Will China Weaponize Social Media?

ATLANTA – Ever since the 2016 US presidential election, with its revelations about Russian meddling, European officials have been on the lookout for similar attacks. But Europeans aren’t the only ones paying attention. So, too, are China’s leaders, who are considering what they might learn from the Kremlin’s successes.

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, maintaining domestic stability is a top priority, a point underscored by China’s annual budget for internal security. At well over $100 billion, the official number is low. Like defense outlays, the real number is much higher, owing to hidden spending, including on research and development.

For example, China is exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) and big data can be used to monitor everything from social media to credit-card spending, and it plans to assign all citizens a social-reliability rating to weed out potential troublemakers. The regime’s Orwellian strategy is focused squarely on social media and controlling not just what is said, but also how information flows into and around the country.

Moreover, the authorities are bringing technology companies into line with tough new laws and cyber-security investigations. For Xi, the ease with which the Kremlin has manipulated Facebook and Twitter demonstrates the need for a tighter grip on China’s own social-media platforms. The Chinese government is now requesting seats on the boards of companies such as WeChat, Weibo, and Tencent, and demanding access to their users’ personal data.

Chinese cyber spies are also studying Russia’s success. To be sure, Chinese hackers do not lack technical savvy. They have launched cyberattacks against US presidential campaigns, expatriate Tibetan movements, and Uighur activists. They have burrowed into Western think tanks and universities that study China. They have even hacked into Western news outlets that published embarrassing stories about Chinese leaders’ wealth. Still, the Chinese may have something to learn from Russia’s well-choreographed online army of trolls and bots.

Similarly, strategists at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are likely poring over the Kremlin’s handiwork to inform their own cyber-war tactics. Chinese strategic thinking about “political warfare” holds that an adversary’s political, social, and economic institutions – particularly the media – should be targeted before a shooting war ever begins. To that end, Russia’s diffusion of bogus news and conspiracy theories through its state-funded media outlets RT and Sputnik could prove instructive.

In addition to expanding China’s cyber capabilities, Xi has also been developing China’s soft power through economic, social, cultural, and media initiatives. And although he has not yet coupled these programs with China’s clandestine forces to launch the kind of audacious attack that roiled the 2016 presidential election, he clearly is establishing the means to do so. Recently, it was revealed that China has been conducting wide-ranging influence operations in Australia, using official campus organizations to monitor Chinese college students, business associations to tout Chinese interests, and diplomats to police local Chinese-language media. Late last year, an Australian senator was forced to resign over his alleged ties to a Chinese billionaire.

China is also expanding its global media presence. By some estimates, the government is sinking some $7 billion into new media and broadcast outlets abroad every year. Its official news agency, Xinhua, has more than 170 bureaus around the world and publishes in eight languages. China Central Television (CCTV) has more than 70 foreign bureaus and broadcasts to 171 countries in six languages. China Radio International is the world’s second-largest radio broadcaster after the BBC, broadcasting in 64 languages from 32 foreign bureaus to 90 radio stations worldwide.

None of these organizations has yet to distinguish itself as a go-to international news source. But they have become a significant source of information for people in underserved regions such as the Middle East and Africa, where they purvey China’s views and are building sympathetic audiences.

At the same time, China is purchasing “native advertising” in Australian, American, and European newspapers. This allows China to place officially authored content about controversial issues – such as its militarized island-building in the South China Sea – next to those publications’ editorial offerings.

Xi is also playing the long game, by approving investments in movies and other forms of mass entertainment to influence how global popular culture treats all things Chinese. Despite the Chinese government’s recent clampdown on outbound capital flows, Chinese companies are still adding to their major stakes in Hollywood properties. The Chinese conglomerate Dalien Wanda alone has some $10 billion in entertainment assets in the United States, Europe, and Australia. And other Chinese Internet and financial giants such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Hony Capital, as well as state-owned companies such as the China Film Group, have invested tens of billions of dollars in US film ventures.

With these financial stakes, the Chinese government has leverage that goes beyond old-fashioned censorship. Hollywood studio bosses with an eye on China’s massive domestic market will be tempted to kowtow to the government’s “creative” requests when it comes to scripts, casting decisions, and so forth. At $8.6 billion in 2017, Chinese box-office receipts are second only to North America’s. Yet China allows only 38 foreign films into the country each year, inducing filmmakers to bend over backward to please the censors.

Of course, Hollywood executives aren’t the only Westerners helping Xi’s realize his agenda. Between Apple’s recent decision to relinquish its Chinese user data storage to a Chinese partner and Google’s announcement that it will site a new AI research center in China, US technology giants are not just making deals to benefit their “stakeholders.” They are also handing Xi and his cyber operatives proprietary technologies and know-how, and even potential access to US targets.

This raises an obvious question: If Russia could roil a US presidential election without such intimate business relationships, what will China be able to do in the years ahead? To think that China’s only interest is making money, one Hollywood executive recently acknowledged, would be “very naive and dangerous” indeed.

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So why were Google president Sundar Pichai and Facebook vice-president Vaughan Smith there? Simply because the Internet’s old order wants access to the world’s biggest e-commerce market – 700 million Chinese with smartphones.

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A night view of Wuzhen International Internet Exhibition and Conference Centre Photo: Sanghee Liu

China’s online behemoths – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – have gained rapidly on Silicon Valley. Tencent, maker of social media app WeChat, last month eclipsed Facebook with a $US522 billion ($693 billion) market value.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook gave a keynote speech, declaring: “Technology itself doesn’t want to be good. It doesn’t want to be anything.

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“It is up to all of us to make sure technology is infused with humanity.”

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At the Chinese government’s request, Apple has removed Chinese access to Virtual Private Networks, apps that allowed iPhone users to leap the Great Firewall that cordons off China’s 750 million internet users.

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Former foreign minister Bob Carr is greeted by Cai Mingzhao, the president of China’s Xinhua News Agency, after delivering a speech on the social impact of the internet. Photo: Sanghee Liu

Did Silicon Valley’s turnout at the Wuzhen conference show that other companies are also prepared to “follow the rules” to make it in China, as Alibaba founder Jack Ma advised?

The annual conference is a showcase for how Xi Jinping’s goal of China becoming “an influential country in cyberspace” and world leader in IT is progressing.

Wang Huning, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Wang Huning, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Photo: Sanghee Liu

A benchmark study soberly reported that the US continued to lead the world in internet development and innovation, spurred by Silicon Valley, but China was a close second, and spending big.

China’s world-first photonic Quantum computer, and world-beating supercomputing team, were acclaimed and Wang, newly installed to the Politburo Standing Committee, said in his first public speech that China’s digital economy is “on the fast train”. Cross-border e-commerce reached a value of $13.5 trillion last year.

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But Wang also laid out the key rule that China applies as the gatekeeper to its parallel universe of the internet, where great leaps in digital convenience for consumers come with the tradeoff of constant population surveillance and censorship. China’s term for it is “cyberspace sovereignty”.

This was the link to the Wuzhen conference’s second purpose: China and Russia want an international treaty – a big global rule – to stop other countries interfering with their restricted national internet regimes.

The push is being made in the name of “cyber security”, against a scary backdrop of wild global cyber attacks.

Kapersky Labs founder Eugene Kapersky says he expects his anti-virus company to find 90 million malicious samples this year.

But the biggest threat to global infrastructure was the growth of “complicated, professional projects”, of which 80-90 per cent are state-sponsored attacks, he said. Kapersky, a Russian, would not say which states were responsible.

The issue of cyber security has become crucial for the major powers. Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye, best known for coining the term “soft power”, compared cyber conflict to nuclear weapons.

“The two technologies are different but [both are] highly disruptive,” he said. It took 20 years for major states to agree to cooperative “norms” to avoid conflict on nuclear weapons, and said the norms to restrain cyber conflict were following a similar, difficult timetable.

Frederick Douzet, of France’s Insitute of National Defence Studies, said that as the advent of global cyber crises like Wannacry should be drawing nations closer together to stop malicious actors, instead old geopolitical distrusts about the state use of cyber crime for intelligence and warfare was having the opposite effect.

The Brookings Institution’s Professor Cheng Li said: “There is no equivalent to mutually assured destruction in cyberspace. Major powers must work together now before it is too late.”

A cyber crime convention the US and the Council of Europe signed in 2001 allows parties to conduct digital cross-border investigations without seeking the other nation’s permission for data access. Multiple Russian ministry speakers at Wuzhen expressed fierce opposition to that convention.

China is funding a United Nations Inter-governmental Expert Group on Cybercrime to draft an alternative: the world’s first cyber security convention.

But the group’s South African chairman conceded on Monday the members would struggle to find agreement, and Nye said progress was “likely impossible” as the group focused on state sovereignty and had sidelined human rights and internet content.

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Google’s Pichai declared there had been “an important shift from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world”. Microsoft said its chat bot XiaoIce was “born in China”.

But in the absence of Western privacy concerns, Chinese competitors have made their products pervasive through the untrammelled use of big data.

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