Winning Without Fighting: The Chinese Psychological Warfare Challenge
By Dean Cheng
Beijing hopes to win future conflicts without firing a shot. How? By using psychological warfare to manipulate both a nation’s leaders and its populace—affecting the thought processes and cognitive frameworks of allies and opponents alike. Indeed, the PRC’s psychological warfare operations are already underway despite the fact that there is no active conflict. It is therefore essential that the United States counter such psychological operations now while preparing to use its own arsenal of political warfare weapons should a conflict ever arise.
- Over the past decade, the People’s Republic of China has exhibited growing interest in waging asymmetrical warfare.
- To this end, the PRC released “political work regulations” for the People’s Liberation Army addressing the importance of waging “the three warfares”: public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.
- The “three warfares” represent the PRC’s commitment to expanding potential areas of conflict from the purely military (i.e., involving the direct or indirect use of military forces) to the more political.
- Such expansion will be supported by manipulation of an enemy’s leadership, including through intimidation and coercion, alienation, and deception.
- To avoid being psychologically outmaneuvered by a PRC intent on winning without firing a shot, the U.S. must strengthen its own psychological warfare capabilities, including strategic communications, public diplomacy, and media outreach capabilities, as well as dedicated psychological operations units.
Chinese Concept of Psychological Warfare Tasks
For the PLA, psychological warfare is the resposibility of the General Political Department (GPD), working in coordination with the rest of the PLA. The GPD not only ensures political orthodoxy within the PLA, but also is responsible for maintaining morale, personnel administration (e.g., assessing promotions), and countering psychological warfare attacks. As one of the four “General Departments,” its purview covers the entire PLA, and its authority is second only to the war planners of the General Staff Department (GSD).
The “three warfares” of psychological warfare, legal warfare, and public opinion warfare are part of the GPD’s responsibility as laid out in the 2003 and 2010 “political work regulations” of the PLA.
For the GPD, Chinese writings suggest that there are five broad tasks associated with psychological warfare.
- Presenting One’s Own Side as Just. Winning future wars will require efficient political mobilization. Failure to mobilize the populace will make them vulnerable to war-weariness and moral collapse such as occurred in the 1990s Balkan conflicts. Consequently, the foremost role of psychological warfare is to emphasize the justice of one’s cause, for only by portraying one’s own goals as just and the enemy’s as unjust can one hope to secure popular support and garner international sympathy and aid. At the same time, successfully inculcating one’s own population and forces with a sense of a just cause will reduce the effectiveness of enemy propaganda and allow them to weather the inevitable setbacks associated with any conflict.
- Emphasizing One’s Advantages. Psychological warfare is intended to support larger diplomatic, political, economic, and military ends. Consequently, it is essential to emphasize one’s own advantages in each of these respects. Such emphasis will bolster the confidence and will of one’s own side while simultaneously influencing the other side’s perceptions. In this regard, propaganda efforts—part of public opinion warfare—will extend beyond the superiority of one’s military forces and equipment to note advances in science and technology, culture, and economic capacity.
- Undermining the Opposition’s Will to Resist. This is one of the fundamental tasks of wartime psychological warfare. Because the will of an enemy is a key determinant of ultimate victory, it is essential to degrade his morale and unravel his alliances and support from third parties. Psychological warfare efforts must therefore not only bolster one’s own side, but “cause the enemy to lose heart and disperse, so that even though they appear whole, they cannot exploit that.” Such a campaign can involve such diverse measures as implementing policies of benign treatment of prisoners (to promote a willingness to surrender) and developing base areas in the enemy’s rear (to make the enemy feel constantly insecure).
- Encouraging Dissension in the Enemy’s Camp. This task is distinct from the previous one, insofar as such measures are more indirect than those associated with undermining the opposition’s will to resist. Instead, sparking dissension involves fostering anti-war elements and encouraging war-weariness. Such an approach is similar to the creation of “united front” tactics, wherein various local elements within the opponent’s camp are unified against the leadership without necessarily being openly supported by the PRC.
- Implementing Psychological Defenses. Since psychological warfare can have such far-reaching impacts, in the Chinese view, it is assumed that an opponent will mount psychological attacks. Consequently, in addition to negating or neutralizing such attacks, it is necessary to expose them, both to defeat them and to demoralize an opponent by demonstrating the ineffectiveness of his efforts. Thus, not only must there be counter-propaganda activities, but one must also publicize enemy machinations and techniques, thereby exposing and highlighting their futility.
Principles Governing Psychological Warfare Operations
Chinese analyses of military affairs are informed by the idea of military science; i.e., that there is a proper scientific approach to the analysis of military affairs. This method entails identifying underlying principles that govern individual aspects of military operations, including those aimed at fulfilling the key tasks of psychological warfare operations.
- Principle #1: Maintain direction. The principle of direction refers to the need to follow the Party’s direction and leadership, incorporating its commands regarding policies, parameters, and limitations into all psychological warfare activities—whether strategic, operational, or tactical and whether aimed at foreign or domestic audiences. It closely parallels the military axioms of unity of command and effort. The principle of direction dictates that psychological warfare activities should be planned and assessed based on (1) their support of broad national interests and goals, (2) their relation to specific political and diplomatic efforts, and (3) their support of integrated operational military activities. Direction is achieved through unified, integrated command and operational implementation—something facilitated by the existence of the GPD, which spans the entire PLA.
- Principle #2: Adopt a systematic approach. Psychological warfare is not a single instance or even an accumulation of instances, but must instead be organized and integrated into a systematic, coherent whole. This approach requires coordination of psychological warfare operations between higher and lower levels so that the resulting unified construct will have maximum impact. Such coordination in turn requires that psychological warfare be tailored against opponents: There cannot be a “one size fits all” mentality. Rather, the character of the implementing force, as well as of the intended targets, must be taken into account with a suitable division of labor among the various components. The psychological warfare effort, moreover, should include both military and civilian entities. Given the authority and span of the GPD, Chinese psychological warfare operations are likely to be integrated into broader military operations and incorporated into the earliest stages of military planning.
- Principle #3: Seize and retain the initiative. As Chinese writings on public opinion warfare and legal warfare have emphasized, with regard to political warfare, the side that gets its message out first has an enormous advantage. The same principle is true for psychological warfare. In order to seize the initiative, PLA writings stress that advance preparation is essential; only through early research can the most effective messaging be delivered, the most vulnerable targets be identified, and the best approach be determined. Securing the initiative significantly increases the likelihood of creating shifts and trends in one’s own favor. At the same time, being proactive in the implementation of psychological warfare activities compels an opponent to spend time and resources countering one’s own messages rather than implanting his own program. This principle again highlights the importance of undertaking some elements of psychological warfare in peacetime.
- Principle #4: Assume an objective outlook. In the view of the PLA, psychological warfare operations are governed by certain objective laws (including these principles). Therefore, effective implementation of psychological warfare cannot be subject to hunches and hopes; rather, it requires a full consideration of all existing conditions and contemporary realities. To this end, psychological warfare efforts should not be based on outlandish or unrealistic ruses, but instead should be consistent with larger contexts. The most effective psychological warfare efforts will reinforce preconceptions.
- In this regard, Chinese analysts are making an observation comparable to that of Allied planners in World War II, whose deceptions before D-Day played to German (and especially Hitler’s) expectations that the main attack would be at the Pas de Calais. Just as it is difficult to dislodge preconceived notions, it is far easier to exploit those same notions. Effective psychological warfare activities will therefore not try to substitute a preferred narrative, but rather will exploit the prejudices and assumptions of the other side.
- Principle #5: Recognize linkages. To be effective, psychological warfare techniques must be mutually reinforcing. This requires careful pre-planning, coordination among the various elements engaging in activities, and the creation of a single, unified plan and command authority. Psychological operations therefore also demand a dedicated, professional cadre and cannot be conducted as an afterthought by amateurs. At the same time, local authorities and resources may well have specific—even superior—understanding of potential psychological warfare targets; consequently, their knowledge and resources should be leveraged to maximize effect. Similarly, psychological warfare operations cannot be undertaken in isolation from other activities (e.g., military attacks or diplomatic and economic maneuvers); they must be coordinated with and supportive of those operations. Finally, offensive and defensive psychological warfare operations must be mutually complementary.
- Principle #6: Retain flexibility. Psychological warfare activities must always pay attention to the enemy, recognizing and accommodating changes in the enemy’s psychology, the battlefield environment, and the relative stance of oneself and the enemy. Those responsible for implementing psychological warfare must be prepared to exploit changes in the situation in order to extract maximum effect.
Read more: www.heritage.org