China’s political warfare strategy takes hit from coronavirus
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
The Wuhan coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 as the World Health Organization has named it and the Chinese would prefer it to be called, may be on the verge of becoming a pandemic. If it continues to spread, it may take a tragic toll on human life around the world. It is already having economic effects such as bringing down stock market prices and causing capital to evaporate. It is possible geostrategic relations will be altered in ways no one has anticipated. While this is a public health crisis at the most basic level, the Communist Party of China’s authoritarian political warfare strategy has contributed to making the problem worse.
The causes, effects, effective treatment, and prevention of the coronavirus are still to be determined. It is known the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, where the largest number of infected persons resides as of this moment. It has spread to South Korea, with the second-largest number of infected persons, as well as Italy and other locations around the world. Japan has quarantined a cruise ship with thousands of passengers in what has been described as a floating petri dish of infection.
It is thought the outbreak began in a local market, perhaps in December 2019 or even as early as November. There is also speculation that the virus was not introduced initially at the fish market but that it was the early transfer point to begin the spread. A thorough investigation still needs to be completed by professionals to determine the actual causes. However, there is a key point regarding the timeline of the outbreak and the Chinese government informing the local population and broader international community of the virus and its danger. China, and more specifically, the Communist Party, appeared to withhold or delay the release of information that slowed the local, regional, and international response.
Furthermore, the WHO, likely due to Chinese influence, seemed to be slow in acknowledging the threat. It even provided initial recommendations that travel bans were not necessary. The new Chinese ambassador to South Korea cited the WHO recommendation in South Korea and urged the Moon administration not to impose travel restrictions from China. South Korea is paying for that decision with nearly 900 cases, again, which is the second-largest outbreak after China.
This leads to the question of why China was so slow to respond and why it put its people and, ultimately, the international community at great risk. The answer is twofold. First, as it always does, it acted in the belief that it must protect the legitimacy and the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party. It is the nature of authoritarian communism to be blind to what is happening to the public. Second, the party is conducting a form of “authoritarian political warfare” that seeks to accomplish many complex objectives, such as protecting itself; becoming at least a regional hegemon in Asia; expanding its global economic and political influence; dominating international institutions to shape support for the party’s political objectives, such as denying Taiwan recognition and membership in international organizations and directly undermining Taiwan until it can achieve unification. It implements this strategy in various ways, one of which is the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, also known as the “New Silk Road” initiative, or what the Communist Party prefers to call it, the Belt and Road Initiative. This is the overt mechanism for expanding Chinese economic and political influence in Asia and around the world.
Two aspects of Chinese “authoritarian political warfare” best describe its intention and action. As Thomas Mahnken, et al., at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has pointed out, the Communist Party seeks to use “overt and covert means to influence, coerce, intimidate, divide, and subvert rival countries in order to force their compliance or collapse” and has a “deep attachment to revisionist strategies that overturn domestic and international norms.”
One of the objectives is to develop and export authoritarian techniques. The surveillance capabilities of its Huawei 5G technology is just one of the many things it would like to export in support of like-minded surveillance states. It also wants to spread this technology through democratic countries to be able to extract and exploit information. Given the capabilities of the 5G network, China will have access to huge amounts of data wherever its technology is sold. Another aspect is “exporting” its large “excess” male population, due to decades of the disastrous “One Child” policy, since men have difficulty finding spouses in China. A third line of effort is exploiting research and academic programs throughout the West, with tens of thousands of Chinese students studying abroad to vacuum up information, learn new techniques, exploit research and development, and even steal technology to bring it back to China.
The infiltration of and influence over WHO is a good example of the implementation of the Communist Party’s strategy. Chinese influence over WHO has undoubtedly hindered the response to the Wuhan coronavirus. There is a so-called “infodemic,” an overabundance of information that is sometimes but often not accurate. This is most likely generated by Communist Party organizations to cloud the situation and shift blame for the emerging pandemic from China to protect the reputation of the party. As an example of party propaganda and influence on WHO, the latter’s website notes that China was a founding member of WHO in 1946. As most know, the People’s Republic of China was not established until 1949. It was the Republic of China that was the founding member. This is how the Communist Party creates the narrative to support its political objectives, one of which is to deny the existence of Taiwan as an independent sovereign nation.
The United States has for years recognized China as a revisionist power. The U.S. National Security Strategy clearly states that China and Russia are the two revisionist powers in competition with America. The strategy summary goes on to state: “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” It continues, “In competition short of armed conflict, revisionist powers and rogue regimes are using corruption, predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxies, and the threat or use of military force to change facts on the ground.” This sums up the Communist Party strategy, and it is being played out through the Silk Road initiative, the proliferation of Chinese surveillance technology, the infiltration of international institutions, and, most importantly, the response to the Wuhan coronavirus.
Despite Chinese efforts, conspiracy theories have emerged about the Wuhan coronavirus. Scientists are working to counter them and provide accurate information. The Russians appear to be exploiting the situation by developing messages to undermine the U.S. Although this is not likely coordinated between China and Russia, the Communist Party is surely grateful that a like-minded revisionist power is keeping up the fight while the potential pandemic looms.
The party is unable to accept criticism over the Wuhan coronavirus. When the Wall Street Journal published Walter Russell Mead’s recent opinion piece, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” the Chinese responded by expelling three journalists. This is an example of the party employing its “three warfares” — psychological, legal, and media — to control the narrative and attempt to protect its reputation and legitimacy. China has said it will not allow the country to become the victim of a smear campaign. I think it doth protest too much. This heavy-handed response has most likely backfired, because rather than protect its reputation, it has exposed its true nature to the international community.
The Wuhan coronavirus has illustrated the dangers of the Communist Party’s authoritarian political warfare. Its infiltration of and influence over WHO decision-making has clearly contributed to the growing possibility of a coronavirus pandemic. Chinese authoritarian political warfare is a threat to the international system and its institutions, and the Wuhan coronavirus is simply the latest example.
While it would be wrong to exploit this situation as the human tragedy is unfolding, this experience should be a wake-up call for the U.S. and its friends, partners, and allies that seek to sustain the international system and prevent domination by the revisionist powers. The Wuhan coronavirus is helping to shine a light on the Chinese Communist Party’s focus on protecting its own power at the expense of all else. While the international community is working to stop the coming pandemic, the intelligence community, scholars, think tanks, and those who care about the future of the international system should be closely observing China’s actions. They should be gathering information and insights that expose the party’s strategy and intentions. They need to catalog actions, analyze them, and after the situation subsides, they need to embark on an aggressive counter-political warfare campaign to expose the Communist Party of China.
The priority must be on stopping this pandemic. However, after it is contained and the international economy is returned to normalcy, responsible governments must take a hard look at Chinese authoritarian political warfare and realize the danger it poses. China will push back with claims that it will not tolerate a smear campaign. But China must be held accountable. We can, on that front, take a page from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. As he wrote, “What is of supreme importance is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” It is time the U.S. and like-minded countries attack and neutralize the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian political warfare strategy.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161.