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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China's cyber warriors a challenge for India

November 28, 2008

By Abanti Bhattacharya
Asia Times
November 27, 2008

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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 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).
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