military-industrial base that is needed for power projection.

A prerequisite to Chinese ambition abroad is establishing the military-industrial base to sustain economic growth and project power. The rapid development of China’s industry has been facilitated by student programs, scientific exchanges, forced technology transfer, and industrial espionage. Espionage has proven particularly difficult for western counterintelligence to manage because of their scale and persistence. A covert action program to feed disinformation to Chinese collectors engaged in industrial espionage could hinder development of the military-industrial base so critical to Chinese ambitions.

Risk:  Successful implementation may prove difficult in the face of robust efforts by Chinese collectors and vetting of the information by intelligence customers. The Ministry of State Security (MSS) aggressively recruits students to spy for China before they go abroad. If even one percent of the estimated 360,000 students who study in the United States are recruited, that means there are 3,600 potential long term agents seeking sensitive information[3]. The challenge increases when control of an agent is given to the Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense also known as COSTIND whose agents are technically educated and more likely to detect misinformation. The impact of any program designed to deceive China will be potentially limited in scope to sensitive technologies being developed in the United States in order to maintain the credibility of the deception and make vetting of information more difficult. This makes for a risky gamble when the ideal approach to managing sensitive information is to reveal nothing at all.

Gain:  Deception could prove a more cost effective approach than the predominant mindset of reactive counterintelligence predicated on scrutiny of potential foreign agents. Potential espionage by Chinese students alone already invalidates this approach due to personnel requirements. By dangling bait in the form of falsified technical information sensitive industries and facilities, the United States can reverse the benefits of large unsophisticated espionage efforts and take a preventative approach. If coordinated with Allied intelligence services of countries suffering from similar intellectual property theft the effects of a deception campaign would be magnified. The MSS would doubtless struggle to adapt if caught up in a sea of misinformation.

Other Comments:  None of these options are decisive factors in competition between the United States and China but should prove useful in preparing the battlefield prior to any confrontation.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Berwick, A. (2018, November 14). How ZTE helps Venezuela create China-style social control. Retrieved June 4, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/venezuela-zte

[2] Takahashi, D. (2018, May 7). Niko Partners: China will surpass 768 million gamers and $42 billion in game revenue by 2022. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://venturebeat.com/2018/05/07/niko-partners-china-will-surpass-1-billion-gamers-and-42-billion-in-game-revenue-by-2022

[3] Trade war: How reliant are US colleges on Chinese students? (2019, June 12). Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48542913