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China’s Chilling Cognitive Warfare Plans

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China’s Chilling Cognitive Warfare Plans

War is entering a new, and very frightening, domain.

China’s Chilling Cognitive Warfare Plans

Gen. Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, attends the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 4, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Recent years have seen lively discussions about cognitive warfare, centering on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to an October 5, 2022 piece in the PLA Daily, cognitive warfare is conflict in the cognitive domain formed from human consciousness and thoughts, which is believed to shape reality in a way favorable to China by influencing human judgment, changing ideas, and influencing the human mind through selective processing and propagation of information. In other words, the aim is to gain an advantage in war by influencing the perceptions of civilians, military personnel, and political leaders, who are targeted through various means such as dissemination of disinformation and cyberattacks, causing social confusion, reduced motivation to fight, military demoralization, and – among political leaders – reduced judgment.

Cognitive warfare, such as propaganda using radio broadcasts and deception through the dissemination of disinformation, is hardly a recent phenomenon, but the PLA’s focus on it follows developments in technology that greatly enhance its effectiveness. The first development was the global expansion of the internet and the rapid spread of social media. The latter in particular has made it possible to instantly distribute large volumes of tampered or biased information among a very large number of targets, creating the infrastructure for effective cognitive warfare.

The second development was the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence. Using AI, it is now possible to create extremely elaborate fake videos known as deepfakes. Improving AI translation capabilities could also overcome language barriers and increase the effectiveness of cognitive warfare against countries that use other languages. There is a growing expectation in the PLA that these technologies make it possible to win an edge with cognitive warfare, perhaps even avoiding physical combat, where property and human damage is unavoidable, to “win without fighting.”

Technical limitations still make it unlikely that a war can be won through operations in the cognitive domain alone. But by combining operations in the cognitive, physical, and information domains, China aims to secure ascendancy in peacetime and victory in wartime. Already, it is simultaneously conducting operations in these three domains against Taiwan. For example, when Taiwan was in the midst of its presidential and legislative elections, China spread fake images on social media purporting to show the candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) involved in a scandal. It also indirectly supported the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which advocates easing tensions with China, by conducting military exercises in the sea and airspace around Taiwan and flying military balloons over the island. Meanwhile, there were attempts to influence the election in the information domain, such as hacking routers and posting false information on social media.

Chinese operations in the cognitive domain as well as in the physical and information domains may be seen more broadly as cognitive warfare aimed at changing election outcomes in a way that favors China by influencing the perceptions of Taiwanese voters. It is difficult to assess the extent to which China’s cognitive warfare against Taiwan has been effective. In the recent presidential election, the DPP’s Lai Ching-te won with more than 40 percent of the vote, while the KMT won 52 seats in the Legislative Yuan election, slightly ahead of the DPP at 51 seats. Of course, there are many factors that influence election outcomes, but it does seem apparent that China’s cognitive warfare did not have a decisive impact on this occasion.

Nonetheless, China is likely to continue its efforts. Further technological advances could dramatically increase the effectiveness of cognitive warfare. As demonstrated by Sora, developed by OpenAI, generative AI technologies are evolving at a rapid pace, and in the not-too-distant future it will be possible to easily create sophisticated fake videos that for the average person will be indistinguishable from the real thing. Meanwhile, brain machine interface (BMI) technology, which connects the human cerebrum to devices, is also developing rapidly, and in China, patients with limb paralysis have been able to use BMI technology to move on-screen cursors and pneumatic gloves. Continued developments in BMI technology may make it possible to influence the cerebrum of a target person from an external device and control their thoughts.

China is focusing on developing generative AI and BMI technologies, and will continue to work toward its ultimate goal of “winning without fighting” by improving its ability to control human cognition.

The societies most vulnerable to cognitive warfare are those that are free and open. China’s plans to deploy cognitive warfare techniques not only in times of war, but also in peacetime. Democracies must remain vigilant against attempts to promote social division and destabilize politics, developing systems and technologies to counter any such attacks.