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New Sinocentrism: The ideology that may be driving China to hack foreign media

(Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

We don't know for sure whether or not the Chinese government was behind the four-month-long campaign of China-based cyber attacks on the New York Times. For what it's worth, a specialist in Chinese hacking at the Council on Foreign Relations named Adam Segal explains here why analysts tend to suspect Beijing's hand in the sophisticated and "depressingly ordinary" Chinese hacks on Western targets from newspapers to defense contractors. There are the breadcrumb trails back to facilities associated with the Chinese military, for example, and the hackers' deep interest in topics that would only seem important to senior Communist Party officials, such as the reputations of the Dalai Lama and of party officials themselves.

But there's another question about the Chinese hackers and their long-suspected links to the Chinese government: Why would Beijing think this is okay to do? How could Chinese Communist Party leaders square their goal of becoming a respected global power with behavior – possibly hacking a Western media organization in response to an embarrassing story – that seems more in line with that of a defensive pariah state?

The answer, or at least a very compelling theory, may be contained in a fascinating blog post by Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute. Ford, a China expert, attended a Beijing conference with international analysts and Chinese military leaders in November. He was at first frustrated by his Chinese counterparts' insistence on scolding and lecturing foreign participants. At one point, presumably at his wits' end, Ford stood up and pointed out that Chinese officials often complain that the U.S. tells other countries "how to run their internal affairs." So why, he asked, did he hear no Americans telling China what to do at the conference, and yet there were Chinese generals publicly insisting, before news cameras, that Japan must immediately expel its right-wing political parties and rewrite its history textbooks to better reflect China's view of World War Two? Was this not exactly the sort of "internal interference" of which China claims to be a victim?

A "well-known" general with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) answered. He said, according to Ford's paraphrases, that it's "not 'interference' in another state’s 'internal affairs' for Beijing to make demands about how other states view and depict China and their own history in the Asia-Pacific region, because these things affect China." In other words, the perception of China abroad, he argued, is such a central national interest for China that it is within Beijing's prerogative to change it, even in other countries.

This is when things seemed to click together for Ford and he began to see a possible overarching ideology that would help explain not just the Chinese Communist Party's extreme sensitivity to its perceptions abroad, but its willingness to act internationally – and sometimes aggressively – to control those perceptions.

If this view is indeed broadly held in contemporary China – and I have no reason to believe that senior serving PLA officers, in uniform, attending a conference that they have themselves sponsored and speaking at a plenary session to which they invited Chinese media representatives with television cameras, would depart in any meaningful way from the official PRC line – it may provide an important insight into Chinese conceptions of how Beijing’s imagined “harmonious world” would work.  It suggests that there is nothing at all anomalous about a range of otherwise seemingly idiosyncratic PRC demands in recent years, including calls for Western governments to prohibit “biased” coverage of the PRC in domestic Western media, the insistence that a small town in Oregon destroy a privately-painted wall mural sympathetic to the cause of Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, Beijing’s angry complaints every time anyone has any dealings with the Dalai Lama or gives a prize to a Chinese whose political views are not approved by PRC authorities, its indignant reaction to  the "lack of balance” in a recent publication from the Australian National University, its harassment of Western media organizations that tell their readers about corruption in the Chinese elite, and the above-listed agenda related to Japanese domestic politics and administration.

You might add one important trend to Ford's list of Chinese actions or demands, often reaching well beyond its borders, to control how the country is perceived abroad. That, of course, would be the possibility that it is behind cyber attacks on Western news organizations that report embarrassing stories about its senior leaders. After all, Chinese censors working within the country are extremely aggressive and organized in shaping conversation about the Communist Party leadership, something the party clearly considers a top priority. Why wouldn't it extend this same priority abroad?

Ford connects this tendency back to China's long-established Sinocentrism; its national view of itself as the very center. Zhongguo, the Chinese name for China, famously means "Middle Kingdom." And for most of its history, China was the center of its own universe. But that Sinocentric thinking may still carry through today, a sort of "New Sinocentrism." (Ford, to his credit, has a more precise name for it: "Sinocentrism in the information age.") He explains, compellingly, how this might be applied to understand much of what can make China's behavior baffling to outsiders:

Beijing’s various idiosyncrasies in these regards may be, in meaningful part, the relatively coherent and consistent outgrowths of a conceptual framework – an Information Age twist, if you will, on much older themes of Sinocentric moralism  – in which the emerging Chinese superpower hungers to control other peoples’ narrative of China.  Even things like overseas media coverage, university publications, and small town murals thousands of miles away are all deemed appropriate subjects for [People's Republic of China] demands because they relate in some fashion to China, which is assumed to have a proprietary interest not only in how the rest of the world acts toward China, but also in how it depicts and understands China.
China’s fixation upon shaping others’ accounts of China, then, is arguably not necessarily “just” the result of insecurity or narcissism. Some of it may in fact grow out of a deeply-rooted conception of social order in which narrative control is inherently a strategic objective because it is assumed that status or role ascriptions and moral characterizations play a critical role in shaping the world they describe.

In this thinking, China's hacking of foreign news organizations – like, for example, its demands that foreign governments not call attention to Chinese pollution or human rights abuses – is not just about protecting the Communist Party's reputation within China. This is what I, like others, have long assumed: that the party is worried about any information or dissent that might fuel unrest. Ford isn't disputing that, but rather suggesting that there may be another layer of thinking, one in which the Party is legitimately concerned with protecting how China is discussed outside of China as well. He calls it "a sort of conceptual imperialism, at least in aspiration, suggesting that it is a Chinese strategic objective to control the world’s discourse about China."

A theory of this sort is, of course, both too large and sweeping to really test in isolation and too complex to fully "explain" a single incident, such as the recent cyber attacks on Western news organizations. Still, it is an interesting window into one possible ideological element of the Communist Party's thinking and a reminder of just how differently the world looks from Beijing than it does from just about anywhere else.

(Credit for flagging Robert Ford's post goes to Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based journalist, and Bill Bishop, who featured this on his great, reader-supported e-mail newsletter on all things China.)