The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was born out of a bloody civil war, won by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For the CCP, the war to expand its depth and zones of control and influence never ended.
It continues to attack resistance to its goals, at home and abroad, using a range of means.
Sometimes the CCP uses “kinetic” warfare—as with India in 1962—but always, since the start, it has waged political warfare. And the CCP is very, very good at political warfare. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world not only isn’t fighting back, it doesn’t even realise it is at war.
What that means has been vividly and expertly described in an essential new book, Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting” by Kerry K. Gershaneck. Prof. Gershaneck combines the perspectives of a scholar and a warrior. He worked at universities and think tanks across the Indo-Pacific, and is currently a Taiwan Fellow at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. He is also a former US Marine Corps officer, with extensive operational and intelligence and counterintelligence experience.
The book, available for free from the Marine Corps University Press, provides the mental equivalent of physical boot camp training—it introduces you to the fight and teaches you the tactics and the strategies needed to defend yourself, and hopefully win. If you think the fight doesn’t involve you, the book shows you why you are already in the ring, and likely losing.
WHAT IS POLITICAL WARFARE?
So, what is PRC political warfare? There are many elements to it but it is essentially “all-encompassing, unrestricted warfare”. Everything just this side of a straight-up shooting war. But make no mistake, it is war just the same. The goal is to defeat the enemy, and subject it to your will. According to the book, the “PRC considers itself engaged in a political war with the United States and its partner nations and allies. Failure to understand the nature of this war severely undermines the ability to conceptualize the threat and to implement appropriate countermeasures. This failure ensures ultimate defeat.”
Some of the elements of CCP political warfare described in the book are: lawfare (using international and national laws, bodies and courts to shape decision making in the CCP’s favour), economic warfare, biological and chemical warfare, cyberattacks, terrorism, public opinion/media warfare, psychological warfare, espionage, bribery, censorship, deception, subversion, blackmail, “enforced disappearances”, street violence, assassination, use of proxy forces, public diplomacy, and hybrid warfare.
The book explains that accurate terminology is important to understand what you are facing, and so have a chance at defeating it. In that context, it explains the “PRC is a coercive, expansionist, hyper-nationalistic, militarily powerful, brutally repressive, fascist, and totalitarian state.”
If that makes you uncomfortable, the CCP is already in your head. One of the elements of CCP political warfare is to get people to self-censor out of fear of “offending” a billion Chinese. However, objectively, that description is completely accurate. The book even quotes Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definitions to prove the point.
Totalitarianism: “centralized control by an autocratic authority; the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority.” Fascism: “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition; a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.”
So, yes, the PRC as run by the CCP is fascist and totalitarian. And they are the ones subjecting a billion Chinese to offense at a very fundamental level.
This lesson in intellectual self-defence is important. It is imperative to use accurate words. If you don’t, as the book says, “it allows the PRC’s apologists and defenders to assert the ‘moral equivalence’ defense of China’s political warfare that the author has heard repeatedly: ‘Every country does it. So what?’ The ‘so what’ is that the PRC is a fascist, totalitarian existential threat.”
TRAITS OF PRC POLITICAL WARFARE
The book, drawing on a wide range of sources and interviews, details how the PRC’s political warfare is highly structured, complex, and embedded across systems. It has had decades to mature and refine, growing and expanding with new technologies and techniques. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was involved with political warfare operations for much of his career.
It is also well funded. In 2015, the budget for influence operations alone was estimated at $10 billion, and has only increased since then. So it’s less surprising that Stanford University “received $32,244,826 in monetary gifts from China” during six years, and Harvard “received $55,065,261 through a combination of contracts and monetary gifts.”
Some of the traits of PRC political warfare:
- A powerful centralized command of political warfare operations.
- A “clear vision, ideology, and strategy” for the employment of political warfare.
- The employment of overt and covert means to influence, coerce, intimidate, divide, and subvert rival countries to force their compliance or collapse.
- Tight bureaucratic control over the domestic populace.
- A thorough understanding of rival nations being targeted by political warfare.
- The use of a comprehensive array of political warfare tools in coordinated actions.
- A willingness to accept high levels of risk resulting from the exposure of political warfare activities.
EXAMPLES OF POLITICAL WARFARE
In just one example of an element of PRC political warfare capabilities, the book explains: “The CCP has long employed propaganda and disinformation against its enemies, but in recent years it has found a ‘fertile information environment’ in the new world of social media to ‘amplify its time-honed tactics of political and psychological warfare.’ The added benefit of using social media to flood its adversaries’ societies with propaganda and disinformation is that it ultimately weakens people’s faith in democracy and can create political instability. In pursuit of social media dominance, the PRC has established PLA cyber force of as many as 300,000 soldiers as well as a netizen ‘50 Cent Army’ of perhaps 2 million individuals who ‘are paid a nominal fee to make comments on social media sites in favor of [CCP] propaganda.’”
The Chinese people are one of the prime targets of CCP political warfare. Domestically, the CCP has tentacle into every aspect of life, including via the social credit scheme, Great Firewall and dedicated bureaus to (among many others): cultivate political support of the Chinese middle class; look after ideological and disciplinary matters; implement policy concerning departing/retired personnel; and liaises with Chinese intellectuals.
The book includes two case studies of the PRC’s political warfare targets, one on Taiwan and one on Thailand. They show that anyone wanting to work with, or in, another country needs to take stock of the effectiveness of PRC political warfare in that country if they are going to be successful. Businesses getting involved in China might understand they need to know how Beijing operates, but what the studies show is that anyone who wants to work with Thailand also needs to understand Beijing given the degree of influence it now wields in Bangkok.
From 2013 through 2018, Prof. Gershaneck was the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Thailand. China spent decades waging political warfare in Thailand, including using intimidation, kidnapping, bribery, working through surrogates, backing insurgents, blackmail, extortion, coopting/manipulating/buying local media, infiltrating education systems, high level visits, cyber infiltration, and social media manipulation.
- The PRC’s primary political warfare messaging in Thailand include:
- The PRC is a nonthreat and a noncompetitor, but rather a partner in economic growth, to Thailand.
- The Chinese and Thai people are more than mere friends—they are as close as family.
- The PRC is strong, while the United States is weak and undependable.
“Asia is for Asians,” as exemplified by the PRC, while archaic western values do not apply in the region.
- The political and economic policies of the “China Model” should be adopted by Thailand as a “Thai Model.”
Over decades, the country was “softened up” by PRC political warfare. Then, the US badly mismanaged its response to the 2014 coup (PRC political warfare effectiveness is often aided by missteps by others, including the US). The result was by 2017 “the majority of the majority of Thai military officers perceived the PRC, not the United States, to be Thailand’s most useful and reliable ally.”
That’s how the PRC wins without fighting.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT?
A major problem is, according to the book, when the Cold War ended, the US shut down its capabilities to fight political warfare, or even to consistently identify it. The Departments of Defense and State, academia, the military academies, none focus on political warfare.
While the book’s recommendations are geared for a US audience, the recommendations apply to any nation willing to try to defend itself. They include:
- Develop a national strategy to counter political warfare.
- Establish national institutions to counter political warfare.
- Use accurate terms and identify the PRC threat by its rightful name, political warfare.
- Develop better analytical, investigative, and legal training for those with these responsibilities to screen, track, and expose political warfare activities.
- Raise the costs for CCP interference, i.e. expel diplomats pressuring locals.
- Routinely expose covert and overt PRC political warfare operations.
- Take legal action against PRC officials and affiliates engaged in civil rights offenses.
- Investigate, disrupt, and prosecute PRC political warfare activities.
- Encourage academic study that focuses on combating PRC political warfare (the book even includes an outline for a five day course on identifying and combating political warfare).
India is a prime target for PRC’s political warfare. New Delhi has made some inspired moves at self-defence, such as banning Chinese apps. But the attacks will keep coming, especially if India looks like it might displace China in supply chains and become a security provider for the Indo-Pacific. The PRC’s full political warfare force will be directed at weakening India, from funding NGOs in the US to (possibly) funding mobs to attack a Taiwanese manufacturing plant in Bengaluru.
Perhaps something India would like to consider is the book’s recommendation to establish an Asian political warfare centre of excellence “To develop a common understanding of PRC political warfare threats and promote the development of a comprehensive, whole-of-government response at national levels in countering PRC and other political warfare threats.”
This could include “Discussions among like-minded nations, investigate political warfare operations directed at democracies, training and scenario exercises, research and analysis into countering PRC political warfare, etc, Typical participants would be practitioners, scholars, policymakers, [parliamentary] staff, journalists, strategists, campaign planners, legal specialists, and selected civil servants as well as foreign service, military, intelligence, and law enforcement officers.”
Currently, China is facing little resistance to its political warfare and its goal to “win without fighting”. The rest of the free world now has to decide if it is willing to lose without fighting. If not, this book goes a long way towards building the plan to fight back.
To download Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to “Win without Fighting” by Kerry K. Gershaneck https://www.usmcu.edu/Portals/218/Political%20Warfare_web.pdf
Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.