This is How a Bloody U.S.-China War Could Start

A cyber clash escalates to real war.

On the third night, internet access is miraculously restored. Strangely, however, unlike before, only overseas websites can be accessed, and almost no China-based websites. Xiaolu is initially baffled, but after surfing overseas websites, he gains an understanding of how the situation has developed.

It turns out that after the Chinese government cut off all internet access, the United States used satellite technology to provide wireless internet service to China. Operation Airborne Freedom has entered its second phase. The U.S. government explains its rationale: “We first of all need to ensure that American organizations in China as well as the U.S. Embassy and consulates can continue to access the internet. . . . At the same time, we are helping the Chinese people to freely access information. . . .”

The Sina and Sohu microblogging websites that Chinese netizens normally use have ceased operation, and have been replaced by internationally dominant social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The Chinese Baidu search engine has stopped working, but Google is available as a substitute, and Chinese netizens rejoice.

The next day, the Chinese government plays a new card. The State Council issues a “Notice Regarding the Suspension of Internet Access”:

“Malicious interference and sabotage by hostile overseas forces resulting in severe chaos in the arrangements for our country’s internet management has aroused mass outrage among the people. In order to ensure state security and normal information access, from this day forward the relevant departments will carry out comprehensive inspection, maintenance and rehabilitation of the internet. During this time, internet access will be suspended throughout the country.

Specific provisions are as follows:

1. Any work unit or individual who without authorization accesses the internet will be subject to confiscation of his computer, a fine, dismissal from employment or other penalties.

2. Any individual who uses the internet to create or spread rumors or to transmit reactionary information, and in particular any individual who incites opposition or subversion of the government, will be held criminally liable.

3. All internet cafes will be temporarily closed until further notice.

4. Sales of computers must be registered under the purchaser’s name. . . .”

Over the next few days, China’s netizens continue to enjoy access to overseas websites, and there is an explosive increase in satirical comments about the Chinese government on Facebook, Twitter and overseas Chinese internet forums. Rumors spread of police in some localities going door-to-door to examine internet browsing histories. Official media begin reporting on some people being investigated and having their computers confiscated. Overseas media report that rights defenders are being summoned and warned by the police, while some dissidents have been placed in criminal detention on allegations of using the internet to create or spread rumors to incite subversion of the government.

Mobilized by netizens through Facebook and Twitter, increasing numbers of people begin standing in the streets with their eyes directed forward or upward in what come to be known as “stand-ins.” Internet posting proclaim: “The Chinese people have stood up!” As another day passes, police are mobilized in a massive operation during which they physically push people away from “stand-ins.” Some protesters who resist are arrested. Four police officers grab Xiaolu by his arms and legs and carry him off as he struggles and yells out, “The Chinese people have the right to stand up!”

China’s PLA Daily publishes a commentary entitled “Cyberinvasion is a War of Aggression,” which states:

“We must point out that cyberinvasion is a war of aggression. We sternly warn the American hegemonists that today’s China is not the China of 1840; today’s China is not a China that can be bullied or trampled upon. Under the leadership of the great Chinese Communist Party, we have achieved economic liftoff and military modernization that will bring about the great revival of the Chinese people. Our country and our people have the capacity to defend our homeland. In the face of serious provocation, the full force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will resolutely follow the Party’s command and is prepared to go to war at any time in retaliation against any who dare aggressive action against our country’s sovereign rights and interests. We are prepared at all times to fight and to emerge victorious in repelling a frontal assault by the invaders. . . .”

In contrast to this hard line, the tone of some official scholars is more temperate. In an Associated Press interview, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China appeals for calm on both sides. He urges the Chinese and U.S. governments to sit down for a face-to-face exchange of views on the mutual accusations of cyberattacks, and to resolve the conflict through dialog and negotiation to prevent the conflict from escalating out of control.

Prohibitions on internet access are implemented in government organizations, state-owned enterprises and all schools, libraries and other public bodies. Even so, how can the authorities control 500 million netizens and 300 million bloggers? Most netizens ignore the prohibitions and continue to access the internet at home. Internet access is unstable and intermittent, but the wireless internet service that the United States is providing to China has not been cut off.

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