Which voice came from the mouthpiece?

As long as China controls its information landscape, it will be responsible for being misunderstood

How seriously should you take vitriolic—or soothing—opinion that comes out of China over the internet? Ananth Krishnan warns against the tendency to assume every voice is that of a government mouthpiece.

News reports also claimed the write-up could not have been published without the permission of the Chinese authorities — another dubious claim tied to the simplistic notion that the Chinese government vets every opinion expressed on all of China’s hundreds of political websites. The Chinese government blocks and censors numerous websites that are politically sensitive, discussing subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests or the Falun Gong. But suggesting that the government controls and moderates debates and political opinions in blogs and newspapers is a stretch.

It also belies a lack of understanding of the changing nature of China’s information landscape. China has 338 million Internet users and more than 100 million blogs and websites, such as the one where this post first appeared. It only takes a quick glance through half a dozen such sites—even “influential” ones—to look at the divergence of opinions and vibrancy of debates, with many voices even strongly criticising the Communist Party and its government. Yet the simplistic perception still endures in India that in authoritarian China, every analyst or writer must surely speak in the same voice.

Interpreting information from these four avenues is further complicated by the fact that they are sometimes inter-linked. For instance, the Chinese government sometimes uses influential think-tanks to hint at changes in policy. Views and opinions from mainstream Chinese newspapers and think-tanks must indeed be taken seriously in India. But at the same time, a more nuanced understanding of China’s information landscape is needed to avoid shrill hyper-reactions to anonymous bloggers and irrelevant fringe groups.

This is crucial to creating a level of discourse in India that allows for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with China’s opportunities and threats. [The Hindu]

That is a very sensible conclusion. What it does not state explicitly is that much of the reason why China is misunderstood to the extent that it is, is because of China itself. The lack of transparency in public discourse, the overbearing role of the state in permitting some views while going to great lengths to proscribe others, and the deliberately unclear linkages among the party, government, academia and media often results in people assuming the worst.

A relatively harmless result of this is the demonisation of China in societies that deal with it. More dangerous is the mistaking of noise for signal—it’s bad for everyone if the fulminations of an “angry youth” run the risk of being confused with tacit but deliberate military threats issued by a key senior official. If China doesn’t want to be misunderstood, it should do its part first.

Think tanks, spy fronts and websites

China’s ‘institutes for strategic studies’

The website that first published the provocative article had the domain name www.iiss.cn—when that site was up it redirected to chinaiiss.org. In addition there is chinaiiss.com and at least one other site with IISS in it. They do not have anything remotely to do with the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (the IISS), nor do they have anything to do with the Chinese foreign ministry-linked China Institute for International Studies (CIIS, on the web at ciis.org.cn).

So what are iiss.com/chinaiiss.org/chinaiiss.com and CIISS?

According to TNN’s Saibal Dasgupta, the websites are run by one Kang Lingyi, and are a private initiative unconnected with any official body. Mr Kang says that it was a mere coincidence that his website had a name similar to the official think-tank, and that he has since changed it to China Center for International and Strategic Studies “to avoid confusion”.

FT reports that Mr Kang’s website is called China International Strategy Net and that he “took part in hacking into US government websites in 1999 following US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Sites such as his are part of the Communist party’s strategy to allow nationalism to grow to strengthen its political legitimacy.” (An issue of TIME magazine dated June 20th 2005 has more about Mr Kang and his patriotic initiatives online.)

What is truly remarkable—and this is China—is that Mr Kang was allowed to operate websites for several years with domain names similar to CIISS, the “official think-tank”. Because that is no ordinary think-tank—as Brahma Chellaney pointed out today, CIISS is a unit directly under the Second Department of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army.

The Second Department is the PLA’s apex military intelligence department and, according to David Lampton “superior to all other civilian and military organs as a source of national and defence intelligence and military-related strategic analysis for the senior leadership”. Mr Lampton writes that “most Second Department researchers use a “front” affiliation when interacting with foreigners, notably China Institute of International Strategic Studies”. Its chairman is Lieutenant-General Xiong Guangkai, who is quoted as having threated a nuclear attack on Los Angeles in 1995.

There is nothing to connect Mr Kang’s CIISS with General Xiong’s CIISS. But the latter’s signals need to be taken a lot more seriously. Given the scope for confusion, the general would do well to ask Mr Kang to get a different domain name. Unless, of course, the reason not to is stronger.

Is a Zardari NFU policy a Pakistani NFU policy too?

That is now a very important question

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, used a Q&A session at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit to announce that Pakistan “will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons). I hope that things never come to a stage where we have to even think about using nuclear weapons”.

On the face of it, it is a welcome development. If only, that is, Mr Zardari is anywhere close to having an influence, let alone control, over his country’s nuclear arsenal. When his wife was prime minister, the Pakistani army didn’t even allow her to visit the facilities where nuclear weapons were being developed. As president, the National Command Authority is nominally under him, but the Strategic Plans Division—the organisation that is supposed to be in actual control—de facto reports to the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. (Technically, the SPD reports to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, but try explaining that to the army chief.)

It is unclear if General Kayani and the SPD agree with Mr Zardari’s declaration of a no first use policy. So we’ll have to wait for clarifications, retractions and suggestions that Mr Zardari was misquoted. If Pakistan indeed seeks to adopt a no first use policy, then a platform more credible than a Q&A session should be used to reiterate the commitment. Until either of this happens, Mr Zardari’s statement is non-credible at best, and ‘noisy’ at worst.

It is best that Pakistan clears the air promptly.

Update: Well, Mr Zardari himself was only playing with words to the galleries. It was noise.

When asked if Pakistan would adopt the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, he said, “Most definitely, yes, we hope we will never get into that position (of using nuclear weapons). I am for a South Asian Non-nuclear Treaty.”

“I can get my Parliament to agree to it right away,” he said. “Can you (India) get your Parliament to agree to it?” [IE]

He should understand that such flippancy ultimately damages the credibility of Pakistan’s civilian leadership. And Karan Thapar, who moderated the session, should be less credulous and more probing, especially on such matters.