Communist China’s influence operations: India’s think-tanks, politicians, intellectuals, academia, media are targets
Such ‘influence-operations’ include fully-funded media conferences, academic conferences, paid trips of intellectuals and civil society members to China, and scholarships to students.
New Delhi: India’s strategic experts, intelligence apparatus, political leadership, and the majority of the academic community failed and did so rather abysmally in understanding and preventing China’s penetration in India’s innards, i.e., our social, political, educational, and a plethora of other institutions. The consequent internal sabotage was evident in full steam during the ongoing India-China standoff. When China with its deceit and treachery in full bloom, was intruding into Indian territory, one could witness an entire brigade of security analysts, think tank community, academicians, politicians and media organisations promoting and protecting Chinese strategic interests with passionate zeal and fervour, which could only come if there is an uninterrupted flow of dollars from invisible foreign hands.
Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg have exposed how the Chinese Communist Party is shaping the global order in their classic work, “Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World.” They write, “The Party’s program of influence and interference is well planned and bold, and backed by enormous economic resources and technological power. The wide-ranging campaign of subverting institutions in Western countries and winning over their elites has advanced much further than Party leaders might have hoped.” Such influence operations aimed to restructure thoughts are the bedrock of China’s Comprehensive National Power outlined by Cleo Paskal in her recent Sunday Guardian article. The democratic governing systems and the concomitant freedoms are the perfect enablers for China’s booming and devious influence operations.
China, a totalitarian party-state, has a clear vision and a well-planned road map for dominating the world order. Such ambitions are manifest not only in military expansionism but also through devious ways to control the global supply chains, sabotage, and subvert democratic countries’ institutions. It is the party-state’s fundamental ideology, which poses the biggest threat to the stability of the rules-based world order. The article seven of China’s national intelligence law (2017) stipulates that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law.” Given that, amid serious concerns of the CCP’s deep penetration in Chinese tech companies and Chinese-owned and operated ones, China’s soft power tools and entities also raise many suspicions about their intent and the modus-operandi. Hence any individual and organization with ties to China merits careful investigation and scrutiny before any engagement.
India’s local language content, a news aggregating app, got Rs 168 crore in a fresh round of funding from China’s Bytedance. Such massive funding in the app, which claims to have over 28 million monthly active users surfing the app for regional language content in videos, audios, news and ebooks, speaks volumes of the ability and power which Bytedance will hold to influence the opinions and thoughts of such a huge consumer base of 28 million people.
CHINA’S INFLUENCE OPERATIONS
China’s United Front Works Department (UFWD) is an entity responsible for running psychological and information operations in China and foreign countries. It aims to expand Chinese influence through soft power. UFWD has immense power in the foreign policy set-up of China. Deeply connected with intelligence, it runs influence operations in target countries to influence their politicians, intellectuals, media and socio-economic institutions. Such “influence-operations” include fully-funded media conferences, academic conferences, paid trips of intellectuals and civil society members to China, and scholarships to students. Lately, several Chinese diplomats, including most of the ambassadors in entire South Asia, have come from UFWD, which clearly shows China’s focus and massive efforts in expanding influence. In particular, it has targeted India’s civilisational influence in South Asia.
Recently, this author came across a well-known NGO from Udaipur, whose higher officials visited China. The NGO and its leadership are renowned for their faith in Gandhian values, human rights, secularism, and their disdain for Hindu nationalism. However, despite such robust faith in lofty Gandhian ideals, when they came back, they were extraordinarily impressed with China and its progress. They maintained the most mysterious silence on so-called “aberrations” like the massacre of Tibetans, pro-democracy students of Tiananmen Square, and Uyghur concentration camps of East Turkestan. Interestingly, some of the passionate ones even accused India’s “Hindu nationalist” government of abandoning Gandhian values of non-violence and making aggression into the “Chinese” territory, after “murdering democracy in Kashmir by abrogating Article 370”. Wonders never cease.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Chinese influence operations on social media have acquired a high level of sophistication and finesse. Though the subject needs systematic investigation, the author would like to substantiate by drawing attention to a particular Twitter account (hyperlinked). A closer analysis of the tweets posted from this account by trained strategic analysts will suggest that the tweets are a part of a consistent, systematic, layered, and a complex psychological operation to elicit information about India’s defence secrets from Army veterans by provoking them and establishing a fear of PLA’s capabilities in India’s strategic community (check images 1 and 2). Even a cursory glance at the tweets from the account mentioned above makes it amply clear that the tweets have a clearly defined objective of promoting enemy interests.
The upshot of this account’s tweets is that PLA is far superior in capabilities as it has excelled in algorithm warfare. In contrast, the Indian Army is continuing with Second World War tactics. Further, provoking the Army veterans, the said Twitter account has, on many occasions, posted that the Indian Army’s leadership is incompetent and has no knowledge of the current innovations in the art of warfare. The said account also re-tweeted and commended the article of a Russian columnist, Andrew Korybko, who alleged India of illegal incursions into Chinese territory in the recent stand-off. On closer investigation, this author found that the owner of the said account visited China for various conferences in the past.
Besides, there were many dubious reports, commentaries, and analytical pieces based on the amateurish reading of the satellite images and maps of the ground situation on LAC, written by some pseudo-security experts without even the most basic credentials, and carried by India’s prestigious media houses. Such writings with a hidden agenda were only a step short of declaring China’s decisive victory and the conquest of Ladakh. Such reports at best added to the confusion, created a sense of panic, fear, and distrust in the current political leadership. At worst, these sabotaged India’s vital national security interests by tarnishing the image of India’s armed forces.
“Can India Transcend Its Two-Front Challenge?” a commentary, recently published by the US’ prestigious War on the Rocks and written by an Indian journalist is another example of biased analysis. Reading this piece makes it unmistakably clear that either the author has insufficient knowledge of the security affairs or presented distorted research to project narratives at crossroads with India’s strategic interests. The underlying message is that India is not prepared for a decisive war with China; hence India should explore diplomatic efforts and find peace on reasonable terms. Further, the piece also argues that public alienation of Kashmir is at its peak due to the abrogation of Article 370. It can be a significant disruption to India’s nemesis during a war with China. Also, the piece blames India for the standoff by projecting the abrogation of Article 370 as the leading cause of the India-China standoff. However, the facts suggest otherwise. In Kashmir, the infrastructure of terrorism is in acute crises, and the people are increasingly accepting the new narrative of development and good governance. Most interestingly, local Muslims are joining BJP, the so-called Hindu Nationalist Party. The post 370 narratives of integration and development have disturbed Pakistan so much that the terrorist groups are brutally murdering local Muslims joining BJP.
Very soon, Pakistan and its proxy jihadists will be the most reviled community in Kashmir. Further, contrary to the said article’s claims, the Chinese aggression presaged Article 370, and we all saw it in Doklam, Depsang, and other standoffs. Furthermore, the Indian Army has captured many strategic heights in Ladakh. As per Harvard Kennedy’s Belfour center, the Indian Army is likely to inflict severe damage to PLA in the Ladakh region. Instead, China appears to be making desperate attempts to avoid war by diplomacy and psy-ops, fearing a colossal loss of its prestige and manpower in a war.
Coming to the world of think tanks, by funding conferences and large donations, China intends to whitewash its crimes against humanity, project its clean image and indoctrinate the future thought leaders with Chinese world-view i.e., Sinicize the thought process of emerging global opinion-makers. A prestigious and influential think tank received three grants worth nearly Rs 1.26 crore from the Chinese consulate in Kolkata in 2016 in three tranches—Rs 7.7 lakh on 29 April 2016; Rs 11.55 lakh on 4 November 2016; and Rs 10,683,761 on 31 December 2016. The ORF received a grant of Rs 50 lakh on 1 December 2017. It needs to be mentioned that the list of donors includes various other entities like the British High Commission, EU, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark, the consulate of Japan, UNDP, and a few private players like Netflix.
The ORF is known for its clout and might at South Block. Every year it holds “Raisina Dialogue,” India’s premier security dialogue sponsored by the Ministry. In the same league falls Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), an NGO led by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. According to a Times of India report, RGF received Rs 90 lakh in donations from the Chinese Embassy in 2006-07. Reportedly, RGF produced many research papers convincing the then Congress government to pursue a Free Trade Agreement with China. The studies commissioned by RGF argued that India needed the FTA more than China, and hence, the government should brook no delay in pursuing the matter. Citing deficit figures as evidence that between 2003-04 and 2013-14, India’s trade deficit with China jumped by 33 times, Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT-cell head, raised an alarming question: Is there any connection between the donations made to RGF for lobbying with the government for an FTA and the meteoric rise in India’s trade deficits with China?
In the middle of the Galwan crisis (May-June 2020), a prominent Mumbai-based prestigious think-tank focusing on economic affairs, organized an online symposium on “Post-COVID 19 City Governance China-India”, in partnership with the Chinese consulate in Mumbai and Shanghai Institute of International Studies. At a time when the entire world was demanding an investigation into China’s role in the spread of coronavirus pandemic, this influential Indian think-tank organized a webinar on city-governance that showcased China’s urban governance practices. Will others on Tibet, organ harvesting from prisoners and Uygur repression follow glowing accounts of the PRC?
A Nepal-based think-tank focusing on China and India has come up in a major way in the last few months. It has already become immensely popular among the new generation of IR scholars of India, many of whom presented papers in its recent virtual conference. Interestingly, its senior leadership serves as a visiting faculty in Chinese universities. Given the deteriorating state of Indo-Nepal relations, such organizations need to be monitored. Like any standard intelligence practice, Chinese intelligence is likely to use such think-tanks to find out the views of India’s next generation of strategic experts on China, which will furnish critical data on whom to cultivate and target. Given that Nepali NGOs (China Study Center) have been tasked earlier to investigate Gurkhas joining the Indian Army, such new entities operating from Nepal and engaging a range of strategic experts and other stakeholders must be monitored carefully.
A Delhi-based think tank recommends Indian students for post-doctoral studies in China through a tie-up with Harvard-Yenching Institute. India’s MHRD and the Chinese government offer scholarships for higher studies in China. In ordinary parlance, such initiatives are part of routine educational exchange initiatives between countries. However, in China’s case, thought must be given to the possibility of extraneous considerations and the ulterior motives behind such programs. Reportedly, the students are indoctrinated in the Chinese world view, and when they come back, care should be taken to see that they are not China’s secret envoys and spies.
In academia, a Delhi-based prestigious private university offers China-India visiting Scholars Fellowship. As the website reads, the fellowship aims to “give Indian scholars an opportunity to study China and create new knowledge about China in India”. Though the fellowship does not have Chinese funding, the doubts arise from the nature of the research topics being studied under the program. A cursory glance at the program shows that the research areas include urbanization, public health, economics, financial industrialization, law and governance, environment, and migration.
The author did not come across any research interests on the condition of Uyghurs in East Turkestan, treatment of Tibetans, and the state of human rights and freedom of expression in China.
Likewise, as per this author’s research, attempts were underway to establish Confucius Institutes, notorious for their alleged links with Chinese intelligence, in some of India’s most prestigious academic institutions. Several eminent professors, media personalities, and public intellectuals availed paid trips to China for conferences and lectures. Interestingly, most ardent critics of Hindu nationalism, beef-lynching incidents, random incidents of custodial killing, and pellet gun firing in Kashmir prefer to maintain complete silence over massacres and concentration camps of East Turkestan. Most often, this happens after their China visits. Their opinion of China undergoes a sea change, and they seem to forget everything about the past of the CCP.
It does not end here. Here, it merits mentioning that post 370 abrogation, Pakistan launched a vigorous information war against India. Notably, as per the informed interlocutors of this author, China, and Pakistan, for all practical purposes, are hand-in-glove against India, be it deployment, intelligence operations, cross border terrorism, or global influence operations and information warfare. Hence, even while investigating lobbying by Pakistan’s proxy Islamist groups in the west on the Kashmir and Khalistan issue, the China factor needs to be kept in mind.
Closer analysis of the writings of those in the media who intentionally or unintentionally become a part of the dragnet of Chinese influence operations can amaze any profound and perceptive analyst with their refinement, subtlety, and complexity. Those who are not trained in such matters will find it extremely difficult to see through the covert and malicious agenda behind it. For example, an article published by a well known online news portal, argued that most companies are not delinking business from China because China is a paramount player in the global supply chain, and there is no escaping it. Superficially, it appears like an opinion piece based on economic and political analysis; however, the analysis, in all likelihood, is misleading because it presents a one-sided view. That said, one cannot rule out the possibility of the said article shaping opinions and global narratives in China’s favour.
NO FREEDOM IN CHINA
On the other hand, in China, as told by Indian students pursuing higher studies there, to this author on the condition of anonymity, the students on the campuses have no freedom to indulge in any debate on any political issue. The professors openly use racist and biased language in the classes against India and the West, and the students are not allowed to ask questions against those references. A senior professor from Jindal Global University, who went on an educational program to China, told this author that surveillance cameras are on the campuses every 50 metres. Those students who interacted with this author requested anonymity because they feared that if they come out in the open, the Chinese universities will fail them in the exams. These days many of them are in India attending online classes run by Chinese universities. They describe those classes as Chinese concentration camps solely dedicated to indoctrinating young minds. There is no discussion of China’s role in the spread of coronavirus.
In contrast, specialised modules on China’s effective measures containing Covid and aid-programs to foreign countries are being force-fed to reluctant minds. Not even a single mention of Uyghurs is allowed, but endless lectures are being held on “Black Lives Matter”. Professors teach conspiracy theories forecasting the decline of the US on account of acute racism and violation of human rights in the United States!
The author does not intend to cast aspersions on the credibility of the think-tanks and the academic institutions mentioned above as examples. Instead, the author has the utmost respect for the claims of independent research and non-partisan approach made by the institutions mentioned above. However, as discussed above, such linkages and events, on the part of the Indian entities, intentionally or unintentionally, end up promoting China’s goodwill and strategic interests, precisely the objectives pursued by Chinese influence operations. The intelligence apparatus of China controls such influence operations.
Notably, Chinese influence operations are not unique to India. In the US, elitist educational institutions, including Ivy League universities, have received substantial Chinese funding. “End of Harvard Century,” an article published by Harvard Crimson, reveals alarming degrees of Chinese penetration in the Harvard University, the ivory tower of knowledge, liberal traditions, and freedom of thought. Teng Biao, a Chinese dissident and a scholar at Harvard Law School, was stopped by a “powerful person” at Harvard from organizing an event at Harvard where they would be sharing their experiences as dissidents. A few days before the event, Harvard president had met Xi Jinping; hence the “powerful person” told Teng that “after the historic meeting between Xi and the Harvard President,” their event against China would embarrass Harvard.
EASY TO LURE INDIA’S HEAVYWEIGHTS
India has a rich history of its bureaucrats, politicians, academicians, intellectuals, and civil rights activists, being manipulated by myriad foreign powers, severely harming India’s national security. As told by a former US intelligence official to this author, Delhi was always a den of spies. It has always been a cakewalk to lure India’s heavyweights “with a bottle of good champagne, a paid foreign trip, a lucrative fellowship at a western research think-tank or berth in elite western campuses for their children.”
It is high time as a society; we woke up to the threat posed by China’s hidden offensive. The national security apparatus has to come out of its outmoded frameworks of strategic thought and perceive these new threats. Though a separate detailed discussion on countermeasures is needed, a beginning can be made by scrutinising and monitoring the activities, tie-ups, and funding channels of think-tanks, media houses, and public policy institutions from the viewpoint of the ongoing covert and overt war of the PRC and its allies against India
Abhinav Pandya is the author of “Radicalization in India: An Exploration” (Pentagon Press, 2019). He did his BA from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and post graduation in Public Affairs from Cornell University, US. He has more than seven years of experience in public policy, counter-terrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US.