From Human Wave to Info Wave: China’s Propaganda Warfare

 By Kanchana Ramanujam

The Chinese have been very conscious of the changing nature of warfare which is evident in their military doctrine evolving from People’s War to People’s War Under Modern Conditions to Limited Local War to Limited War Under High Tech Conditions to the latest Local War Under Informationalised Conditions. Having understood the criticality of information technologies from the Gulf War I and II, and Op Enduring Freedom, among others, the Chinese have worked on their non-kinetic capabilities – arguably the most effective means of furthering national interest in today’s time. This however, has not come at cost of conventional military strength. There has been equal emphasis on both with China’s non-kinetic capabilities supplementing Maoist military thought.

There have been a considered emphasis on winning the battle of narratives and dominating the discourse domain and the article seeks to highlight the aspect of propaganda.

To be ready to fight battles under conditions of informationisation, China’s Central Military Commission added san zhongzhaqia or the ‘Three Warfares’ to the Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army in 2003.1

The Three Warfares categories non-kinetic operations into the following 3 types –

I. Strategic Psychological Operations

2. Overt and Covert Media Manipulation

3. Exploitation of National and International Legal Systems / Legal Warfare.

As far as India is concerned, China is no novice to influence operations. Their cartographic aggression has been on display since the 1950s when they showed parts of India as their territory.2 After the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the Chinese portrayed the Indian Prisoners of War (PoWs) as being detained in beautiful surroundings where they spent their time enjoying and playing games. The food was supposed to have been so good that the PoWs gained 1.35 kg on an average. To quote the April 1963 Monthly Report of the Political Officer in Sikkim mentioning the Chinese propaganda -“The nursing care received by the sick is supposed to have so overwhelmed the recipients as to have induced them to say that even their parents had not bestowed more loving care on them.” The Indian PoWs, on the other hand, had only stories of misery to narrate.In response to the Doklam standoff, the Chinese state media aired a propaganda video – Seven Sins of India. This act backfired and the video was criticised for being racist. China has adopted a multi-pronged approach in this battle of sight and sound. It can be studied under the following heads –

I. The United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Communist Party of
China (CCP)

Coordinated at the top by the United Front Leading Small Group initiated by Xi Jinping, this department works by countervailing and co-opting any opposition to CCP and its policies, both in the country and abroad, and encouraging the Chinese diaspora to further the Party’s stance on various issues like Tibet, Taiwan, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), etc.4 It conducts influence operations with the larger aim of perpetuating the CCP rule and legitimacy.

The UFWD is known to prosecute legal warfare in which the Chinese Missions play an important role

2. Dissemination of CCP-Approved Content

Chinese use the strategy jie chuan chu hai (borrowing a boat to go out to the

 ocean), i.e., use of foreign radio stations to broadcast CCP-approved content. In the US, for example, China Radio International (CRI) content is aired by more than 30 outlets.5 Similarly, China’s state-run newspaper, China Daily, has struck deals with at least 30 foreign newspapers including prominent ones such as the Washington Post, the UK Telegraph, the New York Times, etc. to feature China-specific
supplements.6 It has been reported that China Daily has spent USD20.8 million in the US since 2017 on such propaganda, making it the biggest foreign, non-
governmental spender.7

In light of the case of the South China Morning Post which was acquired by Jack Ma in 2015, it seems that the CCP has perhaps graduated to ‘buying’ from
‘borrowing’ boats.

In addition, the Chinese government retains the right to censor/ban films where it deems fit. Movies like Red Dawn, Christopher Robin, etc. are examples. Given the huge movie-market that China is, movie-makers are now self-censoring so as to not lose out in terms of revenue.8

3. Increased Stress on Semantics

The term ‘tong yi’ used in reference to Taiwan is translated by China as‘re-unification’ when it can also be translated as ‘unification’. This is nothing but subtle, political signaling. Supporters of Taiwan prefer the term ‘unification’, offering the rationale that since the CCP never ruled Taiwan, there could be no ‘re-unification’.

In April, 2018, the Civil Aviation Authority of China had asked 44 foreign airlines to change the way Taiwan was referred to on their websites.9 In July, 2018, Global Times, a CCP-run newspaper published an article attacking Air India’s practice of listing Taiwan as a separate region.11  It is apposite to mention here that in July, 2018, Air India changed the name of Taiwan to Chinese Taipei on its website.11

4. Non-Profit Public Institutions — The Confucius Institute

Set up under China’s Ministry of Education in 2004, the Confucius Institutes, ostensibly, aim to promote Chinese language, culture, etc.12 Not only do these institutes maintain close association with the Chinese embassy, some of them operate directly from university campuses, giving rise to concerns of political influence. Chinese authorities retain control over who will be recruited in teaching capacity, what the syllabus would be, and even which subjects would or would not be discussed in classrooms!13 Li Changchun, a member of the politburo standing committee in 2009, called the Confucius Institutes ‘an important part of China’s overseas propaganda apparatus’.14

It is pertinent to note that India has two Confucius Institutes — one at University of Mumbai (Mumbai) and the other at VIT University (Vellore).15 The third one at Kolkata is not listed on the official website.

5. The ‘Third-Party Spokespeople’ — A Vocal Support Base

To further the Chinese narrative, China-backed individuals and institutions are cultivating vocal supporters called the ‘third-party spokespeople’. These include members from the fields of politics, journalism, and academia. They are enticed with better salaries, all-expenses paid trips, free graduate degrees in
communication, etc.16

6. “Telling China’s Story”— the Media Push

China Global Television Network (CGTN) — the international channel operated by China Central Television (CCTV) — runs in five languages: Arabic, English,
French, Russian, and Spanish. To aid in perception-management, the Chinese
employ internet commentators referred to colloquially as Wu Mao (fifty cent).17 China is buying shares in foreign media and conditioning journalists. In fact,
China’s foreign ministry has hosted close to a hundred foreign journalists from top media houses in Asia and Africa starting from 2016.18 It is also noteworthy that China subsidises the state-run Xinhua News Agency to the tune of 40%.19

7. Communication-Infrastructure Dominance

China is not just shaping the discourse by conditioning journalists, politicians, academia, etc., it is also increasing its hold on the infrastructure required to produce and transmit news — the Digital Silk Road.

It is involved in a big way in launching television satellites and laying of fibre-optic network, especially in parts of Africa which transitioning from analog to digital TV.20 An example would be StarTimes — a Chinese electronics and media company offering digital terrestrial and satellite television services. As of
September 2018, it was operational in 30 countries.21 Such is the ownership of digital infrastructure by StarTimes in Africa that the Ghana Independent
Broadcasters’ Association cautioned that if the same is allowed to happen there, Ghana “would have virtually submitted its broadcast space to Chinese control and content.”22

China’s warfare strategy has undergone a sea-change from ren hai zhan shu (human wave) to san zhong zhanfa focusing on manipulating the cognitive domain — the nerve-centre of decision-making.

It would not be wrong to assume that any future aggressions would involve three phases: massive Information War, fire assault (by air and rockets), and finally, attack by infantry. But given its push to strategic communication and lead in the OODA loop, perhaps the latter two would not be required.



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6 ibid
7 ibid
8 Langfitt, F. (2015).NPR Choice page. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019]
9 Civil Aviation Administration of China. (2018). The Civil Aviation Administration of China informs the relevant foreign airlines website about the rectification of information on Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].
10 Xingchun, L. (2018).Indian scholars wrong in equating territory row with Taiwan status - Global Times [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb 2019].
11 The Times of India. (2018). Air India site renames Taiwan as Chinese Taipei - Times of India. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
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13 Ranade, J. (2019). Beware of Chinese propaganda!. [online] Rediff. Available at:  [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
14 ibid
15 (n.d.). HanBan-Confucius Institute/ClassRoom-About Confucius Institute/ClassRoom. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
16 Lim, L. and Bergin, J. (2018).Inside China's audacious global propaganda campaign.]online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb 2019].
17 The Telegraph. (2016). China wins the internet: officials post 488 million comments a day. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
18 Krishnan, A. (2018). China is buying good press across the world, one paid journalist at a time. [online] ThePrint. Available at:  [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
19 Lim, L. and Bergin, J. (2018).Inside China's audacious global propaganda campaign.]online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb 2019].
20 Saliu, O. and Baoping, Z. (2019). Feature: China initiates satellite TV project in rural Africa - Xinhua | [online] Available at:  [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].
21 Zhihui, L. and Pengyuan, C. (2018). New Chinese TV 'star' rises across Africa - [online] Available at:  [Accessed 25 Feb. 2019].
22 Lim, L. and Bergin, J. (2018).Inside China's audacious global propaganda campaign.]online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb 2019].