China’s Virtual Bamboo Curtain
By the time the People’s Republic of China (PRC) acted to stop its latest viral outbreak on January 23, 2020, millions of potentially infected Chinese were already traveling beyond the outbreak’s epicenter in Wuhan—some to the United States. As the virus spread and became a global pandemic costing at least 200,000 lives, more than $4 trillion in direct costs, and potentially tens of trillions of dollars in long term economic losses, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began a global information operations (IO) campaign to deflect criticism from the CCP which was clearly deficient in its handling of the virus.
China's IO campaign is enabled by the virtual bamboo curtain, which President Xi Jinping and the regime have spent the better part of the last decade developing. No longer is the physical barrier of the iron curtain required. Instead, the authoritarian government of China can exert physical and psychological control over Chinese citizens at home and abroad through such means as digital surveillance and a sweeping network of individuals and institutions that monitor Chinese citizens and seek to influence the nations in which they may reside. How does this virtual bamboo curtain work? Let us explain.
In its effort to develop an Orwellian surveillance state, the government of China focused on acquisition and development in key technological sectors. Vital among these enabling technologies are 5G networks, artificial intelligence algorithms, smartphone technologies, and surveillance equipment. Taken independently, these are merely the necessities of modern life. Collectively, they are tools of repression in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
Retired Brig Gen Robert Spalding warns that China is using 5G at home and abroad to monitor the activities, conversations, location, and electronic presence of anyone using one of Huawei’s 5G towers. When ever-present surveillance cameras, which are projected to reach 626 million in 2020, and advanced artificial intelligence algorithms are added to the mix, China’s ability to monitor every aspect of life becomes clear. As authors have noted elsewhere, large technology and social media firms in China are closely linked to the state and allow the government to monitor users.
Because of this ever-growing surveillance state, criticism of the CCP is becoming more dangerous, whether at home or abroad.
Social Credit Scores
Central to stopping criticism before it happens is China’s new social credit score system, which manipulates the behavior of Chinese citizens by punishing them for behavior that is not sufficiently supportive of the regime. Jobs, homes, healthcare, and much more are at stake. Leaving China for work or school overseas does not mean surveillance no longer exists. Your ability to return home or visit family is at stake, and China is working to improve its surveillance of overseas Chinese.
If such a system makes your skin crawl and you view it as a clear threat to liberty, it is important to understand that China is attempting to use these same technologies to monitor Americans or anyone who might be critical of the Chinese Communist Party. China doesn’t want to sell the world 5G networks, CCTV systems, and ZTE smartphones just because it is good business. The sale of advanced technologies abroad allows the Chinese state to build a global intelligence network that rides on top of, and monitors, commercial systems.
The cumulative impact of the virtual bamboo curtain is far-reaching not only for Chinese nationals but for the United States. The PRC’s state guided technology companies are malign actors on the fast-track to tech super-power status, replacing both the US and Europe as a dominant power, all without firing a shot. Their top target is the United States because the PRC is seeking to supplant the United States by 2049—the centennial of the PRC’s establishment.
If China has its way, the virtual bamboo curtain will grow shoots all over the world. For anyone who grew up with bamboo, as we did, once it takes root, bamboo is hard to eliminate as it grows an ever expanding colony of fast growing shoots, that seemingly appear overnight. This is an apt description for Chinese attempts to infiltrate every layer of global society, while maintaining maximum control, of its people.
Overseas Work and Education
Another way China’s authoritarian regime grows shoots and controls overseas Chinese is through the United Work Abroad Program, which requires any Chinese citizen working or studying abroad to report where they work or study as part of a “unified” effort. Any citizen settling abroad or changing nationalities must also report this to China’s national police. Wherever in the world a Chinese national may live, the regime ensures they know the regime is watching and expects loyalty.
Becoming a citizen of another country does not change that expectation. From the regime’s perspective, it may even enhance the government’s ability to facilitate industrial espionage.
The government’s effort to use education through Sister City exchanges, within K-12 education, reinforces Chinese nationalism among overseas Chinese and sows disinformation among American children, is one more example of how the regime exercises influence and control abroad. Secretary Mike Pompeo warned that these, and other programs, are a way the Chinese Communist Party cultivates relationships with local school boards in the United States and promotes a false narrative. It is important to note that while China is primarily focused on its own citizens, it is also trying to shape the opinions of non-Chinese and shift the global narrative.
Many Americans may be familiar with China’s use of Confucius Institutes on American university campuses. They are a way to promote a pro-China agenda among American college students who attend their programs and recruit native born Americans that may appear sympathetic to the Chinese message. They also enable China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) intelligence officers to monitor Chinese students and faculty at the host university, which are often major research institutions. Few at host universities seem concerned with the efforts of the (MSS). American universities see Confucius Institutes as a vehicle for bringing funding and students to degree programs. These administrators and faculty are rarely concerned about espionage.
The United States and its economic and foreign policy elites long thought China’s peaceful rise was ensured by entangling the Chinese economy within the global economy. While this was a reasonable view, it turned out to enable China to develop manufacturing dominance in critical areas, which the regime now uses as a weapon against nations critical of the regime growing even more international bamboo shoots.
Threats from the PRC to withhold Chinese made pharmaceuticals during the Wuhan Flu pandemic are only the latest attempt by President Xi’s government to manipulate public discussion concerning China’s responsibility for the global pandemic. China, to its credit, sought to dominate the manufacture of key goods, which it conveniently uses to control and shape the global narrative concerning the regime’s actions at home and abroad.
Developing into a dominant manufacturer has also given China an opportunity to engage in widespread industrial espionage as Chinese firms, illicitly acquired industrial secrets from the companies with whom they partnered.
This effort to dominate manufacturing in key sectors allows the regime to focus on further development of technologies needed to build the virtual bamboo curtain. Although it may not always be readily apparent, Sulmaan Wasif Khan points out in his recent book, Haunted by Chaos, the primary concern for President Xi is maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the state. This requires control of the people. Thus, state activities are all designed and directed to ensure that aim.
Research Labs and Industrial Espionage
Another effort by the Chinese government to replace the United States as the dominant world power, as Michael Pillsbury cogently describes in The Hundred Years Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, is its need to win the technological race, which is why China sends more than a million students to leading Western universities every year. The government also encourages Chinese nationals to find work in major Western tech firms so that technology and experience can then be repatriated back to China.
A specific example of this last effort is found in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which places the country’s brightest minds into American and Western labs and research facilities. The expectation is that there will produce an outflow of intellectual property growing new bamboo shoots. One recent example is the theft of intellectual property from the Department of Energy, as reported by the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee.
It is worth remembering that economic prosperity creates support for the regime by improving the living standards of average Chinese citizens. In turn, antipathy toward the CCP is diminished. However, should a groundswell of opposition ever arise, the very prosperity that built modern China, enables the regime to monitor and silence dissent when it arises. In many respects, economic prosperity has proven a two-edged sword.
Although criticized for a trade war with China, President Trump was on target in 2011 when he told Wolf Blitzer, “these people are our enemies.” The incorrect perception of China as a capitalist state that will one day become a peaceful democracy is now obviously wrong. However, there are those in government who still wish to avoid conflict with China at any cost—even as they see bamboo forests growing all around them. They are minimizing the PRC’s effort to penetrate the American government by attempting to recruit ethnic Chinese civil servants—among others.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the PRC is attempting to penetrate local and state governments. He told governors in 2019, “Competition with China is not just a federal issue. It’s happening in your states with consequences for our foreign policy. In fact, whether you are viewed by the CCP as friendly or hardline, know that it’s working you. Know that it’s working the team around you.”
What makes competition with China fundamentally different than competition with the Soviet Union is how Chinese intelligence services can use seemingly ordinary Chinese nationals, sometimes coerced, with legitimate business or educational interests to penetrate government, industry, academia, and the media. The same level of access was never afforded Soviet citizens in the United States. This is all enabled by the modern technologies, and Chinese control of the cultural narrative, we described.
Where the Soviet Union worried that its citizens would defect if they were allowed beyond the iron curtain, China is using technology to overcome geography. Thanks to near ubiquitous surveillance and a growing global intelligence network designed to monitor Chinese nationals, the virtual bamboo curtain can do exactly what President Xi wants—protect the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power.
Three recommendations may serve to arrest this growing problem.
First, the United States should support Chinese dissident groups and support their efforts to overcome the CCP’s virtual bamboo curtain. Supporting protestors in Hong Kong with the technical means to thwart Chinese efforts to silence them is a good start. Providing Taiwan, the means to defend itself against PRC aggression, is another way to show Chinese citizens that the United States will stand by those who believe in freedom.
Second, the federal government must begin a public information campaign to make every sector of American society aware of Chinese efforts and enable them to protect critical information.
Third, the United States must reappraise its willingness to allow large numbers of Chinese nationals to come to the United States for education and work in STEM fields where espionage is most widespread. We simply can no longer afford to have our most sensitive technical knowledge siphoned off to China.
Finally, it is time to use economic tools to undermine the Chinese economy, much as the United States did to the Soviet Union. A global order led by China will be a tough place for America. The time to act is now and stop the expansion of China’s virtual bamboo curtain.
Dr. Adam Lowther is a Professor of Political Science at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth. He served in the US Navy and has published on adversary nuclear programs and Chinese security. Dr. Brooke Mitchell is a Fellow with George Washington University’s Nuclear Security Working Group on Capitol Hill. She publishes on scenario planning and applied futures methodologies.
The views expressed are those of the authors alone.