The recent Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh have once again brought to fore the employment of psychological operations (psyops) as an integral part of China’s expansionist policies. Psyops are a planned use of propaganda and other means to influence the behaviour of foreign governments, organizations, groups and individuals in a particular manner. Such propaganda is generally intended to demoralise the enemy, break his will to fight or resist, and sometimes, to render him favourably disposed to one’s position.
It is well known, but often forgotten, that psyops are an important part of Chinese war strategy. China penetrates target countries through a wide array of methods which include human and technological means. The most commonly used technique is to identify weaknesses or issues within the target audience and exploit these to their advantage so that the target country is unsettled as it is embroiled in its own internal problems. Freedom of speech, a characteristic of democratic countries, is used as a weapon against them. Perceived religious intolerance within societies, exploiting minority causes, fuelling anti-government agitations, fomenting trouble along border districts by supporting insurgent groups (like what China has been doing in the North East for years and even on Myanmar borders), are all issues exploited by China to weaken or pressurize target countries.
China practices Goebbels’s dictum: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. Sun Tzu had also emphasized the significance of defeating the enemy’s strategy without using physical force. Manipulating the information environment is central to outwitting one’s enemy. The word ‘morality’ is missing from the Chinese dictionary. Multiple agencies — media, research organisations, college and high school students, people of Chinese origin, Chinese businessmen involved in trade and commerce outside — are all roped in willy-nilly by coercion and threats.
China has also been using cyber operations as an effective instrument in its psyops. During the five-day period following the border clash, a large number of cyber attacks were reported across India originating from China. Indian cyber security firms and government entities have raised concerns about maintaining defences and the protection of vulnerable infrastructure in an all-out cyber war with China. To counter the Chinese threat, the Indian government banned 59 Chinese mobile applications in July 2020, including social media platforms such as TikTok, WeChat, and Helo, because user data was being sent back to China. 47 mirror apps were also banned. Another 108 have been banned subsequently for similar reasons. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of attacks in over 20 countries and countless industries around the world have been attributed to Chinese statesponsored actors. “Hack and leak” operations, where malicious actors use cyber tools to gain access to sensitive or secret material and then release it in the public domain, make up another facet of Chinese psyops. Beijing’s higher goal is to make the world suitable for the Chinese Communist Party’s hegemony across the world.
In the current crisis in Ladakh, China has been conducting their psyops at different levels. China assessed that in the present divided political environment, India will find it very difficult to publicly acknowledge Chinese intrusions into disputed areas, unilaterally changing the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to their advantage. To admit this would definitely cause a serious dent in the much vaunted image of a strong nationalist government. Their ‘psy-war’ strategy is suitably adapted — they have been conducting it under different themes at different levels. Let us look at these.
The first theme was to put the blame on India, and by constant repetition, to make it look true for the target audience in India and the rest of the world. Taking advantage of India’s initial hesitation to pin it down even after the Galwan incident, China was quick to issue a series of official statements blaming India, naming it as the aggressor. According to China, the Galwan clash took place due to an overreaction of the Indian troops, breaking the peace and tranquillity agreements which India needed to investigate. How cleverly the truth has been manipulated! The onus has always been on India to work with China to resolve the problem. The more recent statements claim that China has completed the disengagement process in most areas along the LAC, while on the ground, PLA continues to be well entrenched in disputed areas like Depsang, Gogra-Hot Springs and Pangong Tso.
The second theme was to keep the threshold level to manageable levels. The continuous strategic messaging has been aimed at reducing anti-China sentiments by messages of peace, conveying that problems at the border are not serious and can be solved by mutual talks. India and China being two ancient civilisations are partners and not rivals, and their bilateral relations have withstood the test of time. Hence, trade and commerce should have no links with the border situation. The Chinese projection of normalcy with India is a suggestion that India must accept the PLA’s aggression and move on with trade and other diplomatic dialogue.
The third theme is the Wolf Warrior messaging for India and the rest of the world — that of a country which is ready to go to war; projecting Xi Jinping as a strong man issuing a directive to the PLA to prepare for war. At the military level, the constant projection of the PLA’s strength and strong deployment of the Army and Air Force along the LAC sought to convey that any offensive action by India would be dealt with strongly. A barrage of propaganda ranging from news regarding PLA’s capability of the swift movement of well-trained and acclimatised troops to the Indian borders to a steady stream of reports, with a mix of fact and myth, of the deployment of an array of high-altitude advanced weapons, attack helicopters, and fighter aircraft. There were misleading reports about build-up in Gilgit-Baltistan projecting a two-front threat and even exaggerated claims of naval capabilities. A survey released by the infamous Global Times states that 90 percent of the respondents would support if Beijing were to act militarily on India’s provocation: “Even a thousand miles away, who affronts China will pay.”
China deliberately sends out mixed signals – conciliatory messages at the diplomatic levels and ‘wolf warrior’ messaging at another level, while on the ground, China is doing everything from building roads close to the LAC, augmenting the capacity of its support air bases, laying fibre cables for its troops at face-off sites in Pangong Tso and GograHot Springs, clearly indicating plans of a permanent stay in these areas.
There are also reports of huge money laundering and hawala transactions through shell entities. Recently, certain arrests have brought out that the Chinese have been running a spy ring and bribing monks to get information on the Dalai Lama. More disturbing news has come of a Chinese cult called Church of Almighty God (banned in China) operating in Nagaland, trying to disturb the peace and create divisions in religious practices. This is an example of misusing the positive elements of the target country’s culture to create dissensions within it.
While the long-term campaign against India continues at various levels, China has been conducting a more focused, consistent and sustained psyops campaign after the dastardly attack on Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley. There is a serious threat of India falling for the misinformation machinery, unless effective counter-measures are taken at the strategic level. It is time we realised the tremendous potential of psychological warfare — it can even be a war-winning factor. Only a concerted multi-directional approach will make China withdraw from disputed areas and caution it against future misadventure.
We have to ensure that our strategic messaging sends a powerful message of national intent and serious consequences for any act of aggression. India’s main problem has been the lack of consistency in its messaging. After an initial outburst following the dastardly Galwan Valley incident, there was no strong messaging within or outside India. Now, after the 29-30 August incident in Pangong Tso, we have sent a clear message against Chinese expansionist actions. Instead of this intermittent response, a sustained campaign has to be mounted against China within and outside India. There can be no let up in this and various steps have to be taken to ensure that China and the world are reminded every day of Chinese expansionist and anti-people policies. There are so many issues — from the Wuhan virus to their highhandedness and cruelty against Tibetans and Uighur Muslims, Hong Kong, Taiwan, expansionist policies in South China Sea and Eastern Ladakh — the list is endless. The messaging that India will not accept business as usual while they have intruded into our areas has to be consistently conveyed.
Ours is a vigorous democracy — some people may misread it as a fissiparous tendency in the body politic, but they are sadly mistaken. The general public is very aware and will not fall easy prey to the propaganda machinery of China. All we need is to remain alert and aware.
Major General P. Rajagopal, AVSM, VSM (Retired), served as a paratrooper in Ladakh at various levels and has also commanded the division in eastern Ladakh.