By Christy Quinn:
Greg Austin, Cyber Policy in China. China Today. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2014. Pp. 232. £ 15.99, paperback; £50.00, hardback; £10.99, e-book. ISBN: 978-0-7456-6979-3.
From the emergence of the printing press in Early Modern Europe, to the expansion of global satellite television and the internet,the state has always been on the back foot in trying to control the spread and content of information and maintain its monopoly over the control of information within its sovereign borders. There is nothing new about balancing the societal benefits of information-sharing with maintaining state power.
What has changed in the last decade is proof of the unique qualities and vulnerabilities of electronically-stored information: both the strengthening of the state’s ability to harvest information through the bulk collection of electronic data, and the weakening of the state’s ability to keep information secret and control its flow across borders. Cyberspace offers unique challenges to state power. Greg Austin’s Cyber Policy in China provides an informed perspective on the experience of arguably the world’s most empowered state in both harnessing the potential of, but also controlling, the hugely disruptive changes that cyberspace brings, providing an explanation through recent Chinese history and its current policy direction.
Austin focuses on an overlooked and misunderstood aspect of a fundamental change in mindset in Chinese leadership following the death of Mao in 1976: the shift from waging war against an information-based society through purges and ideological education, to putting the full strength of the state economy into creating an information-based society, thus placing information technology at the centre of the future economy.
The Cultural Revolution and the systematic destruction of the intellectual classes in China had demonstrated to Deng Xiaoping the potential for the state monopoly over information to decimate the knowledge base on which the economy depended. The alternative vision offered by the Californian futurist Alvin Toffler in his book ‘The Third Wave’ was striking in its contradiction to Maoism. Toffler argued that the development of an ‘informatized’ society through mastering telecommunication technologies offered a way to fundamentally rebalance the relationship between the people and state, and propel China to global leadership. The book was a bestseller in China in 1983 and was reputedly studied by both Deng and the reformist Premier Zhao Ziyang.
At the same time, however, the Party invested a huge quantity of resources into creating an unprecedented cyber apparatus for information control, known popularly as the ‘Great Firewall of China’, in order to mitigate any threat to its political monopoly. Austin’s analysis aptly demonstrates the contradictions of seeking to reap the socio-economic benefits of an information-based society and economy, and the ‘i-Dictatorship’ that is undermining the values of trusted information and innovation upon which the whole edifice sits.
One of the most striking insights within in the book is how the ‘Dictatorship’ has undermined trust in information on a societal level by devaluing and denying space for any information intruding on the political sphere. Austin argues that the dearth of public information outside of the oft-discounted official media and the state obsession with curtailing the spread of viral posts on social media has led to a ‘country awash in supposition, half-credible news stories and libel’.[i]
An example is the attempt by state officials to censor death tolls of schoolchildren killed by the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008. This demonstrates how the self-preservation instinct of the party cadres have routinely deprived the public of trustworthy information. The Party’s obsession with curtailing rumours and falsehoods online only points to how starved the Chinese media market is of illuminating information on current affairs, and is further evidence of the barriers China faces in reaching the full innovative potential of an informatized society whilst constrained by the strait-jacket of political control.
Another key contradiction in China’s informatization strategy illuminated by Austin’s research is how the actions of state security services have systematically undermined information security across the information ecosystem. Despite the Ministry of Public Security’s legislative focus on tackling the threat of cyber-crime to the Chinese economy, it has curtailed the development of information security such as encryption standards, education and technology adoption by using public security and state secrecy arguments. This has contributed to a strong state but a weak information ecosystem that is plagued by phishing bank scams and has resulted in 14 million IP addresses being infected by Trojans or Botnets.[ii]
Moreover, Austin points out that this weakness in protecting personal information has begun to extend to Chinese elites, as demonstrated by the Bloomberg News exposé of the hidden wealth of the Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao’s extended families. It is arguable then that the inherent contradictions of the ‘i-Dictatorship’ in protecting the Party’s privileged position but neglecting personal privacy has created a toxic information ecosystem with the potential to destabilise China’s political economy in the long run.
Austin also examines how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has struggled to adapt to informatisation across their organisation while at the same time investing heavily in cyber espionage. His assessment of the PLA’s strategic anxieties of falling behind in a destabilisingcyber-arms race with the US is a welcome reminder of the value of directly engaging with institutions to ask them what they think, rather than operating in a research vacuum.
He takes a critical view of the conventional media narrative of the PLA overseeing the ‘largest illicit transfer of wealth in human history’[iii] through espionage targeting private companies in the West and transferring commercially-sensitive information to Chinese state industries. Instead he argues that the PLA is mainly focused on military intelligence collection and science and technology research useful to developing China’s military capabilities. This view is refreshing but requires a more detailed analysis to be convincing, especially as it contradicts other well-regarded reports on the activities of the now infamous PLA Unit 61398 in aggressive cyber attacks.[iv]
One of the text’s strengths is the time dedicated to analysing the hundreds of official policy documents and declarations issued by the dozens of party committees overseeing China’s industry, security and education sectors. These give readers a level of depth and context into the Party’s official stances and aspirations which can be compared against the state’s performance. The downside to this approach is the uncertainty of how much weight we should assign to official pronouncements, which aspire to all of the ideal values that Austin prescribes for an information society, while the Party has run roughshod over them in practice. In other words, does the Party really believe in what it says?
This book offers much through its dissection of the Chinese information state, yet raises more questions as to its direction. Whether China under Xi Jinping will try to realise Toffler’s dream of a fundamental rebalance in the relationship between the people and state through information technology, or instead drive the information society towards further security control and secrecy, will reveal much about the direction of the Chinese state.
For further information on the book, listen to a discussion the War Studies Department at King’s College held a with the author.
Christy studied International History at the London School of Economics & Political Science and is currently reading for an MA in Intelligence & International Security at Kings College London. His research interests are cyber security, national security strategy and the Asia-Pacific region. He is a Guest Editor at Strife.
[i]Greg Austin, Cyber Policy in China (London: Wiley, 2014), p.80
[iv]MANDIANT (2013). APT1: ‘Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units’. Accessed at http://intelreport.mandiant.com/Mandiant_APT1_Report.pdf