Alan Stanley
Wed, 11/03/2021 - 06:44
Edited Text
“WINNING THE BATTLE WITHOUT FIGHTING”: STRATEGIC CULTURE AND
INFORMATION WARFARE IN THE PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY OF CHINA

by

Nicholas A. Budak
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for graduation with Honors in Asian Studies.

Whitman College
2014

Certificate of Approval
This is to certify that the accompanying thesis by Nicholas Budak has been accepted
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for graduation with Honors in Asian
Stuides.

________________________
Brian Dott

Whitman College
May 14, 2014
ii

Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ................................................................................................................................ iv
List of Acronyms ..................................................................................................................................... v
I: Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 1

II: Security, Discourse, Culture, and the PLA ................................................................................ 4

III: The PLA under Mao Zedong...................................................................................................... 19
IV: The PLA under Deng Xiaoping ................................................................................................. 25
V: The PLA under Jiang Zemin ........................................................................................................ 31
VI: The PLA under Hu Jintao ............................................................................................................ 60
VII: The PLA under Xi Jinping.......................................................................................................... 80
VIII: Patterns and Implications....................................................................................................... 89
Bibliography .......................................................................................................................................... 96

iii

List of Illustrations
Figure 1 – Distribution of major schools of thought in the PLA – p. 40
Figure 2 – Overview of the People’s War school – p. 40
Figure 3 – Overview of the Local War school – p. 41
Figure 4 – Overview of the RMA school – p. 41

Table 1 – List of major Information Warfare writers in the PLA – p. 45

iv

List of Acronyms

C2I - Command, Control and Intelligence
CPC - Communist Party of China

CMC - Central Military Commission (CPC)

COSTIND - Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense
(PRC)

DOD - Department of Defense (US)

FBIS - Foreign Broadcast Information Service (US)
IW - Information Warfare
LW - Local War

LWUMHTC - Local War Under Modern High-Tech Conditions
PAP - People’s Armed Police (PRC)

PLA - People’s Liberation Army (PRC)
PLA-AF - PLA Air Force

PLA-N - PLA Navy

PRC - People’s Republic of China
PW - People’s War

RMA - Revolution in Military Affairs
ROC - Republic of China (Taiwan)

v

I: Introduction

The United States Army’s PAC-3 Patriot missile system, the Navy’s Aegis

ballistic-missile defense system, and the Air Force’s F/A-18 and V-22 Osprey aircraft

were all weapons which made America’s entry into the first Gulf War a decisive

victory. They are also all weapons whose schematics now lie firmly in the grasp of
People’s Liberation Army cyberwarriors. On May 27, 2013, the Washington Post

leaked Department of Defense documents which implicated Chinese hackers in the
digital theft of the military technologies that form the backbone of the Pentagon’s
first-line defense strategy in Asia, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. 1 This stunning

development in global power politics has come to symbolize the unpredictable and
radically new world of security doctrine emerging from the current revolution in
military affairs.

Despite carrying out a wildly successful act of information warfare, China,

too, is fearful. In a recent analysis, the top 16 psychological factors motivating the

Chinese military included 3 different scenarios for an information-based attack on
China, all of which have pushed it to further develop information warfare

capabilities and recruit hackers under newly ascendant leader Xi Jinping. 2 This is a
sobering fact, particularly for a country with $1 trillion to spend on defense that is

still nursing a multi-decade burden left by the foreign imperialists who “carved it up
like a melon” in the early 20th century.
1
2

Nakashima, 1.
Bodeen, 1.

All the same, some believe China may have cause for celebration alongside its

fears. The new world of information warfare is uncharted territory, where our
assumptions about previous wars and the way they were fought could be

discredited entirely. Many scholars suspect China has a trump card hidden in plain
sight - its millenia-spanning archive of cultural strategic texts. Long consigned to

history or discarded as obsolete, strategic writers from Sun Zi (Sun Tzu) to Mao

Zedong may be pulled from their shelves to “give China an edge” in the informationbased wars of tomorrow. To quote a prominent admiral in the People’s Liberation
Army-Navy:

Culture is the root and foundation of strategy. Strategic thinking, in the

process of its evolutionary history, flows into the mainstream of a country or
a nation’s culture. Each country or nation’s strategic culture cannot but bear

the imprint of cultural traditions, which in a subconscious and complex way,
prescribes and defines strategy making. 3

A study of the role culture has played, and will continue to play, in the evolution of

modern Chinese information warfare doctrine is thus urgently needed. Though the
task is ambitious, a growing body of literature has made taking a rhetorical and
historical inventory of Chinese military writing possible.

With that in mind, this study seeks to accomplish four main objectives. Its

first goal is to look at the internal doctrinal rhetoric of the People’s Liberation Army
3

Scobell, China and Strategic Culture, 1.

2

- what are the commanders who would fight a 21st-century information war saying
amongst themselves? Secondly, it tries to “cut through the noise” and deliver a

rhetorical analysis keyed to the most important and influential viewpoints and

actors in the debate over information warfare. Thirdly, it seeks to identify broad

rhetorical trends throughout the history of Chinese debate on information warfare,
noting significant periods of doctrinal change and development. Lastly, it attempts

to construct an “insider’s view” of Chinese military motivations, goals, and methods.
In pursuing these goals, it distinguishes itself from similar studies through its

relatively wide historical range as well as its cultural, linguistic, and rhetorical foci.

Ultimately, it concludes that Chinese cultural strategic writing - both ancient

and modern – acted to create a unique discursive space wherein information

warfare in particular was seen as a powerful, attractive, and uniquely Chinese

weapon. This refines and challenges the conclusions of other approaches to the

problem, which have either suffered from a lack of scope and focus or incorrectly
assessed a more passive role for strategic culture. Rejecting the idea that Sun Zi,

Mao, and other influential writers should be treated as history once the security
climate undergoes drastic change, we instead affirm a cyclical process wherein

Chinese strategic culture both informs and is informed by geopolitical change or
realpolitik.

3

II: Security, Discourse, Culture, and the PLA

Ontology is a term found in the discourse of both philosophy and,

appropriately, information science. In both cases, the word refers to questions of

being or becoming. Thus before engaging in an investigation of security ideologies
within the PLA, we must ask the ontological question “what is security?” For the

state, security draws its force and power not from weapons or postures but from

words themselves. Ronnie Lipschutz, professor of political science at the University
of Santa Cruz, explains:

Conceptualizations of security - from which follow policy and practice - are to
be found in discourses of security. These...are the products of historical

structures and processes, of struggles for power within the state, of conflicts
between the societal groupings that inhabit states and the interests that
besiege them. Hence, there are not only struggles over security among
nations, but also struggles over security among notions. 4

This idea of discursively constructed security suggests that the ultimate

determinant of security outcomes is security rhetoric. Thus one need only follow the
trail of ideas back to the mouthpieces of state or military organs to make predictive
claims about the priorities and strategies of the state. Moreover, the ‘struggle over
security notions’ suggests that states do not conceive of security monolithically 4

Lipschutz, 8.

4

rather, agents within the state battle over the right to articulate their respective
interpretations of security and control the levers of policymaking.

Sometimes referred to as “critical security”, this conceptualization of security

is nontraditional, insofar as it eschews realist attempts to make security a numbers
game in favor of casting it as a debate. Departure from tradition is an asset to us in
this study, for two reasons. The first is that critical security “requires us to

acknowledge that the perception of security is socially constructed, and in particular
is inseparable from the creation of identity.” 5 Having done so, we are well-disposed

to flag and include unique cultural ideas (such as Sun Zi’s strategic maxims) in our

survey of rhetoric. Second, “the characteristics of information warfare compel us to
seek explanations other than those offered by traditional international relations
theories.” 6 Progressive IR theorists like the Virginia Military Institute’s James J.

Hentz have identified information warfare as a force that threatens the “conceptual
edifice” of traditional security studies, but is also frequently ignored “in favor of

enduring assumptions that guarantee the primacy” of the traditional approach. 7

Thus, we also avoid the potential blind spots that reliance on a traditional definition
of security could cost us when studying information warfare.

Before proceeding any further, we must define key terms - an exercise that

James Mulvenon, a China scholar and private information security contractor,

5

Rawnsley 2005, 1061.
Ibid, 1063.
7
Ibid, 1064.
6

5

describes as “fraught with terminological, ideological, and political peril”. 8

Fortunately, Mulvenon’s writing in The PLA in the Information Age gives us a

definition for information warfare that will be relevant throughout our study. The
DOD’s publicly available Joint Publication 3-13 defines IW as “information

operations during a time of crisis or conflict to achieve or promote specific

objectives over a specific adversary or adversaries.” 9 Why a definition from the

DOD? Two reasons - first, this one is “straight from the top”, insofar as it has guided
US military orientation towards IW. Second, China also adheres to this same

definition - as Mulvenon notes, “...the Chinese themselves have made the job a little

easier...Chinese writings clearly suggest that IW is a solely military subject, and as
such they draw inspiration primarily from US military writings. The net result of

this ‘borrowing’ is that many PLA authors’ definitions of IW and IW concepts sound
eerily familiar.” 10

A second term integral to our rhetorical analysis is the Revolution in Military

Affairs (RMA). Analysts Steven Metz and James Kievit, writing for the US Army War
College in 1995, claimed the idea of an RMA grew from Soviet writing of the 1970s

and 80s - the initial term was “military technical revolution”, but the idea later came
to encompass a more holistic vision of military change. Most analysts define the

RMA as “a discontinuous increase in military capability and effectiveness arising
from simultaneous and mutually supportive change in technology, systems,
8

Mulvenon and Yang, 176.
Ibid.
10
Ibid.
9

6

operational methods, and military organizations.” 11 All Western authors cited in this

paper - and most Chinese authors as well - are of the opinion that the Gulf War was
the harbinger of the latest RMA occurring worldwide. At the time Metz and Kievit

were writing, the “RMA school of thought” - even within the DOD - remained a small
but elite portion of military thinkers. The authors all but demanded a deeper

investigation into the implications of the new RMA, foretelling dire consequences
for the effectiveness of the US military if it were not fully appreciated. 12

Jumping ahead to 2010, Jacqueline Newmeyer (President of the Long-Term

Strategy Group) wrote in the Journal of Strategic Studies that “Chinese strategists

believe the Revolution in Military Affairs offers a ‘historic opportunity’ to alter the

military balance with the United States.” 13 The RMA - like information warfare - has
transitioned from an experimental concept among US elites to a worldwide

phenomenon that demands attention by major powers. Chinese military leaders

have borrowed and tweaked RMA doctrine accordingly, creating what Newmeyer
calls an “RMA with Chinese Characteristics.”

The Chinese term for the RMA meshes well with party doctrine and rhetoric,

using the familiar term geming (革命, “revolution”) to form the compound word

junshi geming (军事革命, “military affairs revolution”). The word “revolution” as

geming carries ideological and cultural baggage unique to today’s PRC. Wielders of
Chinese communist rhetoric labored extensively to construct geming with positive

11

Metz and Kievit, v.
Ibid, 6.
13
Newmeyer, 483.
12

7

and progressive connotations, often blacklisting enemies of the state or party as

fangeming (反革命, “counterrevolutionary”). Chairman Mao’s revolution, as distinct
from textbook Marxism-Leninism, was a continuous and turbulent one - and

intentionally so. Within China, the junshi geming inherited aspects of urgency,

power, crisis, and change. Thus, charting the progress and power of its adherents
and critics is one focus of this study.

Before the current RMA, military debate in China was a simpler affair. In the

early days of the People’s Republic, the community of nations was dominated by a
bipolar and hegemonic system of security relations. An ‘iron curtain’ clearly

delineated friend and foe, and even the most powerful nations could count on a

system of mutually assured destruction that forestalled war indefinitely. But as the
post-Soviet world moved towards an increasingly unstable unipolar regime, the

ontological question of national security became more complex - if not the enemy

bloc, what were we securing ourselves against? As the 20th century drew to a close,
prominent PLA authors were asking penetrating questions: "the times of clearly

drawn sides are over. Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” 14 In the West,

noted University of Chicago professor of political science John Mearsheimer

ominously assured the United States that it would “soon miss the cold war.” 15

14
15

Qiao and Wang, 37.
Lipschutz, 6.

8

After the breakup of the USSR, President Bush appealed to the US military

intelligence community, asking it to “find new security problems” to pursue. 16 Why

might a country’s paramount leader actively seek out - even fabricate - new threats
to national security? The answer lies in University of Sydney professor James Der
Derian’s idea of an “ontotheology of security.” 17 For Der Derian, security must

always have a “referent object” - something to be secure against. The ontotheology

of security is a genealogy of discourse about security - a history of who secures what
against whom. Drawing on the work of semiotic analyst Jacques Derrida, Der Darian
asserts that “the security of the center has been the shifting site from which the

forces of authority, order, and identity philosophically defined and physically kept at
bay anarcy, chaos, and indifference.” 18 In the empire of ancient China, state forces

often struggled against “barbarians” on China’s borders, keeping capital cities like
Beijing secure against myriad invading forces for centuries at a time only to

eventually yield to a more powerful force which established its own ‘center’ within
the old capital. The legacy of security discourse is likewise a legacy of substituting
one center for another, as threats themselves change over time.

In the world of the Gulf War and beyond, Der Darian’s ‘referent object’ of

security – the periphery – began to dissolve. International terrorism, resource

shortages, and ‘asymmetric’ warfighting technology problematized the idea of state

security as security vis-a-vis other states or uniform entities, leading Bush to declare
16

Ibid.
Ibid, 25.
18
Ibid.
17

9

in 1992 “...the enemy is instability...the enemy is unpredictability.” 19 Thus Der

Darian deduced the “...immediate response, the unthinking action, [was] to master

this anxiety...and resecure the center by remapping peripheral threats.” 20 Lacking a

clear sense of what put it at the center, the United States sought - and found - new
threats that justified waging “war on terror”, “war on drugs”, and war against an

“axis of evil.” The United States is, of course, not alone in its remapping of threats - a
rising China sought to craft her own vision of security as well.

Lipschutz and Der Darian thus make clear the relationship between

discourses of security and the modern state. As we saw with the concept of the

Revolution in Military Affairs, states and their composite agents are constantly

reacting to changes in the world by forwarding new rhetoric about security. In this
struggle to define what is secure, discourses “...delimit the range of policy options,
thereby functioning as precursors to policy outcomes.” 21 In the critical security

model, the RMA is usually accompanied by new rhetoric that justifies and explains

its utility - for example, the United States’ definition of “enemy combatant” over the
course of the war on terror changed dramatically after the “revolutionary”

introduction of targeted-killing drone technology. The remaining question is how

the ‘battle over notions’ is won: what factors affect a state’s decision to securitize in
a particular way? Are some security discourses more appealing?

19

Ibid.
Ibid.
21
Ibid, 8.
20

10

Throughout the 1990’s, most mainstream political theorists claimed that

geopolitical conditions - present demands on the state such as resource scarcity or
territorial integrity - were the primary motivator in security decisions. 22 Yet some

challenged this neorealist paradigm, claiming that culture and history could play a
strong role in how a state spoke about and constructed its notions of security.

Among them was Harvard professor Iain Alastair Johnston, who was the first to

examine the expanding field of strategic culture studies. Johnston published Cultural
Realism in 1995, a landmark work which undertook to analyze the role that ancient

security texts played in security decisionmaking during China’s Ming dynasty. In his
critique of strategic culture, Johnston defined the term as “ranked grand strategic
preferences derived from central paradigmatic assumptions about the nature of
conflict and the enemy, and collectively shared by decisionmakers.” 23 Cultural

Realism traces the path of scholarship on strategic culture, splitting it into three
veins.

The first-generation strategic culture scholars of the cold war era were

generally neorealists. Many sought to explain supposedly “cultural” differences

between United States and USSR nuclear doctrines. Johnston credits their cultural

focus as arising from a 1977 RAND corporation (Research And Development, a US

think tank) study, which insinuated that the previously inscrutable Soviet

willingness to deploy nuclear weapons in the face of MAD (mutually assured
22
23

Johnston, ix.
Ibid.

11

destruction) might have something to do with “Bolshevik culture.” 24 The second-

generation scholars vastly expanded the scope and focus of strategic culture studies,
specifically with regards to the disjuncture between security rhetoric and strategic
choices. Moreover, Johnston found evidence that writers of the 1980s and 1990s
were open to the idea of multiple competing strategic cultures, with their own

associated discourses - what Lipschutz dubbed the “struggle over notions.” The

third generation of scholars, with whom Johnston identifies, were working in the
90’s and early 2000’s to expand upon their predecessors. The most important

feature of their writing was its openness to rapidly changing security cultures,

wherein modern interpretations of ancient sources provide mutable grounds for
security discourse. With regard to China specifically, Johnston asserts that the

majority of strategic studies in the mid-1990s unfortunately “would fit comfortably
in the first-generation literature”, classing them as generally outdated in

methodology. 25 Having noted many problems with the first-generation approach, he
sought to reexamine Chinese strategic culture with an eye to changing and
competing strains of discourse and behavior.

Cultural Realism concluded that Ming security culture operated on two

simultaneous levels: an overt layer of repeated reference to and justification by

traditional security texts, which concealed a covert layer of parabellum (aggressively
realist) thinking amongst elites. These, by the above definition, are both strategic

cultures. The former, which Johnston dubbed the “Confucian culture”, draws from

24
25

Ibid, 20.
Ibid, 22.

12

the so-called “7 strategic classics” of ancient Chinese warfare. One hallmark of this
strain of thought is that resorting to violence is generally disadvantageous, given

Sun Zi’s admonition that a ruler should “subdue the enemy without fighting” (不战
而屈人之兵, buzhan er quren zhi bing). Moreover, conflict is constructed as a non-

zero-sum activity which can be avoided entirely by cultivating virtue and adhering

to stratagems. Johnston calls this culture the “Confucian culture” because many of its
axioms stress traditional Confucian values (e.g. harmony, virtue), but we have an

opportunity to correct his generalization and coin our own term here. Many of the

concepts we will examine – such as the idea of “absolute flexibility” Mao drew from
ancient writings – are not explicitly Confucian but rather draw on a mélange of
Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist, Legalist, and other teachings that make up China’s
general underlying cultural framework. As such, it is more accurate to use the

general term “traditional” when describing these ideas. What Johnston calls the
parabellum culture, by contrast, can be thought of as “realism with Chinese

characteristics” - an opportunity model of realpolitik, where “states need no special
motivation to threaten or use force; rather they are always predisposed to do so,

unless restrained by contextual variables.” 26 In this culture, the nature of conflict is

assumed to be zero-sum, and violence is assumed to be a relatively constant and
necessary part of state affairs.

Johnston used close-reading and translation of select terms and phrases

drawn from the ancient texts to evaluate the prevalence of the two cultures. It
26

Ibid, x.

13

stands to reason, then, that the same could be done with respect to the PLA today - a
rhetorical evaluation of the battle between security discourses, focusing on the key

terms and phrases that characterize particular schools of thought. Cultural Realism,

for all its brilliance, had the convenience of a highly centralized China from which to
draw conclusions about security discourse - a stable and hierarchical Ming empire
and a discrete, well-known compendium of traditional strategic texts. We do not

have these luxuries. Thus, we must ask the subsequent question: who constructs
Chinese security culture? In the modern Chinese state, whose rhetoric counts?

Michael D. Swaine’s “The Role of the Chinese Military in National Security

Policymaking”, also the result of a RAND corporation study, details the emergent
structure of the 21st-century Chinese military and its degree of influence on

policymaking. Swaine divides national security policy into four distinct but related
“subarenas”: national strategic objectives, foreign policy, defense policy, and
strategic research and intelligence. The principal finding of the study is that

“military involvement is evident in all four security policy subarenas...ranging from
near total control over defense policy to limited but significant influence over
foreign policy.” Moreover, “...the military's role in shaping national strategic

objectives and in providing strategic analysis and intelligence to civilian leaders is

significant and apparently increasing.” 27 One other relevant finding, irrespective of
which subarena one considers, is that “...the level of influence in the policy process

enjoyed by a specific civilian or military policy organ is often determined primarily
27

Swaine, The Role of the Chinese Military, x.

14

by the personal prestige and power of the individual who heads it.” 28 Putting the

pieces together, we can form a picture of Chinese security policymaking that

preferences the rhetoric of well-known and charismatic senior PLA leaders in the
struggle to define security. Where possible, our study will look to these types of

figures as key mouthpieces in the “struggle for notions” about information warfare.
Like Johnston, Swaine’s work with RAND challenges what he sees as a

premature consensus among Western authors writing about the Chinese military.

Though the PLA’s influence on national security policymaking is clear, there appears
to have been some doubt about whether PLA leaders exercised significant control

over foreign affairs as well. The tendency to assume that the PLA did not influence
foreign affairs, Swaine claimed, came from the historical distinction between the

Chinese terms waishi (外事, foreign affairs) and junshi (军事, military affairs). While
this may have been true prior to military modernization, RAND data suggests

military challenges to civilian authority at the top of the power structure could only
have increased as the vacuum left by powerful paramount leaders like Deng

Xiaoping continued to be felt. Thus the PLA was, and remains, quite capable of

flexing its muscles to affect foreign diplomatic relations through military channels.
With respect to major questions of defense policy, such as Taiwan, Swaine

anticipated a rising degree of military involvement in policymaking. Finally, he

noted that “military research, analysis, and intelligence play a far more important
28

Ibid.

15

role in the overall national security policy process than most observers assume.” 29

All of these conclusions suggest a focus on internal military journals and analysis,

with a view to particularly senior or charismatic PLA leaders, will give us a picture

of the dominant voices in Chinese security discourse. Swaine himself seems to be on
the right track, given that one of his most prominent predictions - the creation of a
Chinese analogue of the U.S. President’s National Security Council - came true this
January, with Xi Jinping at the helm.

Though we have taken Swaine at his word as to the PLA’s power in

policymaking, we need not wholly neglect the much-vaunted “paramount leaders” of
the PRC. Our study is divided into chronologically sequential sections roughly
corresponding to the terms of each Chairman of the CPC Central Military

Commission, beginning with Mao Zedong. This is done for two reasons. First, the six
individuals who have held this position (with the exception of the brief and

uneventful tenure of Hua Guofeng) were, concurrently, General Secretaries of the

CPC as well as Presidents of the PRC. This allowed them to exercise a high degree of
power at the top of the party-army hierarchy and made them a crucial conduit for

PLA policy and thought. Second, doctrinal rhetoric within the PLA frequently

referenced the personal writings and ideological work of the CPC Chairmen, seeking
to use them as a legitimizing device in the ‘battle for notions’. We can categorize
schools of thought by whose thinking they are predominantly referencing – for
example, the “Local War” doctrinal school within the PLA often draws on Deng
29

Ibid, xii.

16

Xiaoping’s political theory (and his name) to advance the legitimacy of its
arguments.

All that remains now is to locate our study amongst the other writers on the

subject. Though we will adopt the terms and conclusions of many notable PLA

scholars, none of the authors cited in this paper have attempted to draw together

studies of PLA discourse and studies of strategic culture with a discursive focus on

information warfare – save one. In 2002, US Army Major Robyn E. Ferguson wrote a
dissertation on “IW with Chinese Characteristics” as a master’s candidate at West
Point. Ferguson began from much the same standpoint as we have, seeking to
characterize evolving PLA discourse on IW and its relationship with strategic

culture. Her conclusion was that geopolitical factors drove the PLA to acquire IW
capability and to reform its strategic culture in response to the RMA – in other
words, that realist needs won out over the power of culture in the “battle for
notions”.

One potential problem with Ferguson’s conclusion, however, was a lack of

thorough rhetorical analysis. Rather than tracing the full evolution of PLA discourse
on IW, Ferguson elected to survey only recent journal articles to gain a general

understanding of strategic culture at one point in time (in her case, 2002). A focus

on individual terms and phrases, including their subsequent reinterpretations will

help us gain a better window on the “battle for notions” within the PLA, and a much

larger historical range will reveal the “staying power” of important ideas and trends.
Moreover, many recent structural and historical changes warrant a new look
17

at PLA discourse on IW. Over 10 years have passed since Ferguson’s publication; as
we noted in the introduction, China’s cyberwarriors have achieved what was then
deemed unachievable. In 2012, a new white paper on the specific goals and

functions of the PLA was published; Ferguson was working with a document

released in 2002 that only detailed China’s broad strategic objectives. The CPC has

held multiple major meetings and strategic planning sessions, and a new paramount
leader (Xi Jinping) has taken the helm of the PRC. Finally, the PLA faces a diverse
array of new security issues, including looming territorial conflicts and the

informationalization of global militaries. For all these reasons and more, our look
inside the PLA is both timely and important.

18

III: The PLA under Mao Zedong
No history of PLA doctrine - indeed, of China - can afford to skirt around the

role of Chairman Mao. Though concepts of IW as we have defined them had little

play during Mao’s period as paramount leader, important strategic and doctrinal

changes certainly took place - the most crucial to our purposes being the struggle
for notions between the traditional and parabellum paradigms. Johnston, who

coined the terms in Cultural Realism, expanded on his characterization of them in

another later work, admitting that two strains of discourse were not at all “separate
but equal.” 30 His analysis of the Ming revealed that, even as elites drew on the

ancient military classics to discuss strategy, traditional axioms were relegated to

“indistinct golden ages of sage kings and legendary rulers.” 31 That being the case,

whither the traditional paradigm under Mao? The conclusions of Cultural Realism, as
Johnston readily admits, hold up only prior to “...China’s integration into the

European/global state system and before the importation into China of ‘Western’

liberal democratic and Marxist-Leninist ideologies.” 32 Once China famously “stood

up”, how did the balance of security culture change? This question is a prerequisite

to understanding the space in which a unique discourse about IW emerged later on,

because it is an early instance of the development of a cyclical relationship between
strategic culture and realism.

30

Johnston, 220.
Ibid.
32
Ibid, 221.
31

19

There is evidence that Mao read the ancient texts (including Sun Zi’s Art of

War) as early as 1913, well before he had any contact with Clausewitz’s or Lenin’s

works. 33 In fact, Mao was tutored by the foremost Chinese authority on Sun Zi at the
time, Guo Huaruo. Yet from the time he began writing - including journals from his
time at school - it is clear that Traditional ideas about the role of violence and

conflict were subject to de-emphasis. In Johnston’s words, “Mao’s writings are

nothing if not paeans to the constancy of conflict and struggle in human affairs...for
Mao, conflict didn’t require a solution, it was the solution to political problems.” 34

Hegelian ideas of synthesis were held up as a model of conflict resolution, with

violent clash of interests a desirable, necessary, and inevitable outcome - in Mao’s
own words, “politics is bloodless warfare...warfare is bloody politics.” 35 One clear
and enduring influence in Mao’s work from his studies of the ancients is his

reference to the idea of yi zhan (义战), or righteous war - yet even this term

acquired a new meaning courtesy of Marx. The righteousness of a conflict became a
matter of class struggle for Mao – just, or “rational” wars (正义战争, zhengyi

zhanzheng) were those carried out by the oppressed against the oppressors, the
resolution of class struggle through violent means. Mao “clearly rejected the

minimal violence notion in Sun Zi that one could ‘not fight and subdue the enemy’”
given that this notion was “un-Marxist, since class enemies could not credibly be

33

Ibid, 246.
Ibid, 229.
35
Ibid, 230.
34

20

defeated without the application of violence.” 36 Other classical Traditional values,

such as harmony, were rejected as false depictions of history - class conflict, as the
defining feature of human association, offered no respite wherein harmony or
stability could be established.

Were the traditional ideas utterly discredited under Mao? Not quite. Though

parabellum components drawn from the Leninist and Clausewitzian traditions Mao
studied were the functional doctrine of the time, China outwardly espoused many
tenets of the Traditional tradition. China’s self-image of this time does not

acknowledge the offensive predispositions of Maoist doctrine - instead, civilian

scholars assert that the ancient principle of “trying peaceful means before resorting
to force” (先礼后兵, xianli houbing) has been a defining characteristic of PLA policy

since 1949. 37 This practice of cloaking parabellum policy in Traditional justifications
is what Andrew Scobell has dubbed the “Chinese cult of defense.” According to

Scobell, “Most Chinese strategic thinkers believe that Chinese strategic culture is

pacifistic, defensive-minded, and nonexpansionist.” However, these sincerely held

beliefs are “...twisted by [the] assumptions that any war China fights is just and any
military action is defensive, even when it is offensive in nature.” 38 Thus the two

strategic cultures were not at all mutually exclusive - under Mao, the rhetoric of the
Traditional paradigm was used to justify offensive actions as defensive. As Scobell

36

Ibid, 247.
Scobell, China and Strategic Culture, 13.
38
Ibid, 4.
37

21

puts its, “...the impact of the Cult of Defense is a predisposition by Chinese elites to

opt for force because they perceive its use by China as always defensive in nature.” 39
PLA thinkers of the time drew heavily from Mao’s writing to form the

doctrine that characterized post-1949 military posture in China, and it is still

relevant today. Called “people’s war” (人民战争, renmin zhanzheng), the ideas of this

period structured the PLA to combat incursions into Chinese territory by a major
power such as Russia. People’s war eschews overly modern warfighting tactics

(military modernization was later ranked lowest among the ‘four modernizations’ of
the Deng era) and saw little integration of the PLA navy and air forces with the
ground forces. Tactics focused on drawing an enemy into protracted guerilla

warfare, which would make it impossible for incursions into the Chinese mainland
to succeed. Military posture was guided by “the assumption of an inevitable global
war that would pit China against the Soviet Union”, which persisted until the early
1980s. 40 One notable Maoism emblematic of people’s war was the chairman’s

assertion that “if people don’t attack us, we won’t attack them” (人不反我,我不反

人: ren bu fan wo, wo bu fan ren) - empirically denied, of course, by China’s decisions
to invade Tibet “for the sake of Tibetans” and to back Korea in a war against the
United States (who had not attacked the Chinese mainland).

Some key ideas of people’s war actually did harken back to the Traditional

strategic culture, though not in ways that one might expect. The idea of the weak
39
40

Ibid, 13.
Li, 445.

22

defeating the strong (以弱胜强, yi ruo sheng qiang), repeated throughout the 7

strategic classics, often appears in statements by Mao, Zhou Enlai, and other leaders

exercising control over the PLA at this time. This is understandable, given that China
has often emphasized its relative lack of modernization as a reason why war against
better-armed oppressors is just (zhengyi zhanzheng). However, Johnston rightly

notes that this emphasis is not what we might call “asymmetric warfare with

Chinese characteristics” - that is to say, people’s war does not actually advocate

maintaining ‘weakness’ or force disparity per se. Instead, “defeating the superior”
relies on a central tenet of people’s war - absolute flexibility in order to take

advantage of opportunities. This idea is likely drawn from the notion of quan bian (

权变, “flexibility”) found in ancient strategic texts - for example, the Si Ma Fa, a
Warring-states era text included in the 7 strategic classics, declares war to be

explicitly a matter of “expedient assessment” or flexibility (zhan zhe quan bian ye).

Mao was “quite at home” with the idea of quan bian, and the idea surfaces frequently
in his work. 41 In people’s war, weakness is not an asset - rather, it provides the
‘opportunity’ through which one can exercise quan bian. Put another way, by

judicious use of quan bian and correct application of people’s war, the weak become

the strong. Thus, the initially weak China could defeat an initially stronger foreign
enemy by adhering to what was, at its core, a fundamentally offensive doctrine.

The Mao years were a formative period for the PLA, despite a relative lack of

doctrinal heterogeneity. What is most revealing for our study is the degree to which
41

Johnston, 248.

23

traditional elements of the Traditional strategic culture were appropriated and

repurposed by the parabellum nature of the people’s war doctrine - among them the
nature of righteous war and the method by which to overcome a stronger enemy. In
doing so, Mao’s PLA established a precedent of justifying new interpretations using

the source material – for example, tying class warfare to quan bian as a way to make
it more legitimate and desirable. Mao did not place quan bian in a realist context –
rather, he allowed the idea to give his own maxim of “absolute flexibility” cultural

meaning and relevance. Though tactics would go on to change dramatically, Mao’s
rhetoric of flexibility would play a key part in the birth of Chinese IW doctrine.

People’s war, for its part, became the standard by which all following PLA doctrines
were judged.

24

IV: The PLA under Deng Xiaoping

If one single figure deserves credit for engineering the People’s Republic of

China’s entry into the modern community of nations, that figure is certainly Deng

Xiaoping. Alongside a host of economic and political changes, the decade-plus period
that Deng spent overseeing the PLA - whether nominally or behind the scenes -

ultimately set the stage for the explosion of IW literature and cultural references

occasioned by the first Gulf War. By the time Jiang Zemin ascended to paramount
leadership, military strategists were already speculating about the effect that the
void of Deng’s leadership would have on the PLA. Were Deng’s changes to the

strategic culture and doctrine of the PLA as sweeping as those he made to PRC

economic policy? Perhaps - though carefully constructed references to the ancient
classics and even more careful veneration of Maoisms kept them well-concealed.

The broad overview provided in Asian Security Practice concludes that, if anything,
“Deng’s reappraisal of security represents a refinement rather than an

abandonment of Mao’s construction of security.” 42 Major changes during the Deng

era fell into three categories - the first being the prioritization of development and
deprioritization of class struggle as the “key link” to China’s modernization, which
had interesting implications for the notion of yi zhan. 43 On the global front, Deng
emphasized opportunity over danger and cooperation over conflict - even as he
oversaw the proliferation of doctrines designed to end a war in a single battle.
42
43

Alagappa, 123.
Ibid, 122.

25

Finally, reassessment of China’s local security situation - particularly with respect to
the Soviets - brought a host of policy changes during this period of time.

Scobell’s “Chinese Cult of Defense” hypothesis holds up well during the Deng

era, with major figures inside and outside the PLA continuing to outwardly tout the

righteousness of Traditional strategy culture. The 1980’s in particular showed a new
(and yet not so new) focus on the ‘peace-loving’ nature of Chinese security - Li Jijun,

deputy director of the Academy of Military Sciences, claimed that “China’s ancient
strategic culture is rooted in the philosophical idea of unity between man and

nature (天人合一, tian ren he yi), which pursues overall harmony between man and
nature and harmony among men.” 44 Scholars looking back at Deng’s military policy
likewise remarked “for many years we employed the thinking that, in whatever
method we adopt to solve a problem, we should not use the means of war [but

rather] peaceful means.” 45 Deng himself explicitly declared world peace to be a PRC
goal in 1979, playing up China’s public decision to preference nonmilitary

unification with Taiwan as of 1980 as an example of his commitment to this ideal.
Yet Scobell notes that this decision was “more tactical than strategic...Beijing has,

after all, refused to renounce the use of force.” 46 The Traditional strategic culture
continued to be used to justify PLA decisions that were essentially motivated by
force parity rather than altruism.

44

Scobell, China and Strategic Culture, 6.
Ibid, 7.
46
Ibid.
45

26

Another example of the Cult of Defense was to be found in a new focus on

antihegemonic policy as an extension of Mao’s “strong vs weak” rhetoric. Deng

asserted in 1980 that a key part of supporting peace is a commitment to oppose

hegemony (反对霸权主义, fandui baquanzhuyi). In this case, hegemony is merely a

coded term for the increasingly hostile Soviet Union on China’s doorstep, though the

term will later be repurposed to indicate America. Opposition to hegemony is itself a
reinterpretation of Mao’s ideas about yi zhan - righteous conflict is not just class

war, it is war against a hegemon. Most interestingly, the language Deng chose to use
has cultural connotations - the ba of baquanzhuyi has quite a negative sense, as it is
also used to form the term badao (“rule by force”). The opposite of badao is

wangdao (王道, “kingly rule”), the type of virtuous rule explicitly advocated by Sun
Zi as a method of winning over an enemy.

The final - and most obvious, in retrospect - proof of Scobell’s theory is the

failure of China’s no-first-strike policy to explain its actions during this period.

Marshal Xu Xiangqian of the PLA, in an interview in 1980, quotes Mao’s ren bu fan

wo… assertion (“if people don’t attack us, we won’t attack them”) in the same breath

he talks about the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979. This is miraculously

reconciled by the doublespeak of a “defensive counterattack” (自卫还击, ziwei

huanji). Of the Vietnam invasion, one strategist later wrote: “offensive actions were
employed...nevertheless, the essence of this kind of offense was a self-defense

27

counterattack.” 47Quan bian, Mao’s idea of absolute flexibility, likewise evolves into a
doctrine of “active defense”, another doublespeak term for offensive opportunism.

Deng explains: “active defense is not merely defense per se, but includes defensive

offensives. Active defense includes our going out, so that if we are attacked we will
certainly counter attack.” 48 It is the Cult of Defense that allows “defensive

offensives” to be rationalized as virtuous and necessary responses to threats on
China’s periphery.

PLA doctrine during the Deng era underwent two major shifts, with

corresponding designations provided by military analysts. The first was a

modification of people’s war, somewhat appropriately dubbed “people’s war under
modern conditions.” By 1970, military planners had realized the unfeasibility of
executing the draw-in maneuvers needed to bring an enemy deep into Chinese

territory, and had backed off of this portion of people’s war in favor of winning

border conflicts. China’s landmark decision to develop nuclear weapons also had
implications for Mao’s strategy of “deterrence by denial”, so the PRC strategic

arsenal was placed into the category of “no-first-use” weapons as per the Cult of
Defense, neatly solving that particular problem of keeping up appearances as a
peace-loving nation. Finally, the early battles of a war were judged to be more

important, in contrast to Mao’s fondness for protracted and costly conflicts that
dissuaded the enemy.
47
48

Ibid, 10.
Ibid.

28

In 1985, even more significant developments in China’s security environment

caused Deng to articulate a new vision for PLA policy - the idea of “local war.”

Though the Soviet situation had steadily worsened throughout the 1970s, the
Central Military Commission (CMC) assessed that the newly formed nuclear
stalemate between the two Communist countries would keep the risk of a

cataclysmic nuclear war quite low for the forseeable future. As such, the rhetoric of
zaoda, dada, da hezhanzheng (early war, major war, thermonuclear war) was

phased out of PLA policy. 49 At the same time, a conflict resolution strategy was
urgently needed, given that stark ideological differences could still spark a

conventional border war, and negotiations were clearly insufficient to resolve the

issue. As such, Deng and the PLA focused on previously unseen levels of integration
of air and ground forces, as well as the brand-new consolidation of forces into “fist”

or “RRU” (rapid reaction unit) groups. Designed to employ quan bian to the utmost,
these flexible units were set up to make the difference in a rapid and “hot” border
conflict.

A whole host of new vocabulary accompanied the advent of local war. Some

notable phrases that focused on a newfound appreciation for speed in conflict

included “fighting a quick battle to force a quick resolution” (速战速决, suzhan

sujue), using surprise (turan xing), and winning with one strike (yizhan ersheng).

Moreover, the RRUs and other technological advancements produced an ideal of

conflict-breaking ‘superweapons’, such as the phrase “victory through elite troops”
49

Li, 445.

29

(jingbing zhisheng). Along with an emphasis on high technology, these ideas and

phrases characterize PLA discourse on the eve of the Gulf War. 50 The ultimate result
of doctrinal shifts and new strategic culture during the Deng era was that the
parabellum culture moved towards speedier, more decisive battles, while

identifying these types of actions with the peace called for by the Traditional

culture. Quan bian and similar terms were re-envisioned in a framework of active
and offensive quality-focused attacks, creating a space for a unique cultural
propensity towards IW to emerge.

50

Ibid, 446.

30

V: The PLA under Jiang Zemin

Jiang Zemin ascended to Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission of

the Communist Party of China in November 1989, struggling to fill the shoes of Deng
Xiaoping. Less than 12 months later, a coalition of 34 nations led by the United

States declared war on Iraq, in what became known as Operation Desert Storm - the
first Gulf War. The war played out in a matter of months, with the Coalition

announcing a ceasefire just 100 hours after the first ground campaigns - a decisive

victory for the new information-based weaponry and tactics of the United States and
its major allies. A few months later, the Soviet Union officially dissolved itself,

ending the Cold War. Judging by the explosion of scholarship within the PLA and

other organs of the state around this time, it is fair to say that these events ‘changed
everything’ - in the words of Vincent Wei-Cheng Wang, “the decisive role of modern
information technology in warfare became indisputably clear.” 51 By 1999, the

Pentagon had successfully launched a cyberattack against Serbia during the NATO

conflict. Even more amazing was the fact that, just 7 years after the Gulf, the US was
already facing the largest and most serious information-based attack it had ever
encountered. Codenamed Moonlight Maze, the episode saw foreign hackers

simultaneously break into networks at the DOD, NASA, the Department of Energy,
private universities, and research labs across the country. Most stunningly, the

operation was only uncovered accidentally - and it is still ongoing today, highlighting
51

Wei-cheng Wang, 6.

31

the vulnerability of the United States’ increasingly informationalized military. For its

part, China began to turn its eyes west to the United States, and to seriously consider
the nature of global post-Soviet power politics, warfare, and strategic culture.

James Adams’ Virtual Defense (a treatise on warfare in the information age)

mentions the focused but conflicted Chinese pivot west, noting that “the heated
Chinese debate about how to seize a military advantage over the United States

produced an answer” in the writings of two up-and-coming PLA officers. 52 Those
men were Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, who in 1999 published Unrestricted

Warfare, a book Vincent Wei-Cheng Wang also calls a “very significant” example of
PLA literature during the Jiang era. 53 The Foreign Broadcast Information Service
translated and released the book for a United States audience, noting in the
introduction that:

The book was written by two PLA senior colonels from the younger

generation of Chinese military officers and was published by the PLA

Literature and Arts Publishing House in Beijing, suggesting that its release
was endorsed by at least some elements of the PLA leadership. This

impression was reinforced by an interview with Qiao and laudatory review
of the book carried by the party youth league's official daily Zhongguo
Qingnian Bao on 28 June. 54

52

Adams, 103.
Wei-cheng Wang, 7.
54
Qiao and Wang, 1.
53

32

The first chapter of the work, “Technology is the Totem of Modern Man”, is focused
on how technology is driven by man’s desire, but also in turn drives him. The

authors use a metaphor of ‘magic shoes’ that at first convey a speed boost, but

eventually end up doing the walking all on their own. Yet “there is absolutely no
doubt that the appearance of information technology has been good news for
human civilization. This is because it...provides a magic charm as a means of

controlling [technology]. It is just that, at present, there is still a question of who in
turn will have a magic charm with which to control it [information technology].” 55

The language of the “magic charm” is a unique characteristic of Chinese writing on

the RMA - it is related to the idea of “assassin’s mace” (杀手锏, shashoujian), which
will be examined later, and the culturally unique concept of “winning the battle

without fighting.” Interpreted broadly, this adage is not just about never fighting - it
is also about never taking a loss, i.e. offensively eliminating an enemy without
suffering any casualties (perhaps through IW “magic”).

Though it problematizes the human relationship with technology,

Unrestricted Warfare certainly categorizes IW and the weapons of the Gulf as

appealing. Qiao and Wang write: “during the Gulf War, more than 500 kinds of new

and advanced technology of the 80s ascended the stage to strike a pose, making the
war simply seem like a demonstration site for new weaponry.” 56 They also discuss
in-depth the informationalized process of firing a Patriot missile, while examining
55
56

Ibid, 9. Emphasis mine.
Ibid, 11.

33

the processes and tactics which enabled a swift Coalition victory over Iraq. The book
itself gets its name from the authors’ term for the wars that will occur in the postgulf 21st century. We find a barrage of methodological questions: “Does a single
'hacker' attack count as a hostile act or not? Can using financial instruments to

destroy a country's economy be seen as a battle? Did CNN's broadcast of an exposed
corpse of a U.S. soldier in the streets of Mogadishu shake the determination of the
Americans to act as the world's policeman, thereby altering the world's strategic
situation?” 57 The new warfare answers in the affirmative - these are all modes of

war, war which will be “unrestricted.” Further initial chapters are a discussion of the
way in which IW allows one to “shape the weapon to the battle”, as opposed to vice
versa. The authors argue that the US was able to do this with the “digitized

battlefield” that it deployed in the Gulf for the first time. As for “fighting the fight
that suits one’s weapons”, “people still wrongfully believe that this is the only

initiative that can be taken by backward countries in their helplessness.” 58 China

can play the game of innovation too, and it is hinted that the US military may not be
cognizant of this fact.

Qiao and Wang take pains to differentiate the potential that IW holds for

China vs. the ways it may be utilized by the US. In particular, the book cautions

against expenditure on the ‘latest greatest’ weapons systems and suggests that it is
to China’s advantage not to have to play hegemon. By this token, the Soviet Union

collapsed because it had to keep up with the exponentially rising costs of “playing
57
58

Ibid, 12.
Ibid, 22.

34

the game” in the nuclear age. The authors quote Kipling here - "When empires

perish, it is not with a rumble, but a snicker." 59 The next empire to perish? Perhaps
the United States, because of its commitment to remain hegemon. Moreover, the

thinking required to succeed in the new era may privilege China. According to the

authors, we have left the age of “weapons of new concepts” and are now in an age of
“new concepts of weapons.” The latter category includes “...a single man-made

stock-market crash, a single computer virus invasion, or a single rumor or scandal
that results in a fluctuation in the enemy country's exchange rates or exposes the

leaders of an enemy country on the Internet...all can be included in the ranks of newconcept weapons.” 60 The US will fail to properly seize on new concepts of weapons
because they are at a disadvantage for this type of thinking - “proposing a new

concept of weapons does not require relying on the springboard of new technology,

it just demands lucid and incisive thinking. However, this is not a strong point of the
Americans, who are slaves to technology in their thinking.” 61 This quite explicit

appeal to China’s history of strategic culture makes ancient writing suddenly seem

more viable, as it could provide a way for China to “leap ahead” and threaten United
States IW hegemony.

The volume also exemplifies the features of Scobell’s “Chinese Cult of

Defense” – namely, adhering to parabellum views on the role of conflict while talking
up the Traditional potentials for peace. Unrestricted Warfare’s genealogy of future
59

Ibid, 23.
Ibid, 25.
61
Ibid, 24.
60

35

weapons includes Maoist criticisms of nuclear hegemony: “Nuclear weapons have
become a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of mankind which forces it to

ponder: Do we really need ‘ultra-lethal weapons’?” 62 The answer is no; weapons are
becoming physically “kinder” in the wake of the Gulf. Moreover, IW highlights the
idea of being able to win a battle without sustaining real and damaging physical

losses. Qiao and Wang contemplate: “technological progress has given us the means
to strike at the enemy's nerve center directly without harming other things, giving
us numerous new options for achieving victory, and all these make people believe

that the best way to achieve victory is to control, not to kill.” 63 Yet, as ‘kind’ as war
may become, Unrestricted Warfare reminds us that its essence is still one of

compulsion. These parabellum tendencies are rapidly confirmed by the insertion of

a Clausewitz quote about warfare as politics, and the patently realist statement that
"all friendship is in flux; self-interest is the only constant."64 Overall, the book

confirms a deeply rooted tendency towards the parabellum thinking of the Mao

years and earlier, along with a preference for IW as a potentially ‘magical’ source of
Chinese strength alongside a declining US. The ‘magic’ of IW is not just drawn from

its newness, but also from the unique Chinese potential to apply strategic culture to
the use of information weapons, making them a more than legitimate policy option.
These themes broadly characterize the RMA group of PLA writers during the Jiang
years - those who looked forward towards a potential IW conflict with the United
States.

62

Ibid, 27.
Ibid.
64
Ibid, 38.
63

36

Let us turn our attention for a moment to the official rhetorical organs of the

PRC. Though we have already established that the rhetoric of powerful PLA leaders
is the best determinant of China’s security objectives, it is useful to examine the

public tack that Jiang Zemin and other PRC officials were taking during the Chinese

period of development after the Gulf. In 1998, for the first time, the CPC published a

white paper directly related to military posture, entitled “China’s National Defense.”

This document, while brief, has been widely studied by US strategic culture scholars

because it exemplifies the tendency of the Chinese state to use cultural arguments to
explain and justify its military policy, proving that the thesis of Scobell’s “Cult of
Defense” theory still held true throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

The 7 strategic classics frequently emphasize virtuous rule and a satisfied

populace as a prerequisite to victory. Accordingly, the PRC takes pains to assure

international readers that, despite the presence of the RMA, military development
will continue to take a backseat to economic modernization (as per the four

modernizations of Deng Xiaoping). The white paper reads: “China unswervingly

pursues a national defense policy that . . . keeps national defense construction in a
position subordinate to and in the service of the nation’s economic

construction.” 65As for policies of preemption, “strategically China pursues the

defensive policy featuring self-defense and gaining mastery by striking only after

the enemy has struck, and adheres to the principle: ‘We will not attack unless we are

65

China’s National Defense, 1.

37

attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counter-attack.’” 66 Recalling that this
is a Maoism which begins “ren bu fan wo…”, we can see that the PRC is very
intentionally creating rhetorical continuity within its defense policy.

Some PLA writers and leaders made similar attempts to publicly cast China

as a peaceful and traditional actor after the Gulf as they did during the Deng years.

Scobell records Xing Shizhong, Commandant of China’s National Defense University,
conducting an interview in 1995: “The Chinese people have always dearly loved

peace.... This historical tradition and national psychology have a profound influence
on national defense objectives and strategic policies of the new socialist China.” 67
Likewise Admiral Liu Huaqing, Vice Chairman of the CMC at that time, points to

Deng’s 500,000 man troop drawdown (and Jiang Zemin’s commitment to do the

same) as an example of China’s preference for peace. Clearly the “Cult of Defense” is
still at play - the writers of the RMA internally speculate about China’s renewed
ability to go on the offensive using IW, while the official organs of state publicly
trumpet China’s ancient peace-loving traditions.

Like its strategic culture, the doctrines used by the PLA during this time

underwent tectonic changes that would set the stage for the 21st century. In

response to changing security definitions, commanders had begun to speak of a

modified gaojishu tiaojian xia de jubu zhanzheng (“Local War Under Modern/HighTech Conditions”, or LWUMHTC), and by the mid-90s this was the dominant

66
67

Ibid.
Scobell 2002, 6.

38

doctrine in the PLA (though still only a modification of LW). The Gulf War

fundamentally changed the calculus of what Wei-Cheng Wang has called the “PLA
old guards”, who valued personnel and professionalism over technology. At the

same time, however, the study of IW expanded “under the rubric of RMA”, creating
competing schools of thought. 68 Writers who strove to make IW the holy grail of
Chinese military development – and who criticized the lack of vision of their

brethren in the PW and LW schools – seized on the RMA as their rallying cry. This
created the largest doctrinal schisms among PLA commanders that had ever
occurred:

Multiple doctrinal concepts have existed or been in development

concurrently within the PLA...elements within the force with differing

structures, missions, and doctrinal orientations exist concurrently. Even
today many ground force units are still best suited for People’s War

operations to defend the Chinese mainland. Others, such as the RRUs, have

mobilized to the point that they are trained for a role in LWUMHTC...A very
few units, such as electronic warfare units, are also beginning to develop
capabilities suitable for 21st-century RMA warfare. 69

The remarkable doctrinal heterogeneity that emerged during the 1990s is still being
felt in China today. The figures below, taken from Michael Pillsbury’s collection of

68
69

Wei-cheng Wang, 14.
Ibid, 15.

39

analysis on the Chinese debate about future security 70, give a general review of the

three doctrines at this point in time, though we have already examined the first two

during the relevant previous chapters on Deng and Mao.

70

Pillsbury, China Debates the Future, 275.

40

41

As is visible in Figure 1, the doctrines of all three eras coexisted - Mao’s

“People’s War” (PW), the LWUMHTC that had developed under Deng and matured

under Jiang, and the forward-thinking but still small group of believers in the RMA.

Materially, roughly 80% of the PLA is equipped to fight in, and trained for, PW. 71 In
1997, Jiang announced that the PW segment of the PLA would be reduced by

500,000 personnel, who would be transferred to the police forces, showing the

reluctant if inexorable de-emphasis on Mao era strategy. As for LWUMHTC, about
15% of the PLA was materially equipped to fight, mainly consisting of regiments

who received advanced technology from the Soviets. 72 Thus the two major doctrines

of the two previous paramount leaders of the PRC occupied roughly 95% of the

PLA’s focus. Note that the vertical organization of Figure 1 is not a statement on PLA

preference for RMA theory – rather the opposite. The RMA theorists are at the top of
Pillsbury’s pyramid only because they make up by far the smallest contingent of
writers (the “tip” of the pyramid).

In terms of doctrinal interaction - our ‘battle for notions’ - Pillsbury is

fascinated by the relative lack of interplay between PW and LWUMHTC. Adherents
and theorists of both schools often reference their respective paramount leaders,

but rarely explicitly critique each other, and fail to mention the RMA at all. The RMA
school, by noticeable contrast, implicitly rebukes other doctrines using cultural

references. One forward-thinking writer claims of the RMA that “those who perceive
it first will swiftly rise to the top and have the advantage of the first opportunities.
71
72

Ibid.
Ibid.

42

Those who perceive it late will unavoidably also be caught up in the vortex of this
revolution. Every military will receive this baptism.” 73 One RMA strategist writes
extensively on the relationship between the RMA, strategic culture, and IW to
distinguish himself from those who have come before:

Meeting the challenge of the world military revolution demands that we give
better play to our own advantages. The rich strategy of the east (dongfang

moulue) is one of them. Over the past several years, our study and research of

high-tech local wars and high-tech information war tend to show two

tendencies: on the one hand, owing to their overestimation of the importance
of technology and underestimation of the role of strategy, some people

consider themselves to have nothing worthy of praise; on the other hand,
however, with the belief that strategic principles can replace the

development of technology, some are sure that the magic weapon passed
down by their forefathers can bless them to win every battle. These two

opposite tendencies are both lopsided views...the military revolution will
push the military strategy of the east to a new level. 74

This writer has more or less explained the ultimate conclusion of our study – that

military revolutions and dongfang moulue, or China’s strategic culture, interact in a
mutually reinforcing and synergistic manner. For his part, Pillsbury concludes his
survey by noting the difficulty of resolving this debate from an outsider’s
73
74

Ibid, 278.
Ibid, 280.

43

perspective. Regardless, he maintains, something special is happening - doctrinal
debate is reaching a fever pitch.

China scholar James Mulvenon has written about the way in which the

increasing credence of the RMA after the Gulf War allowed a new and specific

discourse of IW to emerge in the PLA. As senior official Chen Huan noted, “...the Gulf
War...opened the curtain on the information war era and marked the sudden

appearance of the third military revolution.” 75 Recall that Chinese scholars ‘borrow’
quite a few of their IW terms and definitions from US literature, having read up

heavily on US public documentation before and after the Gulf. However, because of
the unique influence of strategic culture both ancient and modern in China,

Mulvenon writes that the United States should “...not preclud[e] that the Chinese

may eventually develop an indigenous IW strategy, and there is limited evidence of
movement in this direction.” 76 Mulvenon’s survey of IW literature concludes that

China draws many of the “right” conclusions about the Gulf War, but that the PLA
notably overestimates its own capacity to engage in IW. Though Chinese IW

doctrine began with a mention of IW as such in 1985 by writer Shen Weiguang whose work we will analyse shortly - IW did not have “an analytical focus” until

1991. 77 During the Jiang years, many powerful figures in the PLA joined the RMA
group to write about IW, as indicated by the table below (taken from Mulvenon’s

75

Pillsbury, Chinese Views, 389.
Mulvenon, 177.
77
Ibid.
76

44

essay). This essay will examine work by the top four figures on this list, as well as
other writers with different perspectives on IW.

In 1994 and 1995, high-level meetings focusing on the potential of IW were

beginning to take place among adherents to the RMA school. The Commission of
Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) - China’s

equivalent of the US DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,

responsible for, among other things, the origins of the internet) - held meetings in

1994 on IW and in 1995 on the RMA. By 1995, Liu Huaqing announced at a COSTIND
meeting that “China is more convinced than ever that as far as the PLA is concerned,
a military revolution with information warfare as the core has reached the stage

where efforts must be made to catch up with and overtake rivals.” 78 The new focus
on IW had as its ultimate goal “information dominance” (治信息权, zhixinxiquan),

which is the same term that US writers use on the subject. Yet Mulvenon alludes to a
developing possibility for Chinese reinterpretation of zhixinxiquan - “some Chinese
78

Ibid, 179. I’ve kept Mulvenon’s emphasis.

45

commentators assert that information superiority is not [just] determined by

technological superiority, but by new tactics.” 79 Admittedly, familiar elements of
strategic culture are at first hard to find in the new IW writings. The ideas of

“integration” (yitihua) and seamless operations (feixianxing zuozhan) are said to tie

together the five dimensions of warfare—air, land, sea, space, and the

electromagnetic spectrum—through the integration of sensors with mobile missiles,
air, and sea-based forces. These sensors are meant to facilitate “dominant battlefield
awareness,” which in turn permits deep strike (zongshen zuozhan). Viewing these
very American ideas, Mulvenon asks whether there is a truly Chinese mode of IW.
The answer is an emphatic yes. Not only did “Chinese IW authors embed

their discussions within familiar ideological frameworks, such as Maoist guerrilla
strategy and Sun Zi,” some - like Unrestricted Warfare’s authors - discussed the

potential for IW to become a uniquely Chinese path to victory. 80 Moreover, the IW

writers engage in discursive reinterpretations of their predecessors - in the case of
Mao, their term is “new people’s war” (新人民战争, xin renmin zhanzheng), with
particular attention paid to “overcoming the superior with the inferior.” With
respect to Sun Zi (who Mulvenon says both the US and China are guilty of

‘overusing’) it’s the familiar adage “winning the battle without fighting.” Despite this
clear effort by the writers of the RMA school to begin describing “IW with Chinese

characteristics”, Mulvenon relegates these cultural references to “nothing more than
79
80

Ibid, 180.
Ibid, 182.

46

rhetorical flourishes.” 81 He admits only one potential lesson to be learned from the
new IW discourse - that it proves the lack of applicable terminology for IW in the

status quo. We, however, argue that Mulvenon is not doing enough work - security

rhetoric shapes security reality, and the chorus of PLA authors in this era are not
‘flourishing’ pointlessly. They are doing the writing, and the thinking, that will

determine China’s military posture in the 21st century. In ignoring the clear calls of
the RMA writers to justify and guide PLA policy using strategic culture, Mulvenon

has fallen into the trap of taking a “lopsided view” earlier critiqued by one writer. He
has assumed the relationship between the RMA and strategic culture is a one-sided
one wherein new security needs are altering the Chinese interpretation of ancient

concepts. Yet we have already seen RMA writers push for IW development, not for
its own sake or to counteract US hegemony, but because it is in line with ancient

maxims and security rhetoric. Far from having “nothing to offer”, strategic culture
exerts rhetorical agency in its own right through the RMA writers.

Mulvenon’s omission is worrying, given he admits that the intersection of

strategic culture, IW, and the “Cult of Defense” could prove ‘worrisome’ for the US

military in at least one instance. He writes: “IW could permit China to fight and win

an information campaign, precluding the need for military action. When this train of
thought is combined with the notions of ‘overcoming the superior with the inferior,’
one can quickly see the logical conclusion of the argument: IW as a preemption

81

Ibid, 183.

47

weapon.” 82 Lu Linzhi, an RMA writer, actually published an article to this effect in
the Liberation Army Daily (jiefangjun bao) in 1996 entitled “Preemptive Strikes

Crucial in Limited High-Tech Wars.” The lesson Lu wanted us to draw from the Gulf
was that if Iraq had engaged in a pre-emptive strike, they might have been able to
cripple US IW capability and defeat the superior using the inferior. Alarmingly,

Linzhi states that the PLA should “zero in on the hubs and other crucial links in the
system that moves enemy troops as well as the war-making machine, such as
harbors, airports, means of transportation, battlefield installations, and the

communications, command and control and information systems” of a potential

enemy. 83 This strategy might prove devastatingly effective against the increasingly

information-reliant military of the United States. Here, again, Mulvenon admits that
“American forces are highly information-dependent, and rely heavily on precisely
coordinated logistics networks.”29 He concludes by asserting that the Chinese

military does not - yet - have a coherent IW doctrine. Nor does it have the

technology adequate to achieve its goals - again, for the time being. Yet the fact that

strategic culture continues to influence IW doctrine will no doubt shape the manner
in which China conducts such a strike, were it to do so. We cannot help but take this

as a sign that the study of this essay’s topic is imperative - now, and in the future.

We now turn our attention to the relatively rich collection of primary sources

from the Jiang era. In fact, there was such a high volume of new domestic Chinese
publications about the RMA and changing military issues that the DOD and the
82
83

Ibid, emphasis mine.
Ibid, 184.

48

Atlantic Council (a nonprofit public policy center) jointly sponsored the publication
of a compendium of translated Chinese military writing. It was entitled Chinese
Views of Future Warfare. Michael Pillsbury, the China scholar who edited the

volume, writes in the introduction about his choice to split up the translated works
into four broad categories. The first focused entirely on Deng Xiaoping’s own

strategic thought, while the second addressed the potential for China’s outward

security environment to change. The other two are even more relevant to our study,
being short-term challenges for Local War and long-term studies about the RMA,

respectively. Perhaps most revealing about the introduction is that Pillsbury recalls
meeting with the Chinese editor of zhongguo junshi kexue (China Military Science),

the flagship journal which nearly all of his sources are drawn from. Pillsbury notes
with interest that his counterpart “...even publishes several articles in each issue

about the continuing relevance of ancient strategic theory.” 84 As far as Pillsbury’s
four categories go, we have already examined some of the rhetorical trends that

categorize the first category in the preceding section on Deng Xiaoping. The second
category, while interesting, deals with Chinese perception of international actors,

and is thus less relevant. The two final categories interest us, however. On the Local
War section, Pillsbury reiterates the conclusions he drew in the secondary source
Chinese Debates the Future Security Environment - “what is remarkable about the

Local War school’s writing is that the ideas contained in the articles on the military

84

Pillsbury, Chinese Views, xvii.

49

revolution are never explicitly criticized or even mentioned.” 85 Though the RMA

school represents the kernel of forward-thinkers in the PLA most relevant to our

study, this quote reminds us that they still have far to go in the ‘battle for notions’
about future warfare.

There is perhaps one exception to Pillsbury’s observation above, and his

name is Shen Kuiguan. Though placed into Pillsbury’s third category of LWUMHTC

writers, Shen’s piece on the “Dialectics of Defeating the Superior with the Inferior” is
a nod towards the effects of the Gulf War and the potential implications for

modernizing Deng’s strategic thought. The piece begins with the statement that “...a
comprehensive understanding and analysis of the Gulf War are needed in order to
avoid the erroneous conclusion that it is impossible for a weak force to defeat a

powerful opponent in a high-tech war.” 86 RMA writers heeded this call, producing

Unrestricted Warfare. On his main subject (defeating the superior with the inferior,
which is quite familiar to us as a tenet of both PW and LW) Shen asserts that the

tactic goes back millennia, having been used successfully by people of the Yin, Zhou,

Ming and Qing dynasties. 87 Unfortunately, defeating the superior with the inferior in
a high-tech local war like the Gulf is extremely difficult, though possible. One way

Shen advocates the PLA approach this strategem is to simply pursue a kind of total
war, or to be utterly determined in its mission. The piece offers little discussion of

‘asymmetric warfare’ as such - indeed, it seems to also suggest that outright better
85

Ibid, xxvi.
Ibid, 217.
87
Ibid, 214.
86

50

numbers or weapons trump the usage of ‘tricky’ tactics like those drawn from the

classics. Overall, the piece seems to be mired in Deng Xiaoping’s realpolitik, but does
not totally discount the use of stratagems in the case of LWUMHTC or IW. In this

way, it shows the potential for LW and PW advocates to be co-opted by the thinking
of the RMA group.

Moving to Pillsbury’s fourth category of RMA writers, we find a wealth of

diverse writing on the effects of the Gulf War and the unique potential of IW. Chang

Mengxiong, director of the aforementioned COSTIND, begins his piece by

acknowledging that “numerous facts show that we are in the midst of a new

revolution in military technology in which electronic information technology is the

central technology.” 88 Stunningly, he goes on to predict the advent of robot warfare more specifically, “unmanned information-intensified combat platforms.” 89 The

21st-century reader immediately conjures up an image of a United States Predator

drone; Chang has here demonstrated the extraordinary forward-thinking capacity of
the RMA group. Among Chang’s other contributions are a direct link between the

philosophy of Sun Zi and the application of IW - one statement in The Art of War (‘By
knowing the enemy and knowing yourself, you can fight a hundred battles and win

them all’) is used as a justification for expanding IW capabilities to ‘know the enemy’
more accurately. Perhaps Chang’s most eclectic metaphor is that of IW as a Chinese
martial artist: “Information-intensified combat methods are like a Chinese boxer

with a knowledge of vital body points who can bring an opponent to his knees with

88
89

Ibid, 249.
Ibid, 251.

51

a minimum of movement.” 90 The Chinese boxer is a culturally unique image replete
with symbolism - Boxer movements of the late 19th century frequently practiced
ancient ‘immunity’ rituals that allowed them to fearlessly challenge the superior

forces of the Qing government and foreign invaders. Wu Guoqing, another writer of
the RMA school, echoes the Boxer metaphor, suggesting it carries significant
rhetorical weight.

Several RMA adherents from the PLA-N and PLA-AF follow Chang with pieces

about how naval and air warfare will change over the coming decades. We find here
one of the first rhetorical appearances of the “assassin’s mace” (shashoujian)

concept - a magical ‘killer weapon’ that would receive increasing attention during
the Hu Jintao era. Authors unveil the term very briefly in reference to

electromagnetic attacks being used to precede a naval strike, suggesting an early
association between shashoujian and electronic or information warfare. 91 Much

speculation follows as to how all forms of ground combat will expand into
“electromagnetic space.” These sources seem to broadly support

‘informationalization’ or continuing to make Local War ‘high-tech’ rather than
explicitly conducting IW, though the pieces are clearly falling into place.

Next up is Major General Wang Pufeng, a PLA elder who has been dubbed the

“father of Chinese IW doctrine” by Pillsbury and other China scholars. Wang’s piece
in Pillsbury’s collection, entitled “The Challenge of Information Warfare”, is frank
90
91

Ibid, 253.
Ibid, 263.

52

about China’s IW capabilities, admitting that "the equipment, strategy, tactics, and
military theory of China's military are still basically the products of the industrial

era and are far from satisfying the demands of information warfare." 92 The General

is emphatic about the distinction between his vision of IW and that of the other RMA
adherents within the PLA-N and PLA-AF who advocate ‘informationalizing’ their

respective fields - guided missiles and other information-based weapons are still
part of the LWUMHTC doctrine, as they are not information operations per se.

Recalling the definition of IW set down by the DOD and reviewed earlier in this

essay, we can see that he is technically correct. Moreover, if Shen Kuiguan alone

among the third group of writers suggested that more study be done on IW, Wang

Pufeng all but demands it. The General categorically states that China must focus on
IW as a way to defeat superior with the inferior and calls for further study on the

idea. He also goes so far as to eschew the Deng-era “Cult of Defense” doublespeak
term “active defense” (主动防御, zhudong fangyu) where IW is concerned.

Information warfare necessarily “includes engaging in an active offense (主动进攻,
zhudong jingong) of information suppression and attack", and Wang accordingly

notes with approval the DOD’s offensive usage of viruses, electronic interference,
and digital reconnaissance in Libya and Iraq. 93 In reinterpreting the strategic

classics, Wang makes two recommendations for Chinese IW doctrine. The first is the
return of quan bian, Sun Zi’s maxim of absolute strategic flexibility also used in PW
and LW. Wang extends quan bian to IW through the idea of an “information
92
93

Ibid, 318.
Ibid, 319.

53

counterattack” by which the PRC might tip the battle in its favor. Second, Wang
draws on Sun Zi’s famous statement that “all warfare is based on deception” in

recommending the Chinese deliberately obfuscate their digital and informational
presence as a form of IW. 94

Though it is not included in Pillsbury’s volume, Wang penned another

important article on IW in the journal of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences

(junshi kexue) in 1996. It reveals the extent to which even PLA-watchers of the day

like Pillsbury may have missed the subtle undercurrents of strategic culture within
the RMA school, and we will be the first to discuss and translate it. Wang’s

trademark insistence on the primacy of IW and calls to action are nowhere more

visible than here – his opening contention is that IW is “an inevitable stage” in the
progression of warfare worldwide. 95 Going even further, Wang asserts that the

underlying ideas of IW will be beneficial and even crucial to China’s military

progression: “[IW’s] true guiding principles and lasting historical significance will
bring effects on the safety of our country’s borders and military development and
guide our country’s military ideology and military theory to reach a new level.” 96

These assertions place Wang at the spearhead of the RMA writers who were making
arguments about the future in order to pressure their colleagues to accept the
ascendance of IW.

94

Ibid, 320.
Wang, 1.
96
Ibid.
95

54

The article is also a technical investigation of the emerging characteristics of

IW, and it makes two key assertions that draw on ancient ideas. First, in pushing for
the prioritization of “information battle platforms” (信息化作战平台, xinxihua

zuozhan pingtai), Wang makes a delineation between the “hard casualties” (硬杀伤,

ying shashang) of traditional weapons and the “soft casualties” (软杀伤, ruan

shashang) newly made possible through IW. 97 The terms are new ones he has

coined, but their implication draws on the Daoist notion of “winning the battle

without fighting”. A “soft casualty”, Wang explains, is an enemy’s information system
– a target that enables one to end a battle without ever having fielded forces or

sustained casualties. Second, Wang carries forward the yi zhan righteous war idea in

his coining of the phrase “information dominance” (zhixinxiquan), the significance of
which Mulvenon noted but did not rhetorically pursue. Looking at the compound
word, we identify zhi (治) as “control”, and xinxi (信息) as “information”, leaving

quan (权). The character quan has many disparate meanings, but other uses include

the words for “property rights” as well as the “right to know” about something. Such
undertones of righteousness and justice clearly hearken back to yi zhan, as the term
implies that one is controlling the right to information. Wang’s ideas are those of a
leader at the forefront of PLA thinking on IW, and display a willingness to

presciently recycle strategic culture not found in PW and LW writers. Wang adopts

ancient concepts not just because he thinks they will give him a legitimating edge in

the “battle for notions”, but also because he clearly believes in their applicability and
97

Ibid.

55

relationship to current events. This tendency will noticeably shape the authors of
the Hu era.

The last writer of interest to us in Pillsbury’s collection of primary sources is

Wei Jincheng, whose piece is entitled “Information Warfare: A New Form of People’s
War.” Like Wang Pufeng, Wei displays a strong ability to re-adapt strategic and
cultural concepts to the RMA. His piece focuses on the new options IW gives to

adherents to the spirit of PW - for example, the relatively inexpensive nature of

cyberwar provides for battles where “the enemy country can receive a paralyzing

blow through the internet, and the party on the receiving end will 98not be able to

tell whether it is a child's prank or an attack from its enemy.” This type of thinking
keeps alive the guerilla warfare bent to PW as a potential asset in IW doctrine. For
Wei, “a people's war in the context of information warfare is carried out by

hundreds of millions of people using open-type modern information systems” who
can collectively engage in warfare. The state is not the only entity that wages war,

and citizens can participate through “patriotic emails, political mobilization via the

internet, [and] databases for traditional education.” 99 Again, the 21st-century reader
cannot help but notice the prescience of this prediction, as world governments

(China included) currently struggle with ‘armed and dangerous’ ideological factions
of citizens who use the internet as a weapon. Wei even touches on the potential for
state-to-populace IW, wherein “enemy civilians could receive a blow through the
98
99

Pillsbury 1998, 411.
Ibid, 412.

56

internet” dealt by the Chinese government. 100 The aforementioned Moonlight Maze
incident is proof enough that this idea has come true.

Looking back at the large collection of primary and secondary sources

available from the Jiang Zemin era, many things are made clear to us. First, the RMA
school - despite the wide gulf between it and the other PLA doctrines - undeniably

came into its own during this time. Despite only catering to a small portion of rankand-file PLA forces, the RMA writers made a slew of prophetic inferences about

future warfare. Second, the RMA school decisively opened up a discursive space in

which the utility and nature of information warfare could be contested. Though the
Mao and Deng years laid the groundwork, it was the RMA writers’ reactions to the

Gulf War that made this possible by repeatedly connecting IW to ancient terms and
legitimating it with cultural arguments. Finally, the RMA writers were by no means
exempt from the dual-layer strategic culture that characterized earlier PLA writing

and thinking. Unrestricted Warfare shows that they bought into the “Chinese Cult of

Defense” as much, if not more than, their counterparts. The parabellum strategic
culture continued to dominate strategic thinking, while decisions and doctrines
were rationalized under a traditional framework. The “Cult” took on a new IW-

related dimension in this era, as strategists began to contemplate the culturally

unique potential for offensive (and even preemptive) information operations to
“defeat the superior with the inferior.”

100

Ibid.

57

This is not to say that the RMA writers got everything right, of course. The

idealism and creativity displayed in Pillsbury’s collection of primary sources

occasionally borders on the absurd, when viewed in hindsight. Many PLA-N and

PLA-AF authors isolated outer space as the next vitally important component of air

and sea battles, though space weapons have failed to gain much traction in the 21st
century. Moreover, a handful of writers insisted on the rapid advent of

nanotechnology weapons, claiming that “within the next 10 to 25 years,

manufacture of these microscale electromechanical apparatuses of molecular

dimensions will be possible.” 101 So far, the completion of the expected ‘bomb-

delivering nano-ants with changeable hair’ 102 has eluded military scientists. Despite

their occasional missteps, however, the RMA writers often hit the nail on the head in

predicting future warfare. Their ideas about drone technology, civilian-state IW, and
computer virus warfare have all come to prominence less than 25 years after

publication. Most importantly, they helped to create momentum for the expansion
of the RMA school in a direction favoring rapid, offensive, and pre-emptive IW

utilizing traditional stratagems. The reasons that IW doctrine began to move in this

direction were not, as Ferguson might suggest, wholly motivated by realist concerns
or parabellum thinking. Instead, rhetorical tenets of strategic culture both ancient

and modern began to push China to develop IW in a particular way, at a particular

time – because the Generals who believed in it were wielding that rhetoric to change
the tide in their “battle over notions”.
101
102

Ibid, 440.
Ibid.

58

59

VI: The PLA under Hu Jintao

Like his predecessor, President Hu faced rapidly changing security issues at

home and abroad almost immediately upon taking office. With the US “war on

terror” in full swing, China had to contend with the approach of US military forces

from Pakistan in the West and from the Philippines in the South. As if that were not

enough, during the delicate period of power transfer of the CMC Chairmanship from
Jiang to Hu, Taiwan’s pro-independence President Chen Shui-Bian won a stunning
re-election. Splittism and hegemony, the old threats to China’s sovereignty, had
never seemed more relevant. Within the PLA, doctrinal discourse was moving

underground - military journals gradually ceased to be published or translated for

foreign consumption. Drawing on Sun Zi’s adage “all warfare is based on deception”,
a PLA Daily article of the mid-2000s made the case that dominance in IW might be
linked to strategic ambiguity: “In information warfare, not only must we ‘know

ourselves and the enemy,’ we must, more importantly, make sure that the ‘enemy

does not have the knowledge about us,’ and use our knowledge about the enemy to
attack the enemy that does not have knowledge about us.” 103 Overall, this period

witnessed a sharpening of IW focus on “killer weapons”, particularly in a potential
conflict against Taiwan, the United States, or both. The focus was spearheaded by
PLA ‘housecleaning’ that ushered the forward-thinking writers of the RMA

generation into power. Finally, even as the PLA modernized by leaps and bounds, a

103

Wei-cheng Wang, 5.

60

different sort of information operation was making rhetorical clues harder to find
across the board.

In November 2002, the Party held its 16th congress, which involved

sweeping changes to the leadership structure of the PLA. Many of the impacts of the

congress were just beginning to be felt when Hu Jintao ascended to Chairmanship of
the CMC in September 2004. That year, China experts in the US gathered at Carlisle
Barracks in Pennsylvania to debate what impacts the restructuring might have on

many diverse aspects of the Chinese government. The results of the conference were
collected and published by the aforementioned Andrew Scobell of the RAND

corporation, with the assistance of Larry Wortzel of the Congressional US-China

Economic and Security Review Commission. The works collected in the volume

broadly addressed the implications of the ascendance of China’s “fourth generation”
of leaders, not the least of which was an ongoing power struggle between Jiang

Zemin and Hu Jintao for control over the PLA. At the time of publication, Jiang had

relinquished all critical party posts to Hu, save for one - the powerful Chairmanship

of the CMC. This move mirrored Deng Xiaoping’s own tendency to ‘pull strings’ from
behind the scenes after publicly giving up power, and the authors make much of

China’s “two centers” in the party-army relationship. Yet just one year later, Jiang

would relinquish the CMC Chairmanship as well, proving himself no equal to Deng
Xiaoping. This episode served to further illustrate the widening gap between the
party’s third and fourth generations of leaders.
61

The first essay in the collection is written by another scholar by now familiar

to us - James Mulvenon, also of RAND. Mulvenon’s analysis of the growing

generation gap in the new PLA and CMC reveals several significant developments
that continued a trend of disaggregated and technocratic command begun under

Jiang Zemin. First, the 16th congress marked the retirement of all PLA commanders
over the age of 70. This group included the influential generals Chi Haotian and Fu

Quanyou, along with several other Deng-era proponents of PW and LW. Joining the
CPC’s Central Committee to replace them were 43 officers of the PLA, including 26

‘new names’, who made up 22% of the overall body. Of these, three ascended to the

CMC, all of whom are fourth-generation leaders and contemporaries of Hu Jintao. 104

Within the PLA itself, the heads of all four major departments (these being Logistics,
Staff, Political, and Armament - refer to figure 6) were swapped out for fourth-

generation personnel. The majority of these fourth-generation commanders had

both combat experience and technocratic backgrounds, making the potential for a
shift towards the RMA school quite high. Second, Jiang’s decision to try to re-

personalize army loyalty and adopt a Deng-like stance “strongly suggested that the
system was becoming dangerously dysfunctional.” 105 In Mulvenon’s view, the two

paramount leaders attempted to retain power for wholly different reasons - “while
Deng was initiating and overseeing the gradual implementation of radical new

norms, particularly age-based retirement, to improve the health of the system,
Jiang’s move appears to be institutional retrogression driven by unattractive
104
105

Scobell, Civil-Military Change, 17.
Ibid, 19.

62

personal ambition.” 106 This assertion is supported by the staggering number of

personal thank-yous and congratulations by PLA elders towards Jiang during the

ceremonies, dwarfing Hu Jintao’s media presence. Though this coverage gave the

appearance of a united front, Mulvenon isolates at least two articles by PLA writers
bemoaning the “problem of two centers” and criticizing Jiang’s ambition with

barely-disguised venom. Thus the PLA was walking a dangerous path after the 16th
party congress - powerful, increasingly technocratic, and potentially without
consolidated political guidance.

Scholars Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise, Dean Cheng, and Ken Gause continue

analysing PLA leadership changes with an eye to the personal allegiances of the

fourth generation. They leave no doubt that the Gulf War “left a deeper impression
on the leadership of the Chinese military than virtually any previous military

action”, creating a “study campaign” we have examined at length in the previous
chapter. 107 Jiang Zemin’s response at the time was to direct the PLA to focus on

modernizing to fight and win LWUMHTC, and to focus on quality over quantity. The
PLA responded by rapidly promoting forward-thinking leaders in 2003. For

example, the new Vice Chairman of the CMC, Guo Boxiong, gained a reputation for

tactical innovation drawing on reinterpretations of ancient strategy during 1993-4
PLA war games in Western China. 108 New Minister of Defense Cao Guangchan

published on the Gulf War while serving in the General Staff Department of the PLA,
106

Ibid, 15.
Ibid, 182.
108
Ibid, 188.
107

63

and later went on to direct COSTIND, the powerful conglomerate driving debates

amongst the RMA writers of the late 1990s. 109 CPC apparatchik Xu Caihou, another
scholar of the Gulf conflict, we saw previously as the editor of jiefangjun bao

(Liberation Army Daily) who told Pillsbury he made an effort to publish works on

the strategic classics with every issue. Overall, two factors common to the ascendant
fourth generation stand out in this analysis - first, all are “downright open to

technological innovation”, as the authors put it. 110 Second - a conclusion the authors
fail to draw - all held pivotal roles observing or commanding the PLA during the

Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96. The significance of this special relationship
with Taiwan will rapidly become evident, as the Taiwan question intersects in
unique ways with China’s developing IW doctrine.

The last work in the volume relevant to our interests is a comprehensive

analysis of shashoujian entitled “Demystifing China’s ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Concept.”

Jason Bruzdzinski, a Washington defense policy specialist and former Northrop

Grumman employee, gives us an unprecedented level of research into an idea we
saw beginning to develop during the Jiang era (recall the group 4 RMA writers in

Pillsbury’s compendium and their preoccupation with “magic” or “killer” weapons).
Beginning from a discursive standpoint, Bruzdzinski notes the wide array of

possible translations for the term shashoujian, with FBIS alone having used 15
different English terms since 1996. 111 Bruzdzinski’s response is to refer to
109

Ibid, 184.
Ibid, 209.
111
Ibid, 312.
110

64

shashoujian solely in its romanized form, symbolizing the term’s journey from an
idiom of the mid-90s to a potentially “formalized, clandestine weapons research,

development and acquisition effort” totally unique to China by the year 2000. The
word shashoujian incorporates three ideograms: 杀 (sha, to kill), 手 (shou, hand),

and 锏 (jian, a form of sword-like Chinese club or mace). The first two characters,

shashou, are often translated “assassin”, giving rise to the English term “assassin’s
mace.”

As a cultural term, shashoujian has ancient and murky origins - it is related to

the developing idea we saw in Unrestricted Warfare of IW as a “magic charm”, and to

the metaphor of the Chinese boxer used by some IW theorists at COSTIND in the late
1990s. Bruzdzinski shows in particular that the way of the mace or sword, jianshu,
has been intimately related to taiji quan (shadow boxing) since the Warring States

and Spring and Autumn periods of Chinese history in the first few centuries BCE. 112

A well-forged shoujian, or hand mace, was a fearsome weapon capable of breaking

swords and sundering armor available during this time period. According to one

Taiwanese legend, General Xin Xiong of the Tang empire attained significant fame as
a wielder of the shoujian, and was rumored to have perfected a flawless killing

technique called shashoujian. Xin kept this form secret from his cousin, fearing

others could use it to defeat him; this created an aura of mystery and power that has
remained around the term to this day. 113 Thus, as a culturally rooted term,
112
113

Ibid, 313.
Ibid, 314.

65

shashoujian is not only a distinctive weapon, but also a form or technique capable of
utterly annihilating one’s enemy.

In the modern-day PLA, shashoujian survives in much the same capacity.

Senior Colonel Yang Zhibo wrote in 2002 that shashoujian could be both weapons

systems and combat methods, declaring “basically, it is whatever the PLA needs to
win future local wars under modern high-tech conditions.” 114 Bruzdzinski also

mentions Chinese internet users, who discuss the rise of shashoujian in the late 90’s
and identify it as “a synonym for a secret weapon as originally used in traditional

Chinese storytelling to describe an ancient weapon of surprising power.” 115 Usage of
shashoujian is also not confined to the PLA - for example, some writers have listed
assets like the F-117A stealth bomber as shashoujian utilized by the United States
during the Gulf War. Beginning in 1996, Bruzdzinski ties shashoujian to the

ascendant RMA school - or, more precisely, to what he calls the “nonlinear RMA”
group of PLA thinkers who advocate asymmetric and China-specific modes of

modernization for IW. Quoting Major General Xu Yanbing, Bruzdzinski decisively
locates shashoujian within this group: “We should combine Western technology

with Eastern wisdom. This is our trump card (王牌, wangpai) for winning a 21st
century war.” 116 By 2002, Jiang Zemin himself had publicly hopped on the RMA

bandwagon with his rhetoric of “military transformation”, a campaign which

Bruzdzinski claims “served to acknowledge the success of efforts by the PLA’s RMA
114

Ibid, 315.
Ibid.
116
Ibid, 319.
115

66

scholars in their campaign to break from China’s long adherence to ‘People’s War’
doctrines and the PLA’s practice of linear, reactive approaches to force
modernization.” 117

Recalling that the RMA school made up (during the Jiang era) at most 5% of

the PLA, one wonders how shashoujian factored into this spectacular victory in the
battle for notions. One fact that occurs to us which Brudzinski did not note is the
connection between the sha of shashoujian and the sha in ruan shashang – Wang
Pufeng’s earlier term for the “soft casualties” information warfare enables. The

logical conclusion is that, with respect to IW, sha – to kill – was flexible enough to

also refer to offensives in which no one was actually killed (i.e. the action was “soft”).
Keeping this in mind, we can view Brudzinski’s analysis in light of the fact that
Chinese authors considered both the potential effectiveness and the potential

nonlethality of IW as a shashoujian weapon. These two cultural foundations – the
nonlethal or “soft” capacity to sha the enemy “without fighting”, coupled with the
one-strike efficacy of the shoujian – made IW a uniquely attractive option to PLA
strategists.

The period in which Hu was being groomed for leadership (the late 1990s

and early 2000) thus saw an increase in PLA scholarship and activity surrounding

shashoujian. In 1997, PLA-AF commander Liu Shunyao hinted at the PLA’s need to

“form, as soon as possible, a certain scale of shashoujian.” In 1998, outgoing Defense
Minister Chi Haotian disclosed that Jiang Zemin had directly promoted the creation
117

Ibid.

67

of shashoujian as a national objective in CMC meetings. Jiang stressed the

development of shashoujian weapons “as soon as possible” after the NATO bombing
of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and in 2000 issued a memo to the
senior PLA cadre rejecting calls for increased funding in favor of specifically

pursuing shashoujian programs. 118 These doctrinal power moves by the outgoing

paramount leader potentially explain his attempts to retain military control in the
2003 congress, as well as a growing fascination with the unique potential of the

RMA school amongst PRC elites. By the early 2000s, Jiang Zemin was prepared to
hand Hu Jintao the keys to a full-blown secret program to develop shashoujian

weapons and techniques, codenamed State Security Project 998. Overseen by the
CMC and developed by the PLA, project 998 explicitly aimed to “accelerate the

research, development and installation of new weapons to resist U.S. hegemonism”,
according to leaked reports. 119 In 2002, evidence suggests Jiang established two
more such programs, with project codes 122 and 126, aimed at building China’s

asymmetric warfare capabilities. Research by Pillsbury and other scholars revealed
plans for native IW capabilities including an “aerospace technological system”, an
“electronic information technological system”, a “strategic defense technological

system”, a “deep-level counterattack technological system”, and an “optical laser
technological system.” The executive director for all three programs was newly
chosen PRC President Hu Jintao, whose tenure would be characterized by the

118
119

Ibid, 325.
Ibid, 327.

68

marriage of IW to shashoujian as a stratagem for “defeating the superior with the
inferior.”

Not coincidentally, obtaining sources that describe Chinese IW posture,

tactics, or armament after the year 2003 rapidly becomes a difficult task. Jacqueline
Newmeyer, who is quoted in the methodology section of this essay, has done an

admirable job of combing through the literature of the Hu years to ascertain what
may have been going on behind the scenes. Reading Newmeyer’s analysis, one
begins to surmise that the “Chinese Cult of Defense” had evolved into a sort of

micro-information war (conducted against the prying defense analyst) unto itself:

traces of the parabellum paradigm disappear from publicly available archives, while

journals favor bland, tangential, and non-threatening descriptions of progress in IW.
An example:

During the Eighth Five-Year Plan period, China’s telephone switching

capacity increased by 58.99 million lines, bringing the total interoffice

switching capacity to 71 million lines and the total switching capacity of
urban and rural telephones to 85.10 million lines. China thus became a
country with one of the largest telephone networks in the world. 120

Newmeyer tried to nail down a uniquely Chinese approach to the RMA by piecing
together the implications and subtexts of this increasingly obtuse rhetoric
characterizing military scholarship of the 2000s.
120

Newmeyer, 487.

69

One place such tidbits were less closely guarded was outside the PLA.

Newmeyer hit paydirt in the journal of the CICIR (Chinese Institute for
Contemporary International Relations), part of the PRC’s

intelligence/counterintelligence apparatus. One author initially attempted to

reassure readers that increased political transparency in the 21st century had

reduced both the scope and destructiveness of warfare, an argument analogous to

Unrestricted Warfare’s earlier ideas about “kinder” weapons and to traditional ideas
about “virtuous” rule. What followed was a curious discussion of “information

deterrence” - the logical evolution of nuclear deterrence, now made anew to fit the

RMA. 121 In practically explaining the concept, however, the author could not avoid a
concrete discussion of IW. Information superiority (zhixinxiquan, Wang’s term also

used in the COSTIND meetings of the late 1990s) enabled one to “gain the initiative”
through an offensive campaign, “make a huge strike on the opponent at an

extremely small price”, and ultimately win the war. 122 Moreover, the author

revealed a building focus on C2I systems and computer networks as key targets for
IW. DARPA - the US analogue of COSTIND - was singled out specifically for its

admirable interest in “injecting computer viruses at long range to paralyze the
enemy.” 123

The rhetoric of “paralysis” joins the list of confusing new terms Newmeyer

has culled from the available publications of the Hu era. Unsurprisingly, shashoujian
121

Ibid, 488.
Ibid.
123
Ibid, 489.
122

70

also makes the list. New to us are terms like shineng (势能, “potential energy”, or
China’s gradually building IW capacity), zhangongcheng (战功程, “warfare

engineering”, the practice of peacetime IW wargames), and “invisible” (无形,

wuxing) forces (IW weapons and their operators, which are harder to count up and

measure than tanks or planes). 124 Newmeyer’s conclusion is that the Chinese “have
conceptualized the RMA as a set of technological advances that create new

opportunities to target an enemy’s resolve through the threat or infliction of

focused, limited, but highly damaging strikes.” 125 This was corroborated by Beijing’s
2004 white paper officially announcing an “RMA with Chinese Characteristics”
having IW as its core.

Another area in which scholars have succeeded in probing China’s specific

strategic ambitions vis-a-vis IW is the so-called “Taiwan question.” Gary Rawnsley’s
article in a 2005 issue of International Affairs analyses the IW arms race occurring

on both sides of the Taiwan strait at that time, noting that “substantial investment is
directed towards designing and creating new architectures, training programmes
and technology that facilitate offensive and defensive information warfare.” 126 By

the mid-2000s, conflict between the PRC and ROC had become an indisputable and

worrisome possibility: Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized China’s willingness to “pay
any price to safeguard unity of the motherland” in 2003, and this hardline stance
was codified in the so-called “anti-secession law” of 2005. Meanwhile, pro124

Ibid.
Ibid, 490.
126
Rawnsley, 1061.
125

71

independence candidate Chen Shui-Bian won Taiwan’s presidency in 2000 and a

hotly contested second term in 2004, raising the stakes for a potential deterioration
in relations. 127 Taiwan’s National Defense Ministry has had to revise its estimates

for the earliest possible date of a successful Chinese IW attack multiple times. In the
late 1990s, Taiwanese theorists put the potential year of Chinese information

dominance in 2010; this was rapidly revised to 2005 in 1999. By the year 2000,

General Lin Chi-Cheng of Taiwan’s Communications, Electronics and Information
Bureau was forced to admit that China’s IW mobilization was already surpassing
that of Taiwan. 128

What specific utility could new forms of technologically advanced IW hold for

China in its bid to reunite Taiwan with the mainland? The answer lies in what

Rawnsley calls the “cross-strait propaganda offensive”: a bitter IW campaign waged
since the Cold War that nevertheless “has enjoyed little success beyond the
recurrent exchange of political symbolism and rhetoric.” 129 The repeatedly

manufactured ‘crises’ of the strait serve to illustrate Rawnsley’s point: though

Taiwan and the PRC frequently shelled each other from the 1950s onwards, the

attacks were done on a coordinated timetable of odd and even days, and the shells
contained only propaganda leaflets. This ‘IW for the masses’ demonstrated “the
tendency to grope in the dark” that characterized the cross-strait propaganda

127

Ibid, 1062.
Ibid.
129
Ibid, 1067.
128

72

war. 130 The use of network-focused warfare allows for much more precise targeting
and monitoring of propaganda campaigns, as well as virtual anonymity, giving rise
to what other authors have called “neocortical warfare”: using information

networks to control and shape the behavior of enemies without physically damaging
them. 131 This concept must have been particularly attractive to the PLA under Hu
Jintao, as it provides the key to the decades-old problem of bloodlessly achieving

reunification across the strait. Presumably for this exact reason, Rawnsley titled his
piece “Old Wine in New Bottles.”

Vincent Wei-Cheng Wang has also written on the subject of IW as a “magic

weapon” to retake Taiwan, likewise grappling with the decreasing number of

declassified PLA documents to analyze. Unlike many other authors cited in this
essay, he opts to include DOD studies of presumed Chinese IW capability in his

research, some of which are revealing for our study. In 2002, for example, the DOD

noted an uptick in multiple PLA IW ventures - more military exercises involved IW,
more doctrine focused on defending against the threat of computer viruses, and

more specialists in IW were being recruited through the PLA’s special programs. 132

Another interesting study cited by Wang looks at the historical prevalence of

“defeating the superior with the inferior”, breaking the past two centuries up into
50-year periods and recording which actor was the victor in military conflict.

Astonishingly, victory of the numerically or technologically weak over the strong
130

Ibid.
Ibid, 1068.
132
Wei-cheng Wang, 5.
131

73

rose from 11.8% in the 1800s to 55% in the latter half of the 20th century, a finding
that must have been particularly heartening to Chinese advocates of asymmetric

IW. 133 Though it remains difficult to get a feel for PLA discourse surrounding IW in

the latter half of the 2000s, these statistics paint a general picture of the direction
PLA theorists may have been taking.

One last place from which we may glean clues about doctrinal evolution is

the 2012 PLA white paper, published at the end of Hu’s tenure as Chairman of the

CMC. This white paper was the eighth since the first landmark publication in 1998,
which we examined earlier. Overall, the paper reveals two characteristics of the
contemporary PLA - an expanding view of its ‘entitlement’ to regional power

(bolstered by the “Cult of Defense”) coupled with a relatively pessimistic outlook on
China’s local security environment. As panelists at the Center for Naval Analysis
noted during a 2013 discussion on the white paper, such communiques have

attained significant weight in the study of PRC military policy - thorough vetting and
the sponsorship of the State Council has led the white papers to “represent the
coordinated and authoritative views of the PRC writ large.” 134 Moreover, these

views are a unique opportunity for the PRC to shape international perception of the
PLA towards the way in which it would like its armed forces to be viewed. To this

end, the 2012 white paper adopts a new structure not shared by its 7 predecessors,
focusing on the ways in which the PLA is serving China and world interests
133
134

Ibid, 21.
“China’s National Defense”, 1.

74

domestically and abroad. One panelist jokingly phrased this thematic approach as
“What can Red do for You?” 135

As far as telegraphing the PRC’s intended vision of the PLA, the white paper

is quite clear. It first sets out to reassure international actors of the peaceful goals of
the PLA, which is a recurring theme in most white papers. This one makes a

“straightforward positive case” for PLA action abroad, using a litany of statistics

about (for example) the impact of military cooperation with Hong Kong authorities

to crack down on illicit trade. 136 Alongside the standard reassurance, the paper also
contains undertones of what the Naval Analysis Center panelists called

“expeditionary intentions” - for example, the statement embedded in the preface

that China deserves “powerful armed forces commensurate with [its] international
standing.” 137 These two messages clearly show the enduring relationship between

the parabellum and traditional strategic cultures - peace-loving on the outside,
realist on the inside. The Cult of Defense is evidently alive and well as of 2012.
In describing China’s security environment, the white paper displays a

pessimism also distinct from its predecessors. PLA writers decry signs of “increasing
hegemonism (baquanzhuyi, also Deng Xiaoping’s term), power politics, and neo-

interventionism” in the world security climate. 138 These are almost certainly veiled

criticisms of the United States, especially when coupled with the later assertion that
135

Ibid, 2.
Ibid, 3.
137
Ibid.
138
Ibid, 4.
136

75

US presence “frequently makes the regional situation more tense.” 139 The risk of

Taiwanese separatism is also specifically critiqued as the biggest threat to peaceful
development in the region. Putting the pieces together, we can see that the PRC

clearly intends the white paper to construct a worldview wherein an inherently

peaceful PLA may nevertheless be forced into a just war (zhengyi zhanzheng) to
defend China’s sovereignty or oppose hegemonism. Underlying this traditional

rhetoric are claims about China’s newfound standing in the realist community of
nations that justify the potential for offensive use of the PLA.

The veil pulled over PLA doctrinal writing has been occasionally marred by

outright showings of force - for example the 2007 testing of ASAT (anti-satellite)

capabilities, and China’s well-publicized construction of a new anti-ship ballistic

missile to counter American sea power. One might well believe that, by 2012, the
PLA had decided to let the cat out of the bag and advertise its entry into the IW-

wielding armies of the future. Newmeyer asks whether or not the situation might be
more complex: “Does this mean that China has given up on ‘hiding its capabilities

and biding its time’, confident that it can broadcast once-secret aspects of its defense
posture? ...the answer is clearly no. What has changed is that the PLA now uses

uncertainty as a substitute for concealment, where hiding capabilities is no longer
practical or desirable.” 140 This strategic ambiguity is, I would argue, the latest

evolution of the “Chinese Cult of Defense” - an appearance of peacefulness cultivated
through restricted publications, occasionally obfuscated through specific and

139
140

Ibid.
Newmeyer, 500.

76

directed shows of force. As a bonus, strategic ambiguity is actually preferential

where cyberwarfare is concerned - in the world of anonymous network intrusion,

how would one attribute responsibility for an attack without knowing whether an
enemy is capable or interested in doing so?

The rapid growth and institutionalization of IW as shashoujian also has

broader implications for today’s PLA. Cloaked in the “Cult of Defense”, one might

well ask whether PLA leaders might still be deterred from offensive military action
if they recognized the informational superiority of an enemy. Analysts of the 16th

party congress concluded otherwise: “although China’s leading military strategists
and scholars recognize the relative inferiority of PLA weapons and hardware, it is

important to note that this acknowledgment is not consistent with their judgments
about China’s ability to prevail against a superior military adversary in an

information age war.” 141 Again, though it is difficult to penetrate the veil of strategic

ambiguity, IW seems to have gained widespread priority and respect under Hu

Jintao. Moreover, the PLA after the 16th party congress seemed substantially more
predisposed to consider modernization towards and usage of IW as a central

strategy. The 4th-generation leaders who had still largely resided on the fringe

during the Jiang Zemin era now had more power, and fewer aging advocates of PW
and LW to contend with in doctrinal debates.

The last item made clear during the Hu Jintao era is not the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of

PLA IW focus, but the ‘where’. As early as July 2002, Pentagon reports to Congress
141

Scobell, Civil-Military Change, 334.

77

pointed out that China’s military was developing strategies and tactics to use

‘surprise, deception, and shock’ in any opening military campaign, while ‘exploring

coercive strategies’ designed to bring Taiwan to terms quickly. 142 For all intents and

purposes, IW as shashoujian seems to have neatly solved this problem. A PLA
strategic conference on Taiwanese reunification put it thusly:

The foreign assessment that currently China does not have the ability to

invade Taiwan is not correct...In comparing military strengths, not only the

extent of modernization of one’s weaponry, but also the use of tactics, one’s

mastery of weaponry, and the morale of the troops must be included. When

all the factors, including a certain degree of U.S. involvement, are considered,
the PLA can win the war without any doubt. Besides, the PLA has a
shashoujian unknown to outsiders. 143

Putting the pieces together, it becomes clear that the PRC had, in essence, “doubled

down” on its bet to win an asymmetric information war against the United States in
at least one scenario. Even more alarming, the development of secret projects and
reinterpretation of ancient stratagems had firmly convinced the PLA of its unique

“edge” in such a conflict...provided, of course, that it began with a preemptive, swift,
and devastating blow from the assassin’s mace. The continued evolution of IW

doctrine in this direction underscores the ability for cultural elements to drive

China’s relationship to its security environment – shashoujian as a concept was an
142
143

Wei-cheng Wang, 2.
Scobell, Civil-Military Change, 337.

78

equally devastating rhetorical weapon for the Chinese generals who were using it to
win their internal “battle over notions”. The developing characteristics of Chinese
IW theory, far from being motivated solely by US posture and geopolitical
constraints, were also being shaped by the forces of history.

79

VII: The PLA under Xi Jinping

The rise to power of Xi Jinping appears, at the present time, to have

inaugurated an age of uncertainty, tension, and finger-pointing in the politics of

information warfare. Fear of an IW campaign waged against China led the PLA to

conduct drills simulating everything from information attacks on strategic nuclear

weapons to non-state actor distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks throughout

2012. These fears proved justified: DDoS, a devastating and rapid method of denying
access to network resources, attained worldwide fame when the “hacktivist”

collective Anonymous threatened to initiate “operation global blackout” in 2012 via
a DDoS attack against the internet’s 13 root DNS servers, revealing a key

vulnerability that could cripple access worldwide. The United States continued to

expand its own IW programs, building on the wildly successful shutdown of Iran’s
nuclear reactors using the Stuxnet virus in 2010. “Child” viruses and variants of

Stuxnet, among them the notorious “Flame” virus, have been discovered actively

conducting surveillance in Arab countries as of 2014. In many cases, IW doctrine
thus seems to be being operationalized to devastating effect as network-based

cyberwarfare. Xi’s ascendance coincided with the “squaring off” of the DOD and PLA
over cyber issues; this was driven home by the May 2013 revelation that the DOD
suffered “staggering losses of system design information" at the hands of Chinese

hackers, including plans for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, lynchpin of American air

80

superiority. 144 In response, Xi created and headed off a brand-new National Security
Council of the PRC, giving himself “significantly more power than predecessors Hu
Jintao and Jiang Zemin”, comparable to the indomitable Deng Xiaoping. 145

Unrestricted Warfare’s predictions for a radically open battlefield and constant war
seem to be coming true ahead of their time - as the authors ominously put it, “the
war god’s face has become indistinct.” 146

With the concerted effort to obfuscate internal PLA debate over IW doctrine

in full swing, obtaining rhetorical sources has proven ever more difficult. Trusting in
Michael Swaine, prolific PLA-watcher and author of previously cited The Role of the
Chinese Military in National Security Policymaking, we can use his 2013 study in
China Leadership Monitor on Chinese views of cybersecurity to chart a course

through the evolving landscape of IW. One reason Swaine can claim reliability is his
effort to isolate “authoritative” sources and preference their rhetoric above others.

We made the same choice in section 2, based on the idea that the rhetoric powerful
actors within the PLA was the best predictor of the Chinese debate more generally

(or the most “authoritative”). Swaine mirrors our choice, attempting to focus on PLA
elders who are well-connected to the policymaking process.

Unfortunately, such authoritative sources in China “do not provide a detailed

definition of cybersecurity.” 147 Instead, they talk in general terms about the growth
144

Nakashima, 1.
Bodeen, 1.
146
Qiao and Wang, 36.
147
Swaine, Chinese Views on Cybersecurity, 2.
145

81

of the internet and the reliance of the nation-state on information-based structures,

a continuance of the Hu-era policy of strategic ambiguity. PRC organs like the MOFA
and Ministry of Defense often repeat the line that China is “a major victim of hacker
attacks.” The PLA in particular is actually proactive about releasing statistics about

cyber intrusions it claims to be suffering, in large part to rebut foreign claims that it
is already engaged in a campaign of network-based IW. 148 The regime also seems

concerned with the potential for IW to be waged against China’s citizenry,

negatively impacting social and political norms. Some nonauthoritative sources

have coined the term “cybersovereignty” (网络主权, wangluo zhuquan) to describe
the future of sovereign “virtual territory” on the internet. This idea extends China’s

disposition towards sovereignty-respecting and noninterventionist politics into the
information realm. A People’s Daily (renmin ribao, a well-known state mouthpiece)

editorial in 2013 asserted “[i]t has become a consensus worldwide that government
should play the role of the Internet ‘administrator’ and set examples in Internet

governance because it possesses the most management resources and management
tools.” 149

This viewpoint is a strategically useful one for the PRC, for several reasons.

First, it benefits China as a whole to align politically with the bloc of countries

currently forwarding a state-centric approach to internet regulation (that group

includes Russia, India, and many of the Arab League states). The opposing coalition
148
149

Ibid, 3.
Ibid, 4.

82

(The United States, the EU, and others) is pushing for continued private and non-

aligned management of key parts of the internet, such as domain registration (DNS),
which matches up Internet Protocol (IP) addresses with website names to form a
connection. The suggested alternative to the US-based ICANN (the Internet

Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which deals with these crucial

functions, is a state-specific approach mediated by the UN that would potentially
give nations substantially more control over the hosting of content within their

sovereign “cyberterritory.” Thus, while the debate about internet regulation rages
on, China has a key opportunity to delegitimize the United States’ laissez-faire

approach and promote its political and ideological objectives in one stroke.

Second, wangluo zhuquan is uniquely beneficial to the PLA. As a continuation

of the “Chinese Cult of Defense”, wangluo zhuquan would provide for increased and

centralized PLA control of information resources and technologies under the rubric

of “defending China’s sovereign territory” or “maintaining social harmony”, familiar
themes of the traditional strategic culture. This has led to the curious phenomenon

of PLA writers expressing concern for the social and moral health of the nation - one

jiefangjun bao (Liberation Army Daily) article in 2013 states that “raising the

ideological and moral standard of the citizens [is] a basic standard for achieving the
unification of cyber freedom and cyber self-discipline.” 150 “Cyber freedom” (网络自

由, wangluo ziyou) is a suitably innocuous term, though one cannot help but wonder

what it means to “unify” such freedom, especially given that the first character in the
150

Ibid, 42.

83

word “freedom” (自) means “self.” PLA writers have tacked closely with the

mainstream PRC opposition to perceived US control of the internet; Major General
Wu Jianguo complained in 2013 that its technological advantage allows the US to
“display its fist of hegemony everywhere.” 151 As such, the PLA can use wangluo
zhuquan as a justification for increasing its capacity to wage IW while

simultaneously galvanizing domestic and international opposition to US information
dominance.

Overall, the outward response strategy of the PRC - and the PLA in particular

- seems to be “accuse the opponent of whatever he blames you for.” In response to

American criticism of Chinese internet censorship, PLA writers indignantly point to

“PRISM gate” (the 2013 revelation that the NSA digitally surveils American citizens)
and US condemnation of WikiLeaks as equally if not more problematic. 152 When the

NSA counters by saying that its cyber surveillance and IW activities are only

targeted at foreign terrorists (now proven demonstrably false), one writer at the

Academy of Military Sciences used the much-vaunted American value of privacy to

fire off his own riposte: “the privacy right of the American people is treated with due
respect . . . that of the people of other countries is not as important.” 153 Non-

authoritative military sources go even further, accusing the US of engaging in a

preemptive IW campaign that “could cause unforeseeable disastrous consequences

151

Ibid, 6.
Ibid, 7.
153
Ibid, 8.
152

84

for human society.” 154 Finally, PLA writers have begun to not-so-subtly remind the
United States that they are aware of its vulnerabilities: current authors obliquely
describe IW as “not in America’s own interests”, since its information systems
“could turn out to be low-hanging fruit in the face of cyber attacks” 155. These

warnings are characteristic of a PLA that feels deserving of respect and power parity
in an increasingly IW-dominated security environment.

Can any sense be made of this blame game? Swaine believes that many of

China’s general claims about the IW environment are demonstrably false, with those
originating from the military most egregiously so. First, let us assess China’s claim

that the US has essentially sparked an arms race, forcing the PLA to develop (“purely

defensive”) IW capability in response. Swaine rightly brings up the classical security
dilemma - how to distinguish offensive weapons from defensive ones? Information
warfare, especially anonymized forms of network warfare such as DDOS attacks,

have perhaps the least distinction between “offense” and “defense” of any kind of
military action. Moreover, the decades of PLA discourse analysed in previous

chapters of this essay are strong evidence to the contrary - though undoubtedly
inspired by the Gulf War, the PLA aggressively pursued IW of its own accord,

especially to solve particular security problems unique to China (i.e. Taiwan). With
regard to the battle over who “owns” the internet, PLA writers have also neglected
to do their homework. Though ICANN originated in the US, it does not control

network content or provide connections, and it is regulated by several international
154
155

Ibid.
Ibid, 9.

85

NGOs. Moreover, as Chinese IW scholars have critiqued the placement of most of the
internet’s root DNS servers (critical infrastructure which resolves hostnames and

“guides” users to websites) in the United States, they have been busy building their
own network of root servers to achieve exactly the same (illusory) stranglehold. 156
Within DOD-PLA relations, the PLA’s categorical and absolute denial of

current offensive IW efforts are similarly suspect, given that they are nearly all

based on the defense that “IP addresses can be faked” (thus making it impossible to
attribute network attacks and absolving China of responsibility). Swaine’s private

correspondence with Mulvenon indicates that “The U.S. government has presented

[to Beijing] highly detailed technical evidence of the Chinese origins of

intrusions...[including] very precise attribution of a number of high-profile

intrusions” that does not rely on IP addresses, erasing this alibi. 157 Mulvenon would
know, given his position as Vice President of Defense Group, Inc., a private sector
firm contracted by the DOD to examine cybersecurity breaches. PLA attempts to

explain the known components of its IW programs as “purely defensive” also fall by
the wayside, given the May 2011 formation of a “Cyber Blue Team” that regularly
participates in PLA military exercises. 158 Our previous examinations of Jiang and
Hu’s array of secret IW projects seems to suggest that the non-falsifiable idea of

“defense-only” has been retroactively applied to offensive programs, quite in line
with the “Cult of Defense.”
156

Ibid, 15.
Ibid, 27. Taken from Swaine’s footnote 84.
158
Ibid, 9.
157

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Swaine’s survey of CPC and PLA commentary on modern network warfare is

both a cogent rhetorical analysis and a worthy bookend for our lengthy study.
Cutting through the cacophony of warrantless debate over IW doctrine and

development, a chorus of voices comes into focus - the “Chinese Cult of Defense”,
with the PLA as its point of origin, remains committed to operate under its

parabellum interpretation of an anarchic world while telegraphing traditional

preferences for harmony and defensive restraint. In Swaine’s words:

The apparent unanimity of support within China for the official position

suggests it is unlikely that internal debates exist over this issue that could

possibly provide an opening for a change in the Chinese position. As a result,

it is very likely that little significant progress will occur in at least the near to
medium term in developing a common international approach to

cybersecurity, and that Beijing will continue to develop and utilize

cybercapabilities against other states, for both national security and
economic purposes. 159

We take issue with only one aspect of Swaine’s conclusions – his decision that a

relative lack of apparent doctrinal debate equals little possibility for change. We

have already established that our perceived lack of debate could be quite far from

the truth – indeed, the policy of strategic ambiguity established under Hu Jintao is

perhaps designed to convince erstwhile researchers that China’s IW debates are all
but over.
159

Ibid, 16.

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Instead, we should be more careful. Realizing that the potential for ancient

concepts to be dredged up and brought to bear in the “battle over notions” (visible

or not) remains high, we should not foreclose the potential for Chinese IW doctrine
to radically shift in a new direction. For this precise reason, further rhetorical

analysis and attempts to penetrate the veil of strategic ambiguity are vital. For the
time being, firmly convinced that offensive use of IW is just (yi zhan), effective
(shashoujian), and appropriately Chinese (quan bian), the ascendant fourth

generation of PLA writers and and thinkers under Xi Jinping will continue to keep an
information war to defend China’s wangluo zhuquan well within the realm of

possibility. Without appreciating the potential for strategic culture to continually

influence policy, we could very well miss the warning signs that this possibility is
becoming reality.

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VIII: Patterns and Implications

Having analytically traversed 60-plus years of PLA rhetoric in roughly as

many pages, we may now take a moment to catch our breath and reflect on the goals
of this study. With a discerning eye towards the more influential speakers and
thinkers of the PLA, what rhetorical trends have we observed? How did our

lengthier and more focused study shed new light on existing scholarship, such as
Ferguson’s own thesis? Let us begin at the beginning, reviewing our findings.

The PLA under Mao Zedong established enduring rhetorical trends, with the

chief among them being the doctrine of people’s war (renmin zhanzheng). Mao’s

cosmopolitan strategic background lent PW a strong realist bent, coupled with a

Marxist-Leninist preference for violent revolution and class struggle. As a result, just
war (yi zhan) initially came to be defined as virtually any war conducted against a

stronger adversary, while the ancient idea of winning the battle without fighting at
all (buzhan er quren zhi bing) was disparaged as an inaccurate representation of

history. While preemptive measures were frequently deemed necessary, Mao also

established the “Chinese Cult of Defense”, which nominally favored diplomacy over
war (xianli houbing). Fortunately, wars against class enemies were always

defensive, and therefore just. Defeating a superior enemy (yi ruo sheng qiang) was
achieved through a doctrine of absolute flexibility (quan bian) and adherence to

protracted guerrilla warfare. Though strategic culture was frequently subordinated
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to the parabellum paradigm during this period, some concepts (such as quan bian)

were used as legitimating and foundational ideas, rather than simply reinterpreted.
Deng Xiaoping’s PLA modernized Mao’s doctrinal ideas only so far as were

necessary, preferring to inflate the “Cult of Defense” and provide Chinese forces

more flexibility. By 1985, Mao’s ideas about nuclear conflict with the soviets (zaoda,
dada, dahezhanzheng) were reputed, and the PLA focused on the potential for
border conflicts as per the new doctrine of local war (jubu zhanzheng). Deng

emphasized speedy conflict over protracted PW, with RRU units formed to take
advantage of critical first battles. This extension of Mao’s thinking was relevant

because it showed the enduring power of cultural concepts like quan bian to drive

doctrine in their own right – Deng did not direct the PLA to modernize exclusively

because of a changing security situation, but also because he wanted to push quan

bian to new levels for its own sake. Outwardly, the PLA concentrated on projecting a
peaceful image, recycling and reinforcing Mao’s xianli houbing. New terms like

active defense (zhudong fanyu) and defensive counterattack (ziwei huanji) managed

to rationalize purely offensive actions (such as invading Vietnam in 1979) as

defensive, utilizing Mao’s definition of yi zhan. Finally, language created to justify a
war opposing Soviet hegemony (fandui baquanzhuyi) was repurposed to indicate
the United States as unjust.

Jiang Zemin’s tenure as CMC Chairman was initially marked by the Gulf War,

which touched off a flood PLA publications announcing an RMA (junshi geming) was
in progress. Doctrinal heterogeneity was brewing, as the newly-coalesced RMA
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school openly critiqued PW and LW or LWUMHTC advocates for failing to keep up
with the times, often using elements of strategic culture to do so. IW (xinxi zhan)
also definitively enters the vocabulary of PLA writers, attaining for the first time
what Pillsbury called an “analytical focus.” RMA writers begin raiding DOD

documents for definitions, as COSTIND held landmark meetings establishing IW as
the root of the RMA and information dominance (zhixinxi quan) as the goal. The
historic first publication of a PLA white paper in 1998 reveals that the “Cult of

Defense” is still entrenched; it declares military modernization subordinate to

economic prosperity and reiterates Mao’s no-preemptive-strike policy (ren bu fan
wo). At the same time, the visionary Wang Pufeng urges exactly that, with his

preference for active offense (zhudong jingong) over active defense as a way of

employing quan bian. Wang also urges the PLA to begin obfuscating and hiding

information from its enemies. IW becomes a uniquely attractive option to China,
with its potential for synthesis with the “rich strategies of the east” (dongfang

moulue). He proves definitively that China’s strategic culture can shape policy when
influential military leaders take up its cause, by using terms like quan bian and

junshi geming to craft a call to action.

By Hu Jintao’s ascension as paramount leader, the RMA school had taken

center stage, with 4th-generation leaders replacing many PW and LW advocates.

RMA writers dig up an ancient concept (shashoujian) and marry it to IW, thus

creating a doctrine with widespread cultural relevance and appeal (and proving our
thesis). Jiang’s outgoing act is to throw in with the RMA leaders and establish secret
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programs to operationalize shashoujian, demonstrating the legitimacy the term

comes to command and the way in which it will shape PLA attitudes towards IW.

21st-century IW is also framed as a neat solution to a decades-old propaganda war
with Taiwan. As for the “Cult of Defense”, its cloaking effect on parabellum rhetoric
intensifies. PLA journals yield guarded language and ambiguous terms like

“potential energy” (shineng). By 2012, China’s eighth defense white paper comes out
sounding like an entitled echo of its 1998 predecessor. Though still portrayed as
peaceful, China now demands the right to utilize the PLA abroad, while reviving

anti-hegemonic (baquanzhuyi) language to take a swipe at the US and shift blame for
a potential conflict away from China.

Though hampered by a lack of data on the Xi Jinping era, some trends are

already clear. Endeavoring to cast Chinese cyberspace as sovereign territory

(wangluo zhuquan), China hits upon a rhetorical device with which to oppose
Western values of internet freedom. The idea of cyber-sovereignty becomes

ideological ammunition in the battle to wrest control over key internet resources

away from the United States, improving China’s chances at peacetime information

dominance. Though PLA and PRC rhetoric are nearly indistinguishable by this point,
some military writers go beyond the party line to remind the US that China is aware

of the American “weak spot” on IW. In multiple ways, the “Cult of Defense” is used to
construct a new image of China as a defenseless and peace-loving nation beset by a
hypocritical US IW campaign. The Cult claims that the US started an arms race to
which China had to respond, though PLA rhetoric proves China had an ulterior
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motive (Taiwan). Denying responsibility for the cyberattacks perpetrated against

the DOD in 2013, it also refuses to acknowledge clear evidence that China is at least
as offensive in its IW usage as the United States.

Ferguson’s analysis, though limited in scope, makes predictions consistent

with our study. First, in order to satisfy the requirements of the “Cult of Defense” but
maintain an offensive potential, “the definition of a just war may expand to include
those offensive actions taken to protect Chinese cyberspace, with or without
provocation.” 160 The weaponization of wangluo zhuquan is precisely this

definitional expansion, continuing the trend of reinterpretations of yi zhan we have

seen under every Chairman of the CMC. Second, in the future China “could simply act
when necessary to eliminate a source of IW threat beyond China’s borders, and find

a means to justify the action after the fact.” 161 Again, wangluo zhuquan seems geared
specifically to justify this type of preemptive war against an enemy violating China’s
cyber-sovereignty. Third, “when China develops the remainder of its IW

capability...it will use it.” 162 In 2013, 11 years after Ferguson published, China had

sufficiently developed and subsequently deployed network-based warfare to steal

US military secrets. Going forward, new IW methods are highly likely to be tested especially with the case of Taiwan, where the PLA believes it has a higher rate of
success.

160

Ferguson, 51.
Ibid, 49.
162
Ibid, 51.
161

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Despite our study having independently confirmed that these predictions

still hold true, Ferguson drew one conclusion that we have an obligation to refute.
That would be her assertion of a largely unidirectional relationship between

strategic culture and the PLA debate about security. In this view, the RMA caused

changes to the canon of Chinese strategic culture, not the other way around – PLA

authors only utilized terms drawn from the traditional strategic culture to explain

their arguments or hide their offensive nature. Ferguson makes a serious misstep in
stating that the expansion of PLA IW capabilities necessary for her predictions to

come true would “require a conscious effort to change Chinese culture from one that
reveres the theoretical to one that reveres technology.”4 Yet we have emphatically
demonstrated that a reverence for technology is not mutually exclusive with a

reverence for ancient strategic theory - the PLA continued to revive, reinterpret and

be guided by strategic culture even as it made Ferguson’s predictions come true. The
strategic classics and the works of the first paramount leaders had multiple roles to
play, and were not shoved aside in favor of technological modernization wholesale.
In addition to serving the function of ‘shrouding’ new parabellum policies in

familiar rhetoric, terms like quan bian and yi ruo sheng qiang exercised power in

their own right that ultimately pushed China to study and utilize IW where it might
not otherwise have done so. Take the case of shashoujian, for example: a two

thousand year old legend about a mace-wielding general became a vehicle through
which IW attained widespread recognition and respect. Such elements of the

strategic canon affect the way in which China pursued and will continue to pursue
94

IW as a weapon or stratagem (bing). If we accepted Ferguson’s conclusion, we might

well expect China to adhere tightly to the US path of IW development, all the while

spouting traditional axioms for no reason other than to disguise its ‘copycat’ policy.
This is not what we observed – in fact, we saw the power of rhetoric drive doctrine
more than once. With the case of shashoujian, for example, a unique mixture of

cultural components – “winning the battle without fighting”, the perceived efficacy
of the shoujian as weapon – drove policy and won an ideological battle within the

PLA. Jiang Zemin eventually wholeheartedly converted to an ardent supporter of IW
as a result of these references to strategic culture, going so far as to cut funding to
other programs in favor of explicitly funding special shashoujian programs.

Rather than Ferguson’s model, this study proves that we should embrace a

cyclical relationship between Chinese strategic culture and technological

development, wherein ancient and modern texts alike do not necessarily lose their

capacity to be relevant as a result of the RMA. Because of the continued force carried
by culturally-linked rhetoric and the reverence that PLA authors still show for the

classics, we should continue to look first to their discourse as a predictor of trends
in doctrine. Critical security should remain a valuable model for evaluating the
impact of those trends. Ultimately, our study proves that strategic culture is

inextricably involved in the PLA’s debate about information warfare, at once

shaping and being shaped by the continuing battle over notions. Though the war

god’s face has become indistinct, his voice can guide us to the truth - if we have the
rhetorical tools to listen.

95

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