Information Warfare: A Different World


March 12, 2010:  Chinese generals and admirals are calling for more powerful armed forces, and the establishment of military bases overseas. These officers, all retired, write books and magazine articles backing their proposals, and show up frequently as TV pundits. All this is nothing new.

While China is a communist police state, it allows a surprising amount of freedom for those who do not attack the Communist Party or the country. This freedom is especially true for those who say things the government likes to hear, even if the message is not exactly as the government would prefer to hear it. This even applies to retired generals and admirals, who are allowed to call for more military power than the government is willing to pay for, or more aggressive military activity that the government is not ready to sanction. This sort of talk is seen as a good way to gauge what new moves can be undertaken, without a lot of public opposition. Even dictators pay attention to public opinion, as too much unhappiness can feed unrest and rebellion.

Most of this Chinese media activity does not show up in the West. Occasionally, one of the more outrageous sound bites by a Chinese military pundit will make the Western news, usually leaving out that the general or admiral is retired. This can lead to some strange aftereffects.

For example, the 1999 Chinese book, "Unrestricted Warfare," was initially only available to English speakers in a badly translated edition. Even the title is poorly rendered; it should be "Unlimited Warfare." In effect, it's about the range of policy actions that a state can employ, from foreign aid to nuclear weapons, in pursuing its objectives. It's also essentially the views of the authors. Like the Soviets before them, the Chinese communists permit a lot of unofficial opinion in military literature. But just as Chinese officials sometimes misinterpret what they see in the Western media, as official government policy, so do Westerners misinterpret books like this as official policy. Even dictatorships need some free exchanges of ideas, in order to find the best solution for problems. While there are limits to how far-out authors can be (and editors of the state controlled media know where the limits are), this aspect of free speech does allow for a very wide range of proposals. But most of these books are just that, proposals, and will never become policy. But for Western media, searching for the next hot headline, a bad translation is preferable to an accurate one.

Chinese publishers are free to seek out a retired officers who have exciting (nationalistic and militaristic) ideas for books or magazine articles, and make money on it. This has become a competitive business, and the officers providing the manuscripts are believed to have enough sense not to spill any important secrets, or let someone in the military or security agencies, check the manuscript first. Such self-censorship is common in China, and not considered worth mentioning. It's a different world, and that, unfortunately, rarely makes the news.



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