SPEAKING FREELY China's cyber warriors a challenge for India
By Abanti Bhattacharya
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NEW DELHI - India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, in a speech to
the National Defense College in New Delhi on November 3, said China posed a new
set of challenges to India with its growing capabilities in outer space and its
frenzied search for new resources. But an equally potent and dangerous
challenge the minister overlooked is the new threat of Chinese
China has in recent times witnessed staggering growth in cyber-nationalism, a
new kind of nationalism with immense and
sometimes dangerous power. This cyber-nationalism could be also described as a
part of China's psychological warfare. It encapsulates the strategy of China's
Sun Tzu (722-481 BC) of defeating the enemy without waging a war.
Illustrating the immense popularity of the Internet in China, Cai Mingzhao, the
vice minister of the State Council Information Office of the People's Republic
of China said on November 6 that the number of Internet users in China is
increasing by 240,000 per day, and that its Internet population would reach 500
million in about three or four years.
China had 210 million Internet users at the end of 2007 and its online
population is likely to become the world's largest by 2008, according to a
recent article by the state-run newspaper Xinhua. Along with these impressive
figures, if overseas netizen groups are also added, then the enormity of
China's global netizen population and its potential impact is incredible.
At present, the Internet plays a key role in promoting Chinese nationalism.
This was particularly discernible in the 2008 Tibetan uprising and the Beijing
Summer Olympic Games in August. On both the occasions, the power and scale of
nationalistic responses of the Chinese spread through Internet chat rooms,
mobile text messages and blogs was eye-catching and unprecedented.
In this Olympic year, when China sought to project its best face,
cyber-nationalism was as an easy tool used by the government to mobilize public
support and shore up party solidarity. It was a powerful medium to tell people
not to forget history and the "century of humiliation" that the West inflicted
on it. It was a tool to portray China as the inheritor of a glorious
civilization and a great ancient power and thereby its present has a rightful
claim to the status of being a great power. This power of cyber-nationalism is
apparently a new feature of Chinese contemporary nationalism.
The power of cyber-nationalism is manifold. It instantly links people all
across the globe and mobilizes them at a minimal cost. The immense speed and
maximized impact of cyber-nationalism was glimpsed by the anti-CNN website that
was launched in response to the alleged Western media bias on the news coverage
of the March Tibetan uprising. Almost at blitzkrieg speed, the site became the
leading engine for Chinese cyber-nationalism in appealing for all Chinese to
boycott Western commercial outlets and stage demonstrations.
Cyber-nationalism can also be lethal, as nationalist messages can be amplified
to generate hatred between countries. During the March Tibetan uprising,
Chinese nationalism assumed a significant anti-Western character. The obscene
and abrasive words used by the netizens to give vent to nationalistic feelings
snowballed into a wave of hatred and united most Chinese across the globe in a
war of words. The Olympic torch relay was thus effectively portrayed as a war
between "pro- and anti-China forces".
Further, the cyber-nationalists are not only techno-savvy people but also young
and impressionable minds and therefore amenable to influence. Thus, during the
Tibetan uprising, the Chinese government could easily mobilize public opinion
and churn up historical memories and weave it into a nationalist historiography
and propaganda-style literature. Moreover, in the case of China, where netizens
do not have the freedom of speech, cyber-space often gives them virtual
freedom. Therefore, cyber-zealots often do not act at the behest of the
government. At times such messages are liable to go out without the
Arguably, had there not been the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in
May, the upsurge in nationalism would have taken an ugly turn and gone beyond
Beijing's control. Cyber-nationalism is thus a double-edged sword. On the one
hand, it can be used by the government to buttress its foreign policy positions
as well as to mobilize public support. On the other, nationalism can often get
out of hand and spark off violent reactions that could be detrimental to social
stability and a nation's international image.
Chinese cyber-nationalism is a new challenge for India's security and strategic
interests. While India-China relations have witnessed a period of growing
rapprochement, the issues of border dispute and Tibet remain primary irritants.
Arguably, as both countries were victims of imperialism, they uphold
territorial integrity and sovereignty as their supreme national interests.
Rooted in their competing territorial claims is the fact that before their
encounter with the West both were civilizational states and not political
nation states with fixed boundaries. In their quest for modernity, both India
and China approached the notions of territorial nationhood from their
respective definitions of nationalism imbued with strong historical and
Therefore, there exists a strong difference in perceptions between the
countries on the border issue and the Tibetan question. Their differences in
the perception of the concepts of nation and territoriality caused friction
between the two in the 1960s and led to the 1962 war. In the contemporary
period, this difference in perception persists.
The different systems of government in each country further bolster such
perceptions. This is particularly true in the case of authoritarian China,
where the regime effectively uses nationalism to promote a historiography which
is often distorted and misleading. Indeed, at the core of India-China tension
is the difference in perceptions between the two and it is here that the
psychological warfare or psyops plays the crucial role.
As psyops is often defined as management of perceptions, a distinct part of
psychological warfare is the strategic use of propaganda through the Internet,
media and print literature. China in recent times is developing psychological
warfare as a new strategy for both wartime and peacetime uses.
Cyber-nationalism thus is a part of psyops which the Chinese government uses to
bolster its strategic policies and to reinforce its domestic legitimacy.
Paradoxically, despite China being an authoritarian, closed regime, the power
of cyber-nationalism is very strong. At any given moment there could be a
mobilization of Chinese people in massive numbers both from inside and outside
its borders. And it could coalesce into a unified Chinese response at a global
level. This epitomizes the power of cyber-nationalism which the Chinese
government has skillfully appropriated so far, be it during the 1999 bombing of
its embassy in Belgrade, the 2005 Japanese textbook issue or the recent Tibetan
uprising. During the March Tibetan uprising, the power of Chinese
cyber-nationalism was most conspicuous and worrying. India, therefore, needs to
be cautious about Chinese cyber-nationalism.
Today, due to a revolution in information technology and globalization, there
is a new contingent of Chinese cyber-warriors, millions in number, spreading
across the globe. In the post-Olympic China, with its burgeoning confidence,
the power of cyber-nationalism is likely to be immense. Chinese
cyber-nationalism could exert enough pressure to demoralize and agonize the
Indian psyche. That means without a war, China could defeat India and recreate
its borders according to its strategic interests. The challenge of Chinese
cyber-nationalism is a new security threat for India, which will need more
sophisticated ways of dealing with the "new China".
Abanti Bhattacharya, PhD, is associate fellow, Institute for Defense
Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
(Copyright 2008 Abanti Bhattacharya.) Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online
feature that allows guest writers to have their say.
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