CPC alternatives to censorship

Overn the last decade internet use has spiked in China, from just over half a million users in the mid to late 90’s to over 500 million  now. This huge multitude of people online has no doubt caused Beijing a great deal of anxiety. As a source of public dissent and promulgation of unsanctioned ideas the internet is a real threat to their hegemony. Because of this China has seen a number of solutions to fix the problem of ‘internet freedom’ over the years; in 1997 the CPC first started to regulate the use of the internet, the next year the ‘Golden Shield’ (Great Firewall) project was conceived and completed in 2006/2008. While in 2009 the ‘Green Dam” programme, which called for the mandatory inclusion of surveillance microchips in all new computers almost passed into law.

These solutions all had their limitations; the 1997 regulations only gave China the framework of laws and their prosecution, not the methods for action, the Great Firewall can be circumvented by proxy servers, subverted ideologically through subtlety and sarcasm and served as a focus point for more criticism. Meanwhile, the Green Dam project was a disaster; it was unwieldy and ineffective in many of its parameters, obviously and poorly plagiarised, a potentially huge security risk and poorly disguised an ‘anti-pornography measure’, as such it was unpopular and was scrapped during the testing phase.

The subtleties of the internet seemed to stifle complete control, but at some point, shortly before Green Dam, Beijing stumbled upon the best answer so far and it had nothing to do with new coding or programmes. Beijing’s solution involved the adding of a social element to the equation. In 2004 the Publicity Department of Changsa city, seemingly of their own volition, hired China’s first ‘anonymous internet commentators’; a group whose job was to surreptitiously post positive comments and discredit complaints. Over the next three years this method proved so effective in stifling online dissent that it grew exponentially, organically spreading to different parts of the country and through the different channels of the CPC’s body politic. From every regional and city council to news sites, forums, chat rooms and social networking sites, CPC commentators are now commonly found on foreign news sites too.

An internet commentator conference broadcast on Chinese Television

Originally paid 0.50 Yuan a post, the writers are now popularly (and derisively) known as the “50 Cent Party”, and their goal, according to the head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee Li Yangui,  is to “track and analyze… public opinion, prevent the spread of undesirable information” and ultimately provide “positive guidance of public opinion”. Highlighting their importance to China’s internet policy, three years after the germination of the concept in 2007 Premier Hu Jintao called for the proliferation of this method at a major politburo conference. CPC support of this method undoubtedly lies in its ability to effectively direct online opinion towards any narrative end almost anonymously. This use of anonymity, rather than just deleting or blocking offensive material, serves to effectively remove the spectre of CPC heavy-handedness and tricks users into thinking the pro-party talking points they’re reading are the unbiased opinions of regular netizens. In a widely circulated, leaked communiqué that says much about the ‘scapegoating’ culture of the CPC, the stated true objective of the ‘50 Centers’ was revealed; to undermine the influence of “Taiwanese democracy”; as if China’s societal problems stemmed from anything Taiwan has done. Included in the supposed missive was also this incredible list of guidelines:

  1.   To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan.
  2. Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of “what kind of system can truly implement democracy.”
  3.  To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism.
  4. Use America’s and other countries’ interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the West] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values.
  5.  Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions.
  6. Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.

Estimations by some experts range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of full and part-time anonymous commentators working in China, according to local Chinese news media some large cities and regions openly employ hundreds of writers. On the other hand, some government and media sources deny the existence of paid commentators. In an interview with the Global Times, a former employee of the Public Security Bureau, Mrs Wang, implied that the 50 Cent Party was really an unorganised collection of pro-party citizens working outside of the state. Contradicting herself, Wang then went on to state that paid commentators are a real phenomenon; “It is necessary to have the commentators because sometimes truth may hurt social stability”.

Despite the occasional denials, the existence of the 50 Cent Party  is considered a well known fact, and the proliferation of the concept seems to imply that it is successful and here to stay. The concept does have its detractors and debateable weaknesses however; Hu Yong in an article by The Global Times argues that the commentators, because they are anonymous, dilute the veracity of their personas and that their very existence only makes “the public more aware of them”. On platforms like Twitter, he says, their anonymity means that “they can’t work if nobody follows them” and if they weren’t anonymous and people knew they are ‘50 Centers’ no one would. He concludes by saying that the ‘50 Cent Party’ has actually damaged the practice of ‘opinion guidance’ in China; it now “carries the stigma of immorality… commentators were only doing it for the money.” Furthermore, awareness of the ‘50 cent’ concept has damaged the reputation of China internationally, suspiciously pro-CPC comments by anonymous commentators are now often met with derision on Western news sites. As Zhang Shengjun, a politics professor complained in an article on the Global Times; the 50 Cent tag “has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots”. These are the eventual and obvious consequences of being duplicitous, no one will trust you.

Meanwhile the Chinese people have to live with the worry that their government are distorting and manipulating the news even in the commentary sections of their favourite websites.

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Mercenary Espionage and Chinese Deniability.

US Chamber of Commerce

Despite it happening at the business end of 2011, the hacking of the US Chamber of Commerce ( seemingly  by Chinese agents), shocking as it wasn’t in this information age, seemed as nostalgic and interesting an example as any of the diplomatic intrigue and excitement of the Cold War. In 2012 this comparison hardly needs more encouragement, as online at least and in the world of espionage, a war has been running between the US and China since the war in Kosovo. The narrative of China enacting nefarious schemes against US interests has gained mainstream acceptance in the West and vice versa in China. But just how true are the now countless, recent reports of Chinese state culpability in hacking attacks against the West, and are they indicative of conflicts to come and the PRC’s future policies?

Certainly China has a huge footprint in terms of web users (300 million netizens and rising) and is known to account for a relatively proportionate percentage of the net’s hacking activity, though little of this can be attributed to hackers with State support, let alone to the State itself. China vigorously denies all allegations of hacking and is perhaps a bigger victim of Chinese hackers than the US, but there are many very clear, recent examples of attacks on foreign nations that demonstrably are connected to China.

Recent attacks on the Chamber of Commerce, Google, the website for the Nobel Foundation, the offices of the Dalai Lama, the US’s armed drone fleet, US Meteorological satellites and other examples all have an undeniable Sino tang to them. They were certainly perpetrated either by the PRC or by pro-PRC groups with State protection or support. The evidence regarding the attack on the Chamber of Commerce, for example, points to perpetrators with an interest in the CoC officers assigned to Asian affairs, was traced back to Chinese IP addresses and resulted in the CoC network printing out error messages in Mandarin for a week. Likewise these attacks were well organised and informed, pointing at the very least to PRC coaching if not direct involvement. Similar attacks on Google and the Nobel Prize Foundation’s site can only really link; motive-wise, to the PRC, whereas the recent hacking of US satellites and the US drone fleet via infected versions of Adobe Reader could have only been achieved by China or Russia.

 By now the Americans are used to what the rise of Chinese net power means for them, but they still have no real way of ensuring against it. As Mr Chavern; the CoC Chief Operating manager said to Wall Street Journal reporters; “It’s nearly impossible to keep people out. The best thing you can do is have something that tells you when they get in”. Though they have no real defence against it, or perhaps underlining that fact, America’s relative impotence in this area sees them threatening war over it. In May of 2011 the Pentagon released a report stating that computer sabotage by another country could, in the right circumstances, constitute an act of war. None of the Pentagon’s tough ‘Cold War talk’ seems to mean anything to China though, as when it comes to aggressive acts of computer espionage, they more often than not resort to outsourcing to keep their hands clean.

Publicly China’s go-to team for Cyber-espionage matters is the ‘Blue Army’ a recently publicised elite taskforce drawn from an ‘exceptionally deep’ talent pool of civilian and military personnel. The Blue Army could probably account for most of the hacking activity attributed to the CPC, if only they didn’t spend most of their time defending China. But the CPC doesn’t need a state run force when it can turn to civilian groups to get the job done. In an interview with a former PLA general who gives the game away with an admission of guilt, he states that China’s online strength lies in the nation’s hacking culture; “It’s just like Ping Pong. We have more people playing it, so we are good at it.” The Blue Army, are for the most part a wholly defensive force (according to the CPC), and there is little direct evidence to question this, notably because most of the high profile attacks from China can been attributed to three civilian hacking syndicates: the Honker Union, GhostNet and the Red hacker Alliance.

These civililian groups, with CPC guidance, are more than capable of taking down most targets, whether that means hacking the offices of the Dalai Lama, taking down Google Asia or stealing from the lightly defended Chamber of Commerce website. Mostly these groups are made up of self-sufficient cells of hundreds and thousands of hackers who just like any other group, go after foreign targets for money or fame. But whether these groups obtain PRC assistance, occasionally work for the PRC or are a front is irrelevant, they have tacit impunity in China. The best of the hacking community, like with what happens to some arrested hackers in the West, are co-opted and some are even idolised as national heroes. The difference is that the US certainly doesn’t allow their hackers a free pass for attacking foreign nations and they certainly wouldn’t hand them the reins. In China outsourcing net attacks to these groups, whether through direct channels or not, is beneficial as a case of deniability, whereas in the West the opposite is true; it would be considered a huge liability.

Liability or not, for the meantime it does seem like it will be Chinese policy to hide behind, enable and outsource to these domestic groups, who while off the leash will launch many more (albeit sometimes clumsy) attacks on anti-PRC targets. Deniability trumps tact, but how this strategy would play out in a worst case scenario; with one or more Chinese groups taking it upon themselves to do real damage to the US or its allies?  The possible consequences make this strategy, if that is what it is, look reckless. Though it may be technically true, foreign nations will not buy claims of Chinese innocence if domestic hacker groups hiding under the grey areas of Chinese policing take it upon themselves to do something big out of turn. IT experts and governments worldwide all know about the relative freedom that some hackers operate under in China and this effectively de-fangs their effectiveness as a scapegoat. Rather than a baseless threat, this may be the point of the Pentagon’s warning in 2011; reign in the hackers, we are prepared to punish you for their behaviour.

Considering China’s vast internet security system deniability is no defence.

Fishing disputes; a proxy for territorial conflict.

The South China Sea

Over-fished and under-policed by a corrupt, negligent bureaucracy, China’s territorial fish stocks, after sustaining the worlds most populous nation for thousands of years, are now collapsed. Conversely the consequences of this development seem to be being felt by China’s coastal neighbours the strongest, as China’s 300,000 boat fishing fleet looks elsewhere for their catch. As China’s local waters yield less and less fish, Chinese fishing boats can now be seen trawling (sometimes illegally) across the oceans of the world; in the Mid to South Pacific in the East and around the coasts of Africa in West. Because of this and the large distances to new open fishing grounds, China’s huge fleet has also continuosly been caught illegally operating in the national and contested waters of its neighbours.

Though the CCP has admitted in some news releases to the development of legislation to solve the problem by reducing the national fishing fleet by a third, the reality of the situation is that China’s food demands are growing faster than they can be satiated. The CCP (like with its other industries) is unlikely to endanger its maritime food industry for the sake of conservation or East Asian diplomacy. Likewise on issues of upholding the sanctity of its neighbour’s territorial China has a long standing belligerent stance that is unlikely to change. However when its fleet provokes international headlines like in the recent stabbing of two Korean Coastguard members by a Chinese fishing captain, has China attempted to tone down the overly nationalistic responses of the past. Chinese worries about balancing its ambition against alienating its neighbours into greater collusion with a more engaged US are more meaningful as Beijing sees its superpower ambitions hemmed in by its wary ASEAN and North Eastern neighbours. Recent anti Chinese protests in friendly Vietnam, along with anger in the less diplomatically friendly nations of Korea, Japan and Taiwan are the results of China overextending itself, and considering America’s new interest in the region, it now seems that China is in desperate need of a new strategy.

Chinese fishermen resisting the Korean Coastguard

Unfortunately for the region as a whole, China is in a bind; it cannot easily climb down from previous nationalistic assertions over contested waters, nor can it easily reign in its fishing fleet, the members of which seem determined to act forcefully, even when they are caught illegally fishing in foreign waters. The result seems to be that Beijing, through its media, wants to straddle both a nationalistic stance and that of an innocent and rational actor until the issue dies down; so far it has been unconvincing.

On the issue of the conflict between the South Korean coastguard and illegal Chinese fishermen, especially regarding the recent murder of a member of that Coastguard service, China has only clumsily played the part of the good neighbour. Articles by the Global Times and Xinhua news began their PR responses poorly by challenging the truth of South Korean allegations, downplaying the murder as an “alleged stabbing” and then condemning the response of the angry Korean press and people as “overheated”, “out of control” and “irrational”.

Still having not offered any more condolence than “If the… coast guard was truly stabbed… Chinese public opinion will not take the fisherman’s side”, an editorial from the Global Times then went on to belligerently attack the Korean response to the event. It began by challenging Korea’s jurisdictional right to arrest Chinese fishermen caught in their waters, offers excuses for an “unjustifiable defence” against the murder; ‘that perhaps the Coastguard provoked the attack’ and then called into question the fairness of Korea’s judiciary in bluntly implying that the fisherman could be treated poorly and may not be given a fair trial. Unbelievably the article then went on to sincerely state its disbelief at the Korean media’s continual attacks on China and warned against further Korean provocation. This despite the fact that this is not the first time a South Korean Coastguard member has been killed by Chinese fishermen (one was killed and six were injured in 2008) as the rate of apprehensions for illegal Chinese fishing boats increases (20% this year alone to 470!).

This clumsy churlishness from Beijing beggars belief and makes one think that either it’s a deliberate provocation or proof that China really has no clue how to constructively and sincerely solve disputes with foreign states. Now, more than two weeks after the incident, China has yet to apologise or offer any kind of condolence more than noting the “unfortunate” nature of the death and paying lip service to its obligation towards respecting the territorial integrity of its neighbours. For their part the Korean side is still demanding an apology, is considering arming their Coastguard and is increasing the fines for illegal fishermen.

Unsurprisingly Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines; all close Chinese maritime neighbours have experienced similar issues with bolshie Chinese fishermen recently and all have condemned, to varying degrees of boisterousness (none have had success) the CPC’s indifference. Taiwan, a nation with complicated ties to the mainland has not been engaged in violent conflict with fishermen or the Chinese Coastguard, but the large numbers of Illegal Chinese boats in Taiwanese waters have also resulted in a large increase in fines and promises to step up its policing measures. Likewise have Vietnam and the Philippines have had trouble with ever increasing numbers of Chinese fishermen in their territorial waters. On the flip side, Vietnam especially has had its own fishermen blatantly intimidated and harassed by patrolling Chinese Coastguard boats in contested (and sometimes their own) waters on the orders of the Chinese government in Hainan.

Issues with Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese however, perhaps in equal parts due to historic tensions and Japan’s significantly larger and more powerful Coastguard, have been much more incendiary than run ins between the Chinese fishing industry and other nations. Notably the Japanese have resolutely patrolled the oceans around their nation, including areas that China claims as its own, and has made prosecuting illegal fishermen a priority. With both the fishermen and Japanese Coastguard being as equally determined it is obviously no surprise that the increasing conflict generated by more boats and belligerent crewmen could lead to a serious incident. That incident came in 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the contested Diayou/Senkaku Islands, resulting in the arrest of the captain and a diplomatic fight which led to anti Japanese protests across China, trade sanctions, the downgrading of relations and eventually a Japanese back-down. What was originally a stubborn battle concerning differing versions of the conflict was eventually put to bed when a Japanese Coastguard member  released a video of the incident confirming the Japanese version of the story, but by then Japan had already backed down and the issue had ran its course. In Japanese waters however the war against illegal fishing is ongoing, the Japanese feel bullied by the Chinese who certainly manufactured the conflict and let down by their government; the issue could very easily relapse should either side wish it.

It seems regardless of whether a fight breaks out in contested waters, Chinese citizens are arrested or if foreign nationals are killed or injured that the impetus for conflict has been the attitude of Chinese fishing crews, encouraged by the CCP’s nationalistic responses. As such the two fundamental factors of the issue are China’s refusal to reign in its fleet and its wishy-washy responses to the confrontations that result; whereby incidents will be played down as “a normal fishery case” or inflated to impassioned diplomatic shut-downs seemingly at random.  China seems willing to play the conflict game to their benefit as situations warrant.  Chinese culpability is compounded in this case by its refusal to do anything about it, and means that the theory that this could be a strategy of Chinese escalation through ‘soft power’ cannot be ruled out. These disputes may be useful in compelling some neighbours to come to the negotiating table in a more compliant manner than would otherwise be the case, at the same time it allows China to size up the fighting spirit of its neighbours. Though China has in some cases tried to be diplomatic, the overwhelming amount of noise coming from Beijing on fisheries cases will not have been welcoming news to its neighbours, this could badly backfire. If China cannot find a more sincere and respectful way to address this issue in public then it is likely that the US will be able to increase the resolve of ASEAN nations in conjunction with its Korean and Japanese allies; tightening the noose around China even further.