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Brief #23: WeChat surveillance, CICIR report, media war, cyber espionage

Hi folks, hope you’ve had a good weekend! This week, Yun has been extremely busy chilling with her kitten while Adam planted vegetable in his garden and made plans to build a bookshelf. As always, thanks for reading!

- Yun and Adam

China Neican is a weekly column of the China Story blog.

1. WeChat monitors foreign accounts

Research by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto shows that communication between foreign (non-Chinese) accounts are subject to content surveillance. While the contents of the communication between foreign accounts are not censored, they are still monitored and analysed to improve censorship algorithms (for Chinese accounts).

Ronald Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab, spells out some implications of this research:

For the millions of WeChat users based outside mainland China, this experiment provides conclusive proof that the company is actively monitoring the images and files (and possibly more) those users share for politically sensitive content.

In using the platform you are actually helping the company improve its censorship and surveillance system to which mainland China’s users are subject.

The result of the research is not surprising. In order to encourage the uptake of WeChat by those outside China, Tencent has excluded foreign accounts from its censorship regime imposed on accounts in China. However, people who are aware of the censorship requirements in China expect such monitoring of private communication, even between foreign accounts. This research provides some proof of this.

More from the report:

While content surveillance and content moderation are ubiquitous across social media platforms, our research findings point to a worrying situation where globalized companies extend information controls beyond the borders of their home country and incorporate these practices into general product designs and business operations. [...] In the case of our findings, there is no evidence attributing Tencent’s surveillance behaviours enforced on international WeChat users to the direction of the Chinese government.

2. Internal report on competition

We know incredibly little about what the Chinese political elite are thinking on a personal level, and the advice that they are receiving, even though China is a country of such global significance. A report by Reuters this week on an internal report presented to China’s top leaders is a case in point.

This report was written by China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the think tank of the Ministry of State Security (rough US equivalent of a combination of CIA and FBI). According to Reuters, its key message is that:

Beijing faces a wave of anti-China sentiment led by the United States in the aftermath of the pandemic and needs to be prepared in a worst-case scenario for armed confrontation between the two global powers.

An anonymous source quoted by Reuters characterises the report as China’s version of the Novikov Telegram, a 1946 dispatch from the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Nikolai Novikov, that warns of the US’ ambition for global supremacy. The Novikov Telegram and George Kennan’s Long Telegram were documents that influenced thinking on both sides of the Cold War.

News of the CICIR report created quite a stir in the China-watching community with speculations on its content and implications. It’s extremely rare that information on CICIR reports to top leaders are leaked to the media. Given the apparent significance and topic of this report, its likely an authorised leak.

But if you are following the writing of Chinese strategists, Party documents, and state media reports, then the core idea of the report is not fanciful or even surprising. The idea (that the US is determined to contain China in order to keep its top position in the international system) is a dominant view in China’s strategic and foreign policy circles.

Perhaps what this report reveals more than anything else is just how little we know about the policy advice that Zhongnanhai is getting.

Both Socrates and Confucius had similar ideas of true knowledge, which is, to know what we know and what we don’t. Let’s bear this in mind when thinking about China.

3. Media war escalates (again)

The US has imposed further restrictions on Chinese journalists working there. This is another step in the tit-for-tat escalation in the media war between the two great powers.

Chinese journalists working for non-American news outlets would be limited to 90-day working visas. Any extensions will also be limited to 90 days.

Notably, this applies not just to Chinese journalists working for state media such as Xinhua or People’s Daily, but all media outlets. It even captures Chinese journalists working for non-Chinese media.

China has forced out 19 foreign journalists recently. The latest is the Australian veteran reporter Chris Buckley, one of the best China reporters around.

As we wrote previously on this media tit-for-tat:

Reciprocity may not be an effective means to achieve an outcome. If the aim of the US Government is to increase press freedom in China, it is unclear how placing restrictions on Chinese journalists in the US would achieve that. It can only work if China deeply cares about these Chinese journalists enough that it would reverse its course. That appears unlikely.

The latest restrictions will affect the lives of Chinese journalists, including those working for independent media or non-Chinese media. Their work will be uncertain — and with a 90-day visa, should they move their families to the US? This also discourages media outlets, especially non-Chinese media outlets, from hiring Chinese journalists.

It will also adversely affect newsroom diversity in the US, and ultimately be detrimental to press freedom. This media war is a lose-lose situation for both Chinese journalists and press freedom in the US.

But it is a win-win for Trump and Xi administrations. After all, they share an apathy for independent journalism.

4. Cyber espionage: Naikon group

A new report by cyber threat intelligence firm Check Point Research presents evidence of ongoing cyber espionage operations in Asia attributed to the Naikon group. Naikon group’s activities were first reported in 2015, and was then linked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). More precisely, it was thought to be the then Chengdu Military Region’s Second Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (Unit 78020), now part of the Strategic Support Force, the PLA’s information warfare force.

The new report claims that the Naikon group has been using a backdoor called Aria-body against several government organisations and state-owned companies, including in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Brunei.

China conducting cyber espionage is no surprise at all. Even as it becomes an increasingly contentious point of friction in US-China relations, we should bear in mind that every major power in the world today conducts cyber espionage and clandestine intelligence gathering, including the US. The difference is the speed at which China is acquiring cyber power and conducting cyber activities as well as evolving threat perception vis-a-vis China. Also, while the US has more advanced cyber capabilities, its cyber operatives are also more experienced at hiding their tracks.

Beijing takes cyberspace quite seriously for a range of reasons, including information control (that’s why it built the Great Fire Wall). China’s 2019 defense white paper highlights that “[c]yberspace is a key area for national security, economic growth and social development” and “[c]yber security remains a global challenge and poses a severe threat to China.” The fact that China’s cyber defenses remain weak despite its rising technological prowess concerns Beijing greatly.

This week on China Story:

Geremie Barme, May Fourth at One-hundred-and-One

The Fourth of May marks China’s annual National Youth Day 五四青年節. It is ostensibly a time to celebrate the enthusiasm and independent spirit of youth. It commemorates the progressive, anti-imperialist student activists who, in 1919, led a national movement to protest against the unfair treatment of the Republic of China at the Versailles Peace Conference. Every year since the student-led protest movement of 1989, the weeks leading up to 4 May have been a time of heightened political anxiety.

Jane Golley, Cooler headlines must prevail in Australia-China debates

The Australian government should not tolerate being told what to do by any other country, no matter how powerful they are. And nor should we blindly pursue economic interests to the neglect of security concerns. But in steering the right course for Australia’s future with China — one that is now fraught with complexities — surely we need cool, calm heads, as well as headlines, to deal with the facts as they present themselves, not as we wish or assume them to be.

Chengxin Pan, The latest China drama, made in Australia

No news is good news, a trusted truism that is now apt in the Australian media coverage of China. The recent media frenzy over the Chinese Ambassador’s comments is a case in point. When the largely cathartic benefits of the show recede, the most likely future dividend of the compounded mutual distrust is yet another China drama.

Yun Zhou, Governing the epidemic: neighbourhood committees in Shanghai

Neighbourhood committees have played a vital role in governing local life in China since the establishment of the People’s Republic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have demonstrated flexibility in implementing political directives and policies from above. However, the grassroots management structure of neighbourhood committees is struggling to adapt to the increasing complexities that characterise a modern urban society.

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