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Truth and reality with Chinese characteristics

Submitted by markopetreski@… on Wed, 05/01/2024 - 10:48
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The building blocks of the propaganda system enabling CCP information campaigns

French and Spanish translations are now available.

Executive Summary

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is leveraging its propaganda system to build a toolkit to enable information campaigns. Its objective is to control communication and shape narratives and perceptions about China in order to present a specific version of truth and reality, both domestically and internationally. Ultimately, the CCP aims to strengthen its grip on power, legitimise its activities and bolster China’s cultural, technological, economic and military influence.

The CCP seeks to maintain total control over the information environment within China, while simultaneously working to extend its influence abroad to reshape the global information ecosystem. That includes not only controlling media and communications platforms outside China, but also ensuring that Chinese technologies and companies become the foundational layer for the future of information and data exchange worldwide.

This research report finds that the CCP seeks to harvest data from various sources, including commercial entities, to gain insights into target audiences for its information campaigns. We define an information campaign as a targeted, organised plan of related and integrated information operations, employing information-related capabilities (tools, techniques or activities) with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt or manipulate information — including the individual or collective decision making based on that information — and deliberately disseminated on a large scale. The party also invests in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and immersive technologies that shape how people perceive reality and engage with information. The aim is to gain greater control, if not dominance, over the global information ecosystem.

To understand the drivers, tools and outcomes of that process, this report and its accompanying website (ChinaInfoBlocks.aspi.org.au) examine the activities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the information domain, particularly its investments in technology and research and development (R&D) companies that might serve as ‘building blocks’ for the party’s information campaigns.

Specifically, this research comprehensively maps the CCP’s propaganda system, highlighting the linkages between the Central Propaganda Department, state-owned or -controlled propaganda entities and data-collection activities, and technology investments in Chinese companies, many of which now operate globally.

This research illustrates the various ways in which the party-state is leveraging the propaganda system and commercial entities to gain access to data that it deems strategically valuable for the propaganda system and its ongoing information operations. It also shows how the propaganda system uses new and emerging technologies, including generative AI, mobile gaming and immersive technologies, to establish and maintain control of the narrative and continuously refine its toolbox and techniques.

It’s imperative that policymakers develop robust defences and countermeasures against future disruptive information campaigns from Beijing and to ensure an open and secure global information environment. In mapping those companies linked to China’s propaganda system that are seeking market dominance in key technologies, and how their activities may support CCP efforts to shape the global information environment, this project aims to inform government and industry decisions on digital supply-chain security, supporting policies for safer and more secure digital technologies.

The first section of this report lays out the fundamentals of CCP theory that have, over decades, defined the party-state’s strategy in the information domain. A theoretical understanding of how the CCP conceptualises its goals is important in unpacking the different tools used to achieve them. The second section outlines the CCP’s complex and vast propaganda system and how it works. Later sections expand on the ways in which CCP theory underpins the propaganda system and its activities, including through practical examples and case studies.

This report is accompanied by a website that offers detailed network diagrams of the relationships between China’s propaganda system and the companies associated with it: directly, through a state-ownership structure linking back to the propaganda system, or indirectly, through significant state support. The website also hosts case studies relevant to the report findings. The map can be explored on the website, Identifying The Building Blocks of China’s Information Campaigns (ChinaInfoBlocks.aspi.org.au).

figure 1
Source: Screenshot of ChinaInfoBlocks.aspi.org.au dataset, ASPI.

Research methodology

The CCP’s propaganda efforts on social media have been widely studied, enabling a baseline understanding of common narratives and tactics. Previous ASPI research, for example, has tracked a persistent, large-scale influence campaign linked to Chinese state actors on Twitter and Facebook.1 Several other research institutes have published important research on how the Chinese party-state attempts to control the information environment globally.2

China’s propaganda system is a vast structure. Under its direct control or with its direct support are a web of additional entities whose portfolio contributes to the party’s ability to meet its strategic aims in the information environment. Countries that understand the ‘invisible architecture’ of the CCP’s propaganda system and technologies will be better able to address and respond to its global efforts to skew the information environment.

Important research questions remain understudied. In particular, research on the building blocks that need to be in place to support and inform successful efforts to shape the information environment is limited. What’s the Chinese party-state doing to build its capacity to control ‘truth’ and influence how external audiences perceive, engage with and question reality?

To bridge that knowledge gap, this project examines how the party-state is leveraging the propaganda system:

  1. through commercial entities, by collecting data or gaining access to datasets that it deems strategically valuable that could be used for propaganda purposes, including potentially for current or future information operations (for example, undertaking data-collection activities that build the party-state’s capacity to generate insights on current or potential targets of information operations)
  2. through state support, by investing in R&D and access to new and emerging technology to shape or distort the information environment both domestically and globally.

Our project is based on ASPI’s 2019 report, Engineering global consent. That report first identified Global Tone Communications Technology (GTCOM), a machine-translation company that’s controlled by the CCP Central Propaganda Department. GTCOM claims that it accesses data from social media and has downstream access to datasets of the internet of things (IoT) and software products that it supplies, mainly to other PRC technology companies, to generate insights to support China’s state security and propaganda work.3

Building on Engineering global consent, we’ve sought to identify and explain how the Chinese party-state’s expansive propaganda system exploits new and emerging technologies and seeks to shape or distort the information environment both domestically and globally. To answer these questions, we generated network graphs describing the relationships between companies in our dataset, which are mostly Chinese state-owned or backed by state funds, with direct links to the propaganda system and other entities. We used that research to better understand areas of business activity associated with the PRC’s propaganda system, especially when such activity is related to data collection, aggregation and processing.

Our research effort involved identifying entities linked to the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee (‘the Central Propaganda Department’), provincial-level propaganda departments, or other party-state bodies linked to the propaganda system, such as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This project began with a months-long effort to build a network graph of companies that were directly and indirectly linked to the Central Propaganda Department. Our research included looking for subsidiaries, shareholders and strategic cooperation and MoU partners of the companies we identified. Our information sources focused on PRC-based company databases and shareholders, and included company websites, company press releases and corporate disclosure documents. We then narrowed the scope of our research to focus on the specific case studies covered in this report.

Party-state news and publishing outlets were included in our research because the Central Propaganda Department is responsible for the supervision of news and publishing work, and those outlets are key platforms for disseminating information. However, rather than simply mapping out the names of media and publishing outlets, and their publication outputs domestically in China and overseas, our research emphasis was on identifying where those outlets are establishing branches or partnerships that expand their business activity into areas of business related to new and emerging technology.

While this research has revealed large amounts of previously inaccessible information on Chinese companies with links to the CCP’s propaganda institutions, it relies on publicly available information sources that are accessible outside mainland China. Continued research on these connections, as well as on connections between these types of companies and other parts of the party-state bureaucracy, is required.

Key findings

The report places the PRC’s propaganda system in the context of the CCP’s overall strategic frameworks, which are filtered down to specific policy outputs. Key findings are as follows:

  • The Chinese party-state sees data as central to its ability to modernise its propaganda efforts in the global information environment. Unlike the legislation of other state actors, China’s 2021 Data Security Law clearly articulates a vision for how data and data exchanges contribute to an overall national strategy (see ‘The propaganda system and its feedback loop’ at page 13). It prioritises data access and the regulation of data flows as part of its efforts to ensure control.
    - That data is global. For example, China’s People’s Public Opinion Cloud combines about half a million information sources across 182 countries and 42 languages to support the Chinese Government’s and PRC enterprises’ international communication needs.4 The platform has both government and corporate applications and provides tools for public-security agencies to monitor the information environment and public sentiment on sensitive events and topics.5
  • The CCP sees emerging technology, such as e-commerce, virtual reality and gaming, as a means to promote a CCP-favoured perspective on truth and reality that supports the official narrative that the CCP seeks to project (even if those technologies may also be potentially hazardous to the party’s interests). This is especially true in relation to the CCP’s ability to conduct information campaigns and shape global information standards and foundational technologies.
    - The CCP’s national key cultural export enterprises and projects lists (both the 2021–22 and 2022–2023 versions), name dozens of mobile gaming companies and mobile games that receive state support (see ‘The perception of reality’ at page 19), including subsidies, so that they can continue to enjoy global success and help advance the mission to boost China’s cultural soft power.
    - In e-commerce, for example, companies such as Temu (which became the most-downloaded free iPhone app in the US in 20236) also collect large amounts of data that’s likely to be shared with the PRC’s propaganda system.7 In gaming, popular video games such as Genshin Impact, the developers of which receive Chinese state support linked to the propaganda system, create similar security risks due to the strategic value of the user data that they generate and collect.
  • Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the CCP has renewed its emphasis on a national strategy of media convergence that brings together traditional and ‘emerging’ media across various dimensions—content, channels, platforms, operations and management—to enhance the agility of propaganda initiatives in responding to real-time shifts in public sentiment.8 Media convergence is directly linked to the perception that an absence of guidance on public opinion risks China’s security and stability. The party uses digital media, particularly the data resources that digital media help to generate, to improve its ability to use media effectively in its communications strategy and to create feedback loops in China and internationally.9

Policy recommendations

Policymakers face two key challenges: first, to apply the CCP’s way of thinking to efforts to counter information campaigns, before they’re conducted; and, second, to resist China’s efforts to shape global information standards and core foundational technologies for Web 2.0 and beyond.10

Informed by the findings contained in this report, we make the following recommendations for governments, civil society, social-media platforms and hardware and software developers and vendors:

  1. Governments should exert pressure on technology companies to conduct more thorough reviews of their digital supply chains to ensure that their Web 2.0 and future Web 3.0 foundations, and the companies and technologies that they rely on, are transparent and secure. Improving due diligence, transparency, trust and security by design in the digital supply chain, at both the technology and systems/applications layers, must be considered, especially for companies engaged in government procurements. That can be achieved by imposing more stringent reporting requirements, developing high-risk vendor frameworks, imposing and enforcing privacy and data requirements, and developing consistent data-minimisation approaches. Already the US and partner nations have sought to enhance software security by requiring companies working with governments to provide software ‘bills of materials’. The Quad Cybersecurity Partnership’s ‘joint principles for secure software’11 is an excellent template for considering enhanced transparency regulation.
    - Technology companies, including vendors, platforms and developers should commit and adhere to the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, develop security by design standards, and impose greater moderation and fact-checking standards across online platforms, social media, etc. to reduce the potential for attacks on the availability, confidentiality, and integrity of data, products, services, and networks and highlight mis- and dis-information and propaganda. As China’s information campaigns seek to weaponise truth and reality, increasing vigilance, verification and veracity must be asserted to ensure information consumers are offered the best chance of identifying mis- and dis-information influences.
  2. Governments must exert significantly more policy attention to the regulation of technologies used for surveillance and related immersive technologies. Few governments have developed broad definitions of those technologies or studied their privacy and data-security impacts. As a consequence, their regulation hasn’t been effective or focused on their future societal and national-security implications. More specifically:
    - Governments should define machine learning and cloud data as surveillance or dual-use goods. For example, the European Union has identified dual-use applications of AI systems as an area of concern in their assessment process as part of the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI.12 The Council of Europe has also raised concerns with the Pegasus surveillance software.13 The US has identified cloud data as an export under the Export Administration Regulations that may attract dual-use controls. While these efforts are significant, regulation still lags the use of machine learning and cloud data by companies and governments, resulting in inconsistent application, a situation rife for exploitation by authoritarian regimes. Governments should standardise and tighten regulation on the technologies and services not traditionally understood as surveillance or dual-use (data) products, including data-generating products and services in e-commerce gaming industries. Doing so would enable them to apply traditional tool sets for preventing access to goods of that nature, such as export controls, technologies and services not traditionally understood as surveillance or dual-use (data) products, including data-generating products and services in e-commerce gaming industries.
    - Additionally, increased transparency in regard to which technology actors and entities, whether they’re involved in R&D activities or product sales, are acting on behalf of state interests could clarify what data is used for surveillance purposes and what data can be used to undermine another state’s sovereignty.
  3. To further increase transparency, governments should also more clearly define which individual actors and entities are required to register under foreign-agent registration schemes. That includes Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and emerging equivalents elsewhere, such as the UK’s upcoming foreign influence registration scheme. The US, for example, used FARA to force PRC state-owned media companies such as Xinhua and CGTN to register as state agents.14 Based on the same logic, any technology company linked directly to China’s propaganda system or receiving state support to facilitate the party-state’s propaganda efforts could be required to register.
  4. Internationally, governments should work to standardise the ways in which data is shared, and proactively regulate how it can be produced and stored. Efforts thus far have failed to reach accord, and many have been siloed within specific functional domains (such as meteorological data, social services, food and agriculture, finance and so on). Such efforts can reduce opportunities for authoritarian regimes to collect, use and misuse data in ways that harm ethnic communities, disparage and denigrate alternative perspectives and silence dissent in the global information environment. The International Organization for Standardization, together with the UN Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business, among others, should establish joint government–industry standardisation mechanisms.
  5. Multilaterally, democratic governments should work together to develop a stronger institutional understanding of the future vulnerabilities and risks of new technologies, particularly in the digital technology ecosystem. That understanding should guide the development of new standards for emergent technologies and assist industry to commercialise those technologies with the goal of safety and security by design. The Quad Principles on Critical and Emerging Technology Standards are a good example of work that needs to occur on the future vulnerabilities and risks of new technologies.
  6. Locally, governments and civil society should establish guardrails against the negative impacts of CCP efforts to shape the information environment, including through information campaigns such as media literacy and critical thinking campaigns targeting individuals and communities. Efforts should not only help users understand what’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘fake’, but also ensure that they have broader awareness of how entities supporting foreign information campaigns may be present in their supply chains, so that risks associated with them are identified and more reliably controlled.

Full Report

For the full report, please download here.

QR Code to download this report in English

French translation is available here.

QR Code to download this report in French

Spanish translation is available here.

QR Code to download this report in Spanish

Truth and reality with Chinese characteristics
Wed, 05/01/2024 - 10:43
markopetreski@…
Attachment
ADF

Australian Defence Force

ACSC

Australian Cyber Security Centre

IEC

the International Electrotechnical Commission

IEEE

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

IoT

Internet of Things

IoTAA

Internet of Things Alliance Australia

ISO

International Organisation for Standardization

USB

universal serial bus

IIOT

Industrial Internet of Things

ASD

Australian Signals Directorate

CCP

Chinese Communist Party

MERICS

Mercator Institute for China Studies

PRC

Peoples Republic of China

VPN

virtual private network

AI

Artificial Intelligence

SCS

Social Credit System

BRI

One Belt, One Road initiative

CETC

China Electronics Technology Group Corporation

NGO

nongovernment organisation

RFID

radio-frequency identification

CFIUS

Committee on Foreign Investment in the US

SVAIL

Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

UTS

University of Technology Sydney

ATO

Australian Taxation Office

COAG

Council of Australian Governments

DHS

Department of Human Services

DTA

Digital Transformation Agency

FIS

Face Identification Service

FVS

Face Verification Service

TDIF

Trusted Digital Identity Framework

NUDT

National University of Defense Technology

PLAIEU

PLA Information Engineering University

RFEU

Rocket Force Engineering University

STEM

science, technology, engineering and mathematics

UNSW

University of New South Wales

ZISTI

Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute

AFP

Australian Federal Police

ACIC

Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission

A4P

Action for Peacekeeping

ASEAN

Association of Southeast Asian Nations

C-34

Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations

CTOAP

Peacekeeping Training Centre (Timor-Leste)

F-FDTL

Timor-Leste Defence Force

MFO

Multinational Force and Observers

MINUSCA

UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic

MINUSMA

UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali

MONUSCO

UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

PNGDF

Papua New Guinea Defence Force

PNTL

National Police of Timor-Leste

RAMSI

Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands

RFMF

Republic of Fiji Military Forces

RPNGC

Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary

RSIPF

Royal Solomon Islands Police Force

UNAMI

UN Assistance Mission for Iraq

UNAMID

UN–African Union Mission in Darfur

UNAMIR

UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda

UNAVEM

UN Angola Verification Mission

UNDOF

UN Disengagement Observer Force

UNIFIL

UN Interim Force in Lebanon

UNIKOM

UN Iraq–Kuwait Observation Mission

UNIOGBIS

UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office for Guinea-Bissau

UNISFA

UN Interim Security Force for Abyei

UNOSOM

UN Operation in Somalia

UNMHA

UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement

UNMIBH

UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina

UNMIK

UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo

UNMIL

UN Mission in Liberia

UNMIS

UN Mission in Sudan

UNMISET

UN Mission of Support to East Timor

UNMISS

UN Mission in South Sudan

UNMIT

UN Integrated Mission in East Timor

UNOTIL

UN Office in East Timor

UNSMIS

UN Supervision Mission in Syria

UNTAC

UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia

UNTAES

UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium

UNTAET

UN Transitional Administration in East Timor

UNTSO

UN Truce Supervision Organization