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    Greater China
     Nov 27, 2008
SPEAKING FREELY
China's cyber warriors a challenge for India
By Abanti Bhattacharya

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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 cyber-nationalism.

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 government's control.

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 civilizational underpinnings.

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. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


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