China's Psychological Warfare

By Murray, Laura K. | Military Review, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

China's Psychological Warfare


Murray, Laura K., Military Review


IN THE SUMMER OF 1997, the eyes of the world were on Hong Kong as China assumed control over the former crown colony. How China handles the transition there is widely viewed as a preview of what might happen if China achieves its long-term goal of "reunification" with Taiwan. Increased Chinese defense spending since the late 1980s has purchased advanced arms from Russia and developed advanced domestic systems and platforms. Further, more aggressive military activities claiming disputed territories in the Spratly islands exercises apparently intended to bully Taiwan have heightened regional anxiety.1

Over the past decade, China has emerged as a significant player in virtually every arena of international competition. However, key events during this period, especially the prodemocracy movement in China in 1989, the strong performance of the allies in the Gulf War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, have significantly influenced Chinese leaders. Chinese national strategy seeks to build "comprehensive national strength" by enhancing China's international standing, improving weapons and telecommunications and promoting continued economic development, while maintaining internal stability.2 For Chinese leaders, these objectives do not permit challenges to China's sovereignty or the internal authority of the Communist Party. Further, China seeks to ensure the widest possible latitude in trade, aid, diplomacy and military activity that will enhance its aims.3

As China grows militarily and economically, its leaders will have an increasingly credible arsenal to enforce policy objectives. Interpreting China's statements and actions in the international arena and developing the most appropriate responses are vitally important. Yet clearly understanding China's intentions is often difficult, obscured by differences in language, history, culture and ideology.

This article examines elements of Chinese propaganda and public diplomacy that may have contributed to that lack of understanding, particularly the various deception and perception management programs China has used to gain advantage on sensitive issues. Current Chinese procedures encompass ideas from premodern Chinese views of strategy and statecraft, world view of modem totalitarianism, experience of communist leaders as they rose to power and more recent experiences meeting domestic and international challenges since the start of economic reform. Recent publications have also shown that China is interested in using psychological warfare to incorporate traditional strategic approaches, exploit the power of modem communications technology and support national policy objectives across diplomatic, economic and military spheres.

Historical Perspectives

China's premodern historical tradition produced extensive writings on military strategy. The best known by far is The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, a 5th-century B.C. nobleman who lived in what is now Shandong Province. This widely read work emphasizes that the preferred strategy of all warfare is manipulating the enemy to create an opportunity for easy victory without combat. Sun Tzu advised that attacking the enemy's strategy is the best way to achieve victory, attacking his alliances is next, attacking his troops is next and attacking his fortified cities is the worst.' Modem Chinese sources often paraphrase the concept, "It is better to attack the enemy's mind than to attack his fortified cities," and it is considered the traditional origin of psychological warfare.' But achieving victory without combat requires careful planning, a prosperous and contented populace that fully supports the state, well-trained and highly disciplined troops and absolute secrecy within alliances and during operations. If a military campaign is required, it should seek to achieve its goals with minimum risk, destruction and suffering.6

The ability to use deception skillfully is a highly prized characteristic of a leader. …

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