For Xi Jinping, Cyber Is Personal

February 14, 2023 Topic: China Cyber Strategy Region: China Tags: ChinaXi JinpingCyberCyberwarfareCCP

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.

There has also been a well-documented surge of online disinformation targeting Chinese communities abroad, in places ranging from the United States to Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Further, last year, the FBI also accused China of targeting Uyghurs based in the United States, through both physical and digital tactics. The FBI bulletin reads “Threatened consequences for non-compliance routinely include detainment of a U.S.-based person’s family or friends in China, seizure of China-based assets, sustained digital and in-person harassment, Chinese government attempts to force repatriation, computer hacking and digital attacks, and false representation online.” This nefarious online behavior that started under Xi, is a reflection of his paranoia and insecurities, as well as his desire to Sinicize China inside and out, while ensuring the world’s global Chinese population adheres to her personal vision for the country. 

The Xi Threat

While espionage is still China’s top priority in cyberspace and across the nation’s broader intelligence community (as illustrated by their recent spy-balloon fiasco) the country’s use of cyberspace under Xi has changed dramatically as he has progressively consolidated his power, and incrementally worked to shape Chinese society and thought in his image. In addition, China’s behavior in the digital domain now reflects the insecurities and paranoia of the most powerful leader in the country’s history. 

Going forward, more scholarly work is required to assess the degree China’s cyber strategy is shaped and influenced by Xi, and further, what that relationship might mean from a policy perspective. Perhaps if scholars and policymakers can develop a better understanding of what drives China’s behavior in cyberspace—as opposed to continuously focusing on how the country operates online—we will be better equipped to protect ourselves. In cyberspace, it might be time to start thinking about the “China threat” as the “Xi threat.” With Xi having secured another five-year term at the 2022 Communist Party congress, it is more important than ever that we develop a better understanding of the man who controls everything in China, and the extent to which his own beliefs and preferences shape the country’s strategy online and beyond.

Dr. Casey Babb is an International Fellow with the Glazer Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, England, and an instructor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, in Ottawa. His writing has appeared in Lawfare, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Jerusalem Post, and in scholarly peer-reviewed publications in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Casey is also a former advisor to two of Canada’s defense ministers, and a former Senior Analyst in Public Safety Canada’s National and Cyber Security Branch.

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