Chinese Public Opinion Warfare: A Wake-Up Call
Helle Dale /
Chinese advances on the cultural and informational fronts have not gone unnoticed in Washington.
While U.S. international broadcasting continues to struggle with budget cuts, Chinese TV (CCTV) this year launched itself on the Washington scene with sparkling new office facilities close to Capitol Hill, and the Chinese news agency Xinhua opened office space in Times Square in New York.
More in-your-face challenges to American news domination are hard to imagine. Meanwhile, by embedding and funding so-called Confucius Institutes in colleges and universities throughout the U.S. (and indeed globally), China is promoting a benign cultural image while influencing the study of Sino–U.S. relations.
A new Heritage Foundation research paper by Chinese expert Dean Cheng lays out the principles and theory behind China’s public diplomacy advances—or, as the Chinese call it, “public opinion warfare.” “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese Public Opinion Warfare and the Need for a Robust American Response” is highly recommended reading for lawmakers, Pentagon planners, State Department personnel, and anyone who sees China as a global competitor of the U.S.—which was 66 percent of Americans as surveyed by the Pew Research Center this fall.
True to form, the Chinese have developed a comprehensive, integrated, and detailed theory of “public opinion warfare,” one of three pillars of asymmetric or “political” warfare, the others being “legal warfare” and “psychological warfare.” They are dead serious about the strategic potential of these non-kinetic aspects of warfare. Over the past decade, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has given increased attention to asymmetric warfare and released “political work regulations” to the People’s Liberation Army for guidance. The public opinion groundwork for future conflicts is being laid in peace time.
In hopes of being able to alter the strategic context of any future U.S.–PRC confrontation, the PRC is improving its ability to influence both global and Chinese public opinion. If the United States does not counter Chinese political warfare efforts, it may well find that its access to the Western Pacific is endangered by a lack of regional support—long before American forces even begin moving toward the area. In order to avoid being outmaneuvered by a PRC intent on winning without firing a shot, the U.S. must strengthen its strategic communications, public diplomacy, and media outreach capabilities.
Chinese doctrine on “public opinion warfare” has four tenets:
- Follow top-down direction: Any effort has to be part of a national strategic objective;
- Emphasize preemption—i.e., shape the narrative;
- Be flexible and responsive to changing conditions; and
- Exploit all available resources—i.e., integrate all tools of power projection.
These four add up to a Chinese version of “smart” integration of all the tools of power.
Ironically, Chinese strategists believe they are taking a page out of the U.S. playbook, and they study American military interventions with keen interest from a public opinion perspective. Particularly, the intervention in Iraq was considered a triumph for U.S. “public opinion warfare” as seen by the Chinese—a conclusion that American scholars and planners would find puzzling.
What is certain, though, is that the U.S. government should get far more serious about its own public diplomacy strategy and tools. It has been warned about the challenges that face the U.S.