China’s Cyber Militias

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China’s Cyber Militias

China’s cyber power is in the grip of dual trends: pluralism and centralization.

China’s Cyber Militias
Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

China’s military cyber power capabilities are increasingly being augmented by a growing civilian dimension to increase potency.  At first glance, this would seem to be in conflict with the strident centralization reforms that have characterized recent domestic Chinese policy. In fact, not only does this civil-military development have substantial historical precedent; in many ways, it also serves the centralization of power that has come to characterize President Xi Jinping’s time in power.

In the month prior t0 last year’s 19th Party Congress, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) released one of the most authoritative policy documents to date outlining Xi and the Party’s thinking on cyberspace. The document outlines the need to “Promote the deepened development of military-civilian integration for cybersecurity and informatization.” Further to this directive are instructions to implement civil-military integration systems, cybersecurity projects, and innovation policies.

This follows the January 2017 creation of the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, with civil-military cyber integration being named by Xi as a key area the commission would expedite. Under the instruction of the commission, China’s first “cybersecurity innovation center” was established in December 2017. Operated by 360 Enterprise Security Group – one of China’s primary cybersecurity companies – the center’s remit is to foster private sector cooperation to “help [the military] win future cyber wars.”

Historical Precedent for Civil-Military Ties

The strong civil-military dimension of Chinese military power has existed since the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. Mao Zedong’s “People’s War” doctrine essentially stressed that China’s military advantage lay in utilizing and mobilizing the vast Chinese population. This concept found a modern iteration in the penultimate edition of the People’s Liberation Army’s “The Science of Military Strategy” – the closest thing to a publicized doctrine the PLA produces – which stated that “the cooperation between regular warfare and irregular warfare stresses that we should give full play to the creativity of the masses…”  Indeed, the aforementioned CAC manifesto directs that, in the field of civil-military cyber development, there is an imperative for “the military to serve the people, and the people to prepare the military.”

The push to leverage the skills and capabilities in the civilian sector as a key part of China’s military cyber capabilities development has been gaining steam outside of military circles as well. The State Council’s Medium and Long Term Program for Science and Technology Development 2006-2020 emphasizes the importance of integrating civilian and military scientific and technical efforts. Additionally, the 11th Five Year Plan discussed “merging the military with the civilian.” The PLA has heeded such calls, escalating its partnerships with the civilian telecoms sector – especially ZTE and Huawei – and developing further links with universities. It is within civilian corporations and universities where some of China’s cyber militias are situated.

Cyber Militias and the Strategic Support Force

China’s cyber militias have been one of the clearest products of this civil-military development, and represent a modern manifestation of People’s War doctrine. Since they began to form at the turn of the millennium they have proliferated – according to Nigel Inkster in China’s Cyber Power – to a collective membership of more than 10 million people. Militias in general in China act to provide logistics support as well as rear area security for active duty units. It is likely that the cyber militias function in a similar capacity. While the PLA endorsed cyber militias as a concept in 2006 they will likely be restrained to cyber espionage as opposed to offensive cyber operations, given the risk that engagement in the latter would pose in potentially undermining the work of regular PLA cyber units.

The Strategic Support Force (SSF) has been the PLA’s answer to mitigating the risk of erratic cyber militias whilst still harnessing the power and capabilities of civil society. Established in December 2015 to merge and centralize all of the PLA’s space, cyber, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) capabilities in one body, this PLA organization is also the vanguard for pursuing China’s civil-military power projection ambitions.

At the inauguration ceremony of the SSF, Xi’s two main points were first, how the SSF was a key growth point of the PLA’s modern combat capabilities, and second, that one of its primary responsibilities was to advance civil-military integration. The juxtaposition of this latter point with the first highlights the centrality that civil-military integration will hold in the future direction of the PLA’s power projection in cyberspace. The SSF has assumed control over a number of PLA research institutes where it will pursue R&D, driven largely by civil-military integration.

Extending the Corporate State Model to Cyberspace

China’s infamous “patriotic hackers” are perhaps the most well-known face of the cyber militias. While these hackers can be a useful tool in hampering state adversaries they can also often be unruly, erratic and heavy-handed. These hackers are typically driven by popular nationalism – often defined by effusive, unsubtle, and rash pursuits and rhetoric – as shown by instances like the outbursts following the U.S. EP-3 incident in 2001. This often works at odds with the rationally calculated version of state nationalism that the CCP espouses and pursues.

Evidently, there has been a tension between the need for the state to enable and encourage the development of national identity while still preserving the national interest. The integration of these civilian entities into formalized state structures like the SSF will thus represent a desire by the state to mitigate as much as possible the inherent volatility of these actors.

However, continued formal integration of these hackers into military organizations like the SSF will mean the PLA and the Chinese state will soon lose its ability to have plausible deniability when these hackers’ operations are uncovered by other states. The improved U.S. ability to attribute cyber operations to Chinese actors combined with Washington’s budding approach of sanctioning major Chinese state-owned enterprises involved has thus caused Beijing to realize the need of running a tighter ship.

The centralization that Beijing is therefore pursuing is a manifestation of the corporate state model, which is increasingly defining the Chinese political system. Here, the CCP acknowledges the presence of societal interest groups as an inevitable result of the inexorably pluralizing society. However, the Party seeks to co-opt or direct the behavior of these entities in order to prevent the proliferation of autonomous action, perceived as inherently threatening to stability and Party rule. Today, the CCP endeavors to achieve this by appealing to the nationalist motivations of these civil society actors and seeking to weave them into the more tightly controlled machine of state nationalism that organizations like the SSF represent. This empowerment vs. control dichotomy is one of many similar paradoxes that are increasingly coming to define Chinese cyber policy.

Watch This Space

While the civil-military dimension of China’s cyber power projection has been sporadically apparent since the beginning of the millennium, it is only recently that we are seeing concerted efforts to wholeheartedly leverage the civilian sphere and, more importantly, to centralize and organize it so that it can consistently serve China’s defense and military aims.

The Leninist ideology espoused by the CCP brings with it the necessity for an adversary and a mission. This creates a milieu where Chinese civil society cyber actors will, by necessity, likely mobilize in the international arena. Considering that the government has stated that “Military and civilian integration is the ‘nature’ of the information war,” while simultaneously recognizing that information war will dictate future conflict, this is definitely a space to watch.

Nicholas Lyall is a researcher at the Strategy and Statecraft in Cyberspace program at the Australian National University’s National Security College and also writes for the Foreign Brief publication. Follow him on Twitter: @NicholasLyall.