China's War for Narrative Dominance
Under Xi Jinping, China has intensified its focus on “seizing discursive power” (话语权) and “propagating China’s voice” at the global level. Indeed, the recent One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing has highlighted China’s ambitions to exert its influence upon the international order—and adjust it to its own advantage. For China, this concept of discursive power is often considered a critical aspect of its comprehensive national power. Indeed, to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), information is a weapon. The CCP has pursued Internet control through an extensive, adaptive system in order to avert threats to social stability and its survival, while seeking to assert its influence through shaping public opinion with domestic and external propaganda. Concurrently, to operationalize discursive power, the CCP and PLA have built upon an extensive history of political warfare to engage in concerted influence operations, with Taiwan as the primary target but also against the U.S. and worldwide. These dimensions of Chinese discursive power—Internet control, propaganda work and political warfare—enable the CCP’s defense of China’s core sovereignty, security and development interests, while advancing national strategic objectives.
For the CCP, Internet control is an integral instrument to ensure social stability, which remains a paramount concern for the regime. From the CCP’s perspective, this “Internet management” is undertaken for defensive purposes, critical to counter the “infiltration” of “hostile foreign forces” and their adverse influence of on social stability. Consistently, the Chinese leadership has emphasized political and ideological security in its focus on cybersecurity. Since the Internet first arrived in China, Chinese authorities have sought to take advantage of the associated economic opportunities while mitigating political risks. The Great Firewall, operated by the Ministry of Public Security under the aegis of the Golden Shield Project, has been a critical tool to enable comprehensive, nationwide censorship and surveillance. Despite persistent concerns that the Great Firewall undermines innovation, while acting as a barrier to digital trade, the Chinese leadership has evidently judged that the costliness of this system is outweighed by its importance. This mechanism is supplemented by extensive efforts undertaken by the so-called “50 Cent Party,” those employed or paid by the government to fabricate an estimated 448 million comments a year. In practice, this massive effort focuses on curtailing content that could lead to collective action, often through deliberate distraction.