For Xi Jinping, Cyber Is Personal
Cyberspace is no longer just a means for China to leapfrog its rivals and ascend the global power ladder—it has also become a key tool in the preservation of Xi Jinping.
For decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been honing its abilities in cyberspace, attacking any targets with strategic value to the regime, while increasingly integrating cyber as part of the nation’s broader intelligence and warfighting toolkit. Yet, despite the CCP’s widespread and relentless use of damaging and disruptive cyberattacks, little attention has been paid to the way China’s cyber strategy has been directly shaped and influenced by Xi Jinping since he came to power in November 2012. Indeed, over the last several years, as the CCP has become less about the collective and more about Xi, so too have the country’s cyberattacks. For Xi, cyberspace has become a reflection of his personal preferences, priorities, and insecurities, and a key domain he can and does routinely exploit to suppress his critics, disseminate his narratives, fulfill his visions, and maintain his cult of personality. For China, cyberspace is no longer just a means of leapfrogging its rivals and ascending the global power ladder—it has also become a key tool in the preservation of Xi Jinping.
Xi’s Digital Fortress
Most autocrats are deeply insecure and self-absorbed individuals, fixated on their own power and security. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Xi has emboldened and empowered China’s already extensive security system to become the most pervasive and illiberal surveillance state in the world—primarily as a means to safeguard himself as the most powerful leader in the country’s history. As many observers have noted, since taking charge of the country in 2012, and despite consistently pontificating about things like “common prosperity,” the fact he wants China to become a “fully developed, rich, and powerful” nation, or his vision for a “community of Chinese nationhood,” it has become increasingly clear Xi is most concerned about something else—himself. Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao—China’s leader during the country’s initial foray into any sort of noteworthy cyber conflict—Xi’s visions of homogeneous national growth, identity, and unity revolve entirely around him and his divinity as China’s anointed savior. For Xi, a key piece of the enormous digital fortress he continues to shield himself with is cyberspace—a domain he uses unlike any other leader in world history to inflict harm on people or organizations who threaten him, or who question his vision and his “right to rule.”
While Chinese leaders and elites before Xi viewed cyberspace as a tool for advancing their political and ideological goals, China’s cyber strategy under Xi now unquestionably reflects his insecurities as well as his ambitions to consolidate power, protect his own image, and control the Chinese people inside and outside the mainland in ways his predecessors could not have imagined. To achieve these objectives and maintain what China expert Michael Schuman recently described as “the relentless promotion of his personality cult,” Xi has broadened the country’s cyber strategy far beyond espionage as a means of national growth and influence to now account for the protection and promotion of his greatness. Through three key steps—taking over control of China’s military, including its cyber units; bolstering the world’s most advanced domestic internet censorship system; and using cyberspace to attack and harass critics and dissidents abroad—Xi has completely reshaped the country’s cyber posture as a means of protecting himself, assuaging any insecurities and paranoia, and ensuring all facets of Chinese life at home and abroad reflect his personal beliefs. Xi Jinping wants to rebuild China in his image, and he is using cyberspace to do it.
The PLA’s New Commander-in-Chief
Since his earliest days as general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping has made it clear China’s military must be modernized. Tapping into visions of the country’s “century of humiliation” Xi has framed a strengthened People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as being crucial to restoring China’s greatness—greatness the country can only attain through his vision. In his own words, Xi has opined, “a nation’s backwardness in military affairs has a profound influence on a nation’s security. I often peruse the annals of modern Chinese history and feel heartbroken at the tragic scenes of us being beaten because of our ineptitude.” For Xi, ensuring China is never beaten or embarrassed again is critical. However, ensuring he himself is never beaten, challenged, or embarrassed is equally, if not more important. Luckily, for Xi, the country’s cyber soldiers—soldiers he controls—help to ensure these things are unlikely to ever happen. As China expert Tai Ming Cheung has said, “no other Chinese Communist Party leader, not even Mao Zedong, has controlled the military to the same extent as Xi does today.”
From a cyber perspective, Xi has been talking about making China a “cyber power” for the better part of a decade, and since at least 2015 when he announced a new Strategic Support Force, the PLA branch responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, cyber has been a pillar of the country’s military modernization. Typically, works analyzing this latest chapter in the modernization of China’s military suggest this historic change is rooted in things like state security, regime survival, social cohesion, and the changing nature of warfare. Of course, all of these issues have contributed to Xi’s desire for China to have a “world-class military” by the middle of the century. However, it is now hard to ignore the fact that as Xi has come to control the PLA, including elements of the Chinese military responsible for carrying out cyber operations (e.g., Unit 61398), many of these aforementioned factors are now anchored to Xi and his own security and survival—not the Party’s. To echo William Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “Xi is paranoid about maintaining his personal security and of course, his power and his status as leader for life.”
Control at Home
In the physical world, Xi has taken a number of steps to position himself as the unquestioned and unchallenged unitary leader of China. From integrating “Xi Jinping Thought” into the country’s constitution and national educational curricula to positioning himself as leader for life, to harassing, intimidating, and imprisoning dissidents, Xi has sought to ensure he is fully in control of China’s 1.4 billion people. Likewise, Xi has also worked to increasingly control online information and disseminate his messages throughout the mainland. For example, in 2014 the CCP created a new government department—the Cyberspace Administration of China—to regulate the internet, which Xi ultimately controls. In addition, Xi has long pushed the concept of “internet sovereignty”—or the idea that China (and presumably other countries) should be free to control the internet within its borders as it sees fit. Xi has also relied heavily on the country’s “Great Firewall”—the CCP’s legislative and technological toolkit—to limit outside information into the country as a means of shaping public thought and discourse in his personage. Some have suggested Xi’s control of cyberspace has been so pronounced that he has radicalized a generation. Writing for Human Rights Watch, Yaqiu Wang notes, “Now young online Chinese, once conduits for new ideas that challenge the power structure, are increasingly part of Beijing’s defense operation.”
Early into Xi’s takeover, the government also introduced historic laws authorizing prison terms of up to three years for individuals caught posting defamatory comments online, or for people the government considered responsible for inciting protests or unrest. Control of online information on Xi’s terms has been so important, the government reportedly hired over two-million people as “microblog monitors” in 2013 to track and report unauthorized online information. Other online legal and institutional mechanisms the CCP have applied since Xi came to power include requiring government licenses for all online news sources, including messaging apps, blogs, and internet forums; mandating companies censor prohibited online content and requiring website registrants use their real names; restricting VPN usage; and increasingly ensuring internet providers obey state rules.
An illustrative example of China’s ability to censor online information critical of Xi came in October 2022, when authorities purged the country’s internet of any evidence of a recent (and minor) protest calling for Xi’s removal. Some internet users who shared photos or videos of the protest have allegedly been cut off from accessing certain social media apps—apps which in China, are essential to daily life. Put bluntly, Xi’s obsession with securitizing himself and his image is paramount, and China’s state activities and repressive online behavior reflect this. As Susan Shirk recently wrote “…Xi takes the paranoia that has been endemic to Chinese politics since Mao Zedong’s rule to an extreme.”
Xi’s Global Insecurities
Ensuring that his messaging, aura, and image are preserved abroad is equally important for Xi—a priority that has been reflected in the country’s use of cyberspace for years. In fact, Xi considers both internal and external threats as intertwined mutually reinforcing vulnerabilities. For starters, to combat and quell foreign threats, Xi has an entire army of cyber propagandists at his disposal who work around the clock to shape and influence public opinion abroad on social media sites. Xi’s “Fifty Cent Army”—the country’s state-backed internet militia—also regularly carries out harassment campaigns against individuals who pose a threat to Xi, and targets Chinese-language media outlets around the globe with messages and narratives important to him and his regime. China also routinely uses cyber as a means of harassing and coercing people with connections to dissidents the regime wants to return to China. For example, in July 2020, a Chinese student studying in Australia who manages a Twitter account critical of the general secretary said she had received video calls from a Chinese police officer, who, standing next to her father, warned her “remember that you are a citizen of China.” Speaking to this issue in October 2020, then-United States Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers, alongside FBI Director Chris Wray, delivered remarks announcing charges against eight agents of the CCP carrying out these types of acts against individuals living in the United States. Describing operation “Fox Hunt”—the CCP’s global anti-corruption campaign—Demers said, “…some of the individuals [targeted through this international CCP operation] may well be wanted on traditional criminal charges and they may even be guilty of what they are charged with. But in many instances, the hunted are opponents of CCP Chairman Xi – political rivals, dissidents, and critics.”