Chinese Psychological Warfare in Countering Domestic Challenges

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  • 19 December 2018


The People’s Republic of China is considered to be an emerging geopolitical power in the world. Firstly, it has the second-largest economy in term of nominal GDP and its economic power is one of the most influential[1]. Secondly, in addition to the military power – according to – is the third after the US and Russia; China is becoming also politically influential[2]. In the digital age China is also one of the leading states[3]. To provide its national interests and maintain its position China uses both strategic communication and psychological elements in its foreign as well as in domestic policies.

As well known China has several domestic security issues: the threat of Uyghur separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang, separatism in Tibet and Taiwan. To combat these issues China need to use not only its hard or soft power, but also it should work in the psychological dimension to improve the countering the challenges.

The research objective is to find out how China uses psychological warfare to combat domestic challenges and whether the Chinese approaches depend on the region.

The paper consists of three main parts devoted to the definition of the strategic communication and psychological warfare used in this research paper, features of Chinese strategic communication and Chinese psychological warfare and countering issues in the challenging parts of the state (Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet), conclusion and bibliography.

Psychological Warfare and Strategic Communication

One should say that there are a lot of definitions of ‘strategic communication’ and ‘psychological warfare’ in different spheres, being crucial for the research to define the theoretical framework of the issue and appropriate terms.

For instance, RAND defines ‘psychological warfare’ as “the planned use of propaganda and other psychological operations to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of opposition groups”[4].

Russian researcher V. Krysko in his book “Secrets of Psychological Warfare” describes psychological warfare as “activity of the specific bodies of a state that influence civilians or servicemen of the other state in psychological dimension to achieve its political and military goals”[5].

For the research the term ‘psychological warfare’ is regarded as activity of a state or a national structure that is aimed at affecting people’s minds in order to achieve a goal.

Speaking about strategic communication it should be mentioned that there are also some definitions. Russian researcher E. Pashentsev gives following definition of ‘strategic communication’: a projection by a state its certain values, interests and objectives into minds of a target audience by synchronizing state’s comprehensive activity in all spheres of life accompanied by professional communication[6].

According to the US Defense Science Board ‘strategic communication’ is an integrated process that includes development, implementation, assessment and evolution of public action and messages in support of policies, interests and long-term goals and it goes beyond media affairs and short-term streams[7].

In this research paper the term “strategic communication” means synchronization of deeds, words and images used by a state or a national structure to support its goals through traditional and new channels of communication such as the printed press, radio, television and the Internet[8].

China’s Approach to Strategic Communication and Psychological Warfare

First of all, it should be noted that the Chinese have always paid more attention to psychological aspects. First of all, China perhaps has the oldest traditions of using psychological warfare (xinlizhan) in the world. Traditions and practical strategies are stipulated, for instance, in such popular tractates as essay “The Thirty-Six Stratagems”, “The Art of War” written by Sun Tzu or “The Book of Swindles” by Zhang Yingyu, dated by 800 – 300 BC. Main idea of these works is as Sun Tzu wrote “supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting” by using situation, psychology, and tricky clauses[9]. To gain an advantage China is ready to use long-term strategy. One more step in this long pace is an indoctrination which is used to pursue other to follow you within the Confucius values and norms. It helps to establish long-term and strong bonds in psychological and economic dimension[10].

Strategic communication with focus on psychological dimension has always been part of the Chinese war concept: from the ancient works till, for example, China’s November 2004 White Paper on National Defense with declaration of a Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese characteristics.

Besides, there is one more feature of the Chinese concept. In 1999 Air Force colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote the treatise “Unrestricted Warfare”. According to this concept contemporary warfare is characterized by using all means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests and all boundaries between the war and non-war as well as between military and non-military will be removed[11]. It means that China’s approach is not only applicable in times of conflict, but also in transition period peace-crisis-war.

Moreover, in 2003 the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission approved the concept of “Three Warfares” (san zhong zhanfa, 三种) that consist of psychological warfare (psyops), media warfare (the Chinese CCTV) and legal warfare (existing legal framework such as the UN)[12]. Nowadays China combines traditional approaches and the theory of “People’s war(人民战争) of Mao Zedong with Western innovations and technologies[13]. Modern psychological operations are aimed at the target’s moral (shiqi) and there are lots of components used such as television, radio broadcasts, loudspeakers, leaflets and calculated military operations. They are also combined with political, economic and diplomatic elements. As T. Walton writes, the new psychological warfare considered to be aimed for a high degree of precision in targeting critical nodes to achieve nonlinear effects[14]. For instance, enemy’s motivation could be destroyed by affecting the economy or diminishing international support.

Three cases: Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet

China has three main domestic security issues. They are Taiwan which China regards as its territory, Xinjiang with Uyghur separatism and terrorism threat and the status of Tibet.

To tackle issues in Xinjiang and Tibet China applies also methods of psychological warfare along with the kinetic capabilities of the security forces and police. As it was during unrests in 2008 and 2009 both in Xinjiang and Tibet, China used force to re-establish stability and security in the regions. In case of Taiwan China is not as powerful as it can be so it has to act differently and more flexible.

The case of Taiwan. Taiwan perhaps is the most difficult object for China, but also the primary target of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as China pursues complete unification of the state and gaining control over the island. As Walton writes, psychological operations of China through its media and so-called legal warfare during peacetime is aimed at revealing and exploiting division in the domestic political establishment of Taiwan and casting doubts on the “enemy’s” value concept[15]. For instance, in 1997 the Chinese General Staff sought to find vulnerabilities in the Taiwanese armed forces to reduce confidence of the people in its military. In 2005 the National People Congress adopted the Anti-Secession Law which allows using non-peaceful means to “protect China’s sovereignty”. In this case all “three warfare” are being used: the law set agenda and messages (media), created pressure on the government (psychological), created also “chilling effect” by rewarding those who obey and punishing defectors (psychological) and denied Taiwan’s sovereignty by isolating it[16]. It is clear that China’s policy towards Taiwan can be described as effective as one may look at the new concept of the Sino-U.S. relations when both Presidents Xi and Obama paid no attention to the Taiwanese issue during the talks and as a result the USA plays no decisive role on cross-Strait relations[17].

The case of Xinjiang. The Xinjiang province is the biggest in China. As A. Mumford writes, tensions between the Uyghur population, a Turkic, mostly Sunni-Muslim ethnic minority, which is about 44% of the province population and Beijing started after the end of Cold War and were caused by loosening of ideological grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and attempts to defend their identity, religion (Islam) and language[18]. In this period the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was established and it is aimed to separate the province from China.

To protect itself from the Islamic extremism and Uyghur separatism the Chinese government chose rather strict policy in combating this challenge after the 9/11 based on three factors such as declaration of ‘Global War on Terror’, Uyghurs were being supported by Islamist group and some Uyghur groups also follow Islamist ideology[19]. The approaches that China uses in countering the Uyghur separatism can be divided in two groups of policies – “soft” and “hard”[20]. For instance, it can be whether state funding of a Chinese Islamic institution or “political education”.

Besides, after unrests and violent attacks in the province Beijing increased restrictions and improved surveillance. Also such instruments as use of a DNA, database and “big data” are used, as China’s top domestic security official Meng Jianzhu said. Moreover, the government shut down the Internet. Since 2014 and especially after party secretary Chen Quanguo took charge of the region China started its re-education program by using the internment camps with staff with psychological trainings where people watch videos on, for example, how to identify Islamic extremism, study Confucian texts and learn Mandarin Chinese, naming it reformation through education which could be define as xi nao or brainwashing[21]. And according to the United Nation there are approximately one million people in these camps[22]. In other words, Beijing pursues very tough policy in Xinjiang by using hard psychological methods focusing on fear to weaken the Uyghur identity and as consequence protect the state itself.

The case of Tibet. Alongside with issues of Taiwan and Xinjiang the Tibetan issue is also belongs to core national security interest. The world community considers Tibet as a part of China, but the Tibetan themselves aspire to independence as they regard the unification with the People’s Republic of China in 1951 as occupation. Besides, Tibet is the only region where ethnic Han Chinese is a small minority. This background causes tensions and uprisings in the Tibetan Autonomous Region that’s why China also has to react to the security challenge.

It should be noted that the same approach combined with new technologies (network of surveillance CCTV and convenience police stations, 便民警务站) is used in Tibet Autonomous Region. In addition to the local community is being recruited to serve as security apparatus that helps to maintain trust among the population[23]. One more method used in Tibet is shared religion (Buddhism) by incorporating Tibet as a part of the Chinese nation[24]. In comparison with Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang the Chinese policy in Tibet can be described as soft as China has been conducting reforms to improve both economy and well-being of the local people to receive their support. As the executive vice chairman of the Tibet’s regional parliament said, the Dalai Lama did nothing to solve issues in the region, but it was the Communist Party that changed Tibet[25]. Summing up, China uses more peaceful means in order to control Tibet by improving well-being and discrediting local officials that may pose threat to stability in the region.


In conclusion it should be mentioned that China does use methods of strategic communication and psychological warfare in countering domestic security issues what is determined by the complexity of the each case and the Chinese traditions. China tries to combine both hard and soft power to find more comprehensive way to tackle the internal problems.

The research shows that China’s approaches differ from one another what depends on features of the particular region. In Xinjiang the Chinese methods are considered to be the strictest as the PRC regards terrorism and Uyghur separatism as the most dangerous. The methods of strategic communication and psychological warfare used in Tibet and especially towards Taiwan are more flexible which can be explained through cultural and religious similarities and relative weakness of the Tibetan opposition leaders in case of Tibet and more sensitive issue in case of Taiwan that also deals with the world community and their possible engagement.

Further research topics could be devoted to the effectiveness of the Chinese re-education program and prospects for development of instruments of psychological warfare in XUAR.



[1] World Economic Outlook Database // The International Monetary Fund, 2018. URL:… (consulted at 06.12.2018).

[2] Military Strength Ranking // Global Firepower (GFP), 2018. URL: (consulted at 06.12.2018).

[3] Лобанова Т. Н., Стратегическая коммуникация Китая в рамках БРИКС // Государственное управление. Электронный вестник. 2014. №47. URL: (consulted at 08.12.2018).

[4] Psychological warfare // RAND. 2018. URL: (consulted at 07.12.2018).

[5] Крысько В. Г., Секреты психологической войны (цели, задачи, методы, формы, опыт). Минск, 1999. URL: (consulted at 07.12.2018).

[6] Пашенцев Е. Н., Стратегическая коммуникация и прогностическое оружие / Трансформация международных отношений в XXI веке / Отв. ред. М. В. Грановская, О. А. Тимакова. М.: Дипломатическая академия МИД России, 2017, p. 256.

[7] Task Force on Strategic Communication. Defense Science Board, January.  2008, p. 1.

[8] Principles of Strategic Communication / United States of America, Department of Defense. August 2008, p. 1. URL: (consulted at 08.12.2018).

[9] Sun Tzu, The Complete Art of War. Start Publishing LLC, 2012. URL: (consulted at 07.12.20180.)

[10] Люттвак Э. Н., Возвышение Китая наперекор логике стратегии / Пер. с англ. яз. Н. Н. Платошкина. М.: Русский фонд содействия образованию, 2016, p. 28 – 29.

[11] Clarke M., China’s ‘three warfares’ in Xinjiang // East Asia Forum, 2017. URL: (consulted at 06.12.2018).

[12] Walton T., China’s Three Warfares // Delex Special Report–3. Delex Systems, inc. 2012. URL: (consulted at 07.12.2018).

[13] Пашенцев Е. Н., Стратегическая коммуникация Китая в Латинской Америке и ее интерпретация в США // Государственное управление. Электронный вестник. 2013, №36, p. 80.

[14] Walton T., China’s Three Warfares // Delex Special Report–3. Delex Systems, inc. 2012. URL: (consulted at 07.12.2018).

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Ibidem.

[17] Huang J., Xi Jinping’s Taiwan Policy: Boxing Taiwan In with the One-China Framework // University of California Press. 2017, p. 245 – 246. URL: (consulted at 06.12.2018).

[18] Mumford A., Theory-Testing Uyghur Terrorism in China // Perspectives on Terrorism. Terrorism Research Institute, Vol. 12, №5, p 19. URL: (consulted at: 06.12.2018).

[19] Idem, p. 19.

[20] Hasmath R., Managing China’s Muslim Minorities: Migration, Labor and the Rise of Ethnoreligious Consciousness among Uyghurs in Urban Xinjiang / Barbalet J., Possamai A., Religion and the State: a Comparative Sociology. Anthem Press, 2011, p. 123. URL: (consulted at 06.12.2018).

[21] Thum R., China’s Mass Internment Camps Have No Clear End in Sight // Foreign Policy, 2018. URL: (consulted at 07.12.2018).

[22] Ala M., China’s Use of Psychological Warfare Against Uyghurs // Foreign Policy Journal, 2018. URL: (consulted at 06.12.2018).

[23] Zenz A., Leibold J., Chen Quanguo: The Strongman Behind Beijing’s Securitization Strategy in Tibet and Xinjiang // China Brief, 2017, Vol. 17, №12. URL: (consulted at: 08.12.2018).

[24] Odgaard L., Nielsen T., China’s Counterinsurgency Strategy in Tibet and Xinjiang // Journal of Contemporary China. 2014. № 87, p. 550. URL: (consulted at: 06.12.2018).

[25] Liu J., Marlow I., Rare Tibet Trip Shows China Only Wants a Dalai Lama It Can Control // Bloomberg, 2018. URL: (consulted at 08.12.2018).

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