US employing 'Cold War' strategies in information campaign against China
Published: Mar 21, 2024 04:56 AM
Demonstrators holding signs that read

Demonstrators holding signs that read "cooperation not conflict with China" and "China is not our enemy" stand behind Leon Panetta (left), former US secretary of defense, and Mike Pompeo, former US secretary of state, during a House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the US and China hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on January 30, 2024. Photo: VCG

Recently disclosed information revealed that the CIA has been secretly operating on Chinese social media in recent years, attempting to shape public opinion about the Chinese government in targeted areas, which, analysts warned, not only demonstrates the modern application of Cold War-era strategies but also highlights the significance of information warfare in current global politics, undermining regional stability and normal development.

Reuters recently reported that former US officials with direct knowledge of the highly classified operation disclosed that former US president Donald Trump authorized the CIA to initiate secret operations on Chinese social media platforms, aimed at swaying public opinion in China against the Chinese government in certain regions. 
This covert operation began in 2019 and had not been previously exposed. US officials declined to provide specifics about these operations, according to the report.

Reuters mentioned that CIA spokesperson Chelsea Robinson declined to comment on the existence, objectives, or impact of this operation. The impact of these secret operations is not known and neither  has it been confirmed as to whether the Biden administration has continued them.

However, CIA Director Bill Burns recently wrote in "Foreign Affairs" that the US has increased its resources for intelligence gathering, analysis, and operations against China. Over the last two years, the CIA's budget for work related to China has more than doubled, with an increase in recruitment and training of Chinese-speaking staff and intensified competition with China in Latin America, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific region. 

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Friday at a daily press conference that the US, while often accusing other countries of spreading disinformation, is in fact the true breeding ground of disinformation. "Spreading disinformation cannot inhibit China's progress but will only discredit the US," he said. 

Carefully-selected targets

According to the report, the CIA's operations intended to alter public sentiment within China and specific countries such as those in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific region by spreading false information and negative narratives.

The three former US officials told Reuters that the CIA formed a special agent team that spread negative information about the Chinese government using fake online identities and relayed derogatory content to foreign news organizations.

Observers specializing in these regions have felt the ripples caused by these actions.
Gu Xiaosong, dean of the ASEAN Research Institute at the Hainan Tropical Ocean University, said that Southeast Asia has always been crucial for the US in formulating its foreign policy. To advance its Indo-Pacific strategy, the US needs this region as a pawn to suppress China's rise.

The US seeks to provoke competition between Southeast Asia and China, thereby affecting China's image in the region. For example, it depicts China as a threat to Southeast Asia, accuses China of obstructing so-called "freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea, and plays the common trick of spreading irresponsible remarks.

In the South Pacific region, when China advanced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), media influenced by the US and the West extensively propagated terms like the "debt trap" and "militarization" in association with China.

When China initiated the BRI in the Pacific region, the US and Australia repeatedly warned the island nations about the potential "debt traps" posed by Chinese projects. However, most of the debt in these countries is still predominantly held by the US and Australia, Yang Honglian, a Fiji-based senior researcher at the Pacific Islands Research Center at Liaocheng University in Shandong, told the Global Times in a previous interview.

While the US accuses China of creating debt traps in these nations, it also established the US International Development Finance Corporation with a budget of $60 billion to offer alternative financial assistance.

In the current dynamics of the Pacific island nations, Western media maintains a strong presence. Western countries label positive reporting by Chinese media while promoting the use of Associated Press news in the local media for free, Yang said.

"These are the countries that China has offered a development alternative that is geared toward win-win partnership rather than patronizing and conditional aid," Karanja Ngina, an observer on African affairs, noted. "The US has treated many of these countries and regions like discarded toys," he added.

Now, faced with the undeniable growth brought about by partnership with China, the US wants its discarded toys back, not for the purpose of doing better what China is doing well, but to stop any form of progress from taking place, Ngina said.

Countries that threaten US hegemony or refuse to politically or financially align with the US-led West are soon engulfed in never-ending wars under the pretext of "bringing democracy to the people." While countries not seen as valuable financial or geopolitical assets are ignored, only ever used as pawns to advance the US' agenda, Ngina noted.

Savvy tricks

The methods of the secret operation revealed this time are not new maneuvers by the US; even Reuters mentioned the intense information warfare waged by the US against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

During the Cold War era, the CIA was involved in disseminating 80 to 90 articles daily aimed at destabilizing the Soviet Union. The report quoted Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist who studies the use of such tactics, who said that covert messaging by the US could influence certain audiences.

Declassified documents reveal that, during the 1950s, the agency even established an astrology magazine in East Germany that featured ominous forecasts about communist leaders, according to Reuters.

In recent decades, the US has established news and cultural media outlets specifically targeting certain nations. Radio and television networks, fostered by the US and funded by the government, broadcast propaganda against targeting countries in dozens of languages around the clock. 

Using false information as a tool to attack other nations has become an "industry chain" of disinformation, including financial backing (referred to as "black gold"), spreading negative narratives ("black theories"), and using media mouthpieces ("black mouths") to influence international opinion, analysts noted.

In recent years, some bizarre and false narratives about China have emerged. These include exaggerated claims about China's political and economic influence, misinformation about its social systems and policies, and unfounded allegations regarding its global intentions. Such narratives often gain traction through social media and certain news outlets, contributing to skewed perceptions and misunderstandings about China in the international community.

One example of such false narratives is how a few US media outlets and opinion leaders absurdly described Lujiazui, Shanghai's bustling financial district, as a "ghost town" to denigrate China's economy. People soon realized that the images showing empty streets in Lujiazui were taken from carefully chosen angles and at specific times to create a misleading impression.

Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told the Global Times that the increasingly aggressive nature of US and Western allies' media campaigns against China amidst the China-US competition, aiming to weaken China's soft power and influence globally. 

He lamented the transformation of public opinion into the tool of geopolitical rivalry, highlighting targeted efforts to undermine harmony between the Chinese public and the government, potentially jeopardizing China's decades of peaceful development.

Countering disinformation

Amidst the intensifying US-China competition, actions characterized as media campaigns against China have reportedly escalated misunderstandings, eroded trust, and heightened tensions, contributing to regional instability. Observers note that these campaigns could undermine political and social stability in specific areas, with long-term repercussions.

In response, China has been bolstering its cybersecurity measures, enhancing information scrutiny, and promoting international cooperation to counter these information warfare tactics. 

The narrative of China as a reliable partner contrasts sharply with accusations from the US, such as the "debt trap" theory associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China's efforts aim to clarify its foreign policy and improve its image abroad, countering negative portrayals and advocating for a narrative of mutual benefit and non-interference, experts noted.

Li emphasized the necessity for China to protect its public from Western media's malignant influence and initiate more constructive dialogue with positive forces in the West. This approach seeks to encourage a rational policy perspective and strengthen ties with Global South countries, thereby exposing and countering Western disinformation strategies.