ASPI’s decades: China’s cyberpower

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

The list of 14 grievances issued last year by China’s embassy in Canberra had one point aimed at ASPI.

Among the sins of the Australian government, in the eyes of China, was to fund an ‘anti-China think tank for spreading untrue reports, peddling lies around Xinjiang and so-called China infiltration aimed at manipulating public opinion against China’.

The aggrieved and annoyed tone was also an acknowledgement: the institute’s research was having an impact. Beijing’s growing cyberpower had made China a natural focus for the work of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.

As ICPC’s director Fergus Hanson noted in March 2020: ‘The simple act of looking at what the Chinese government says it wants to do and is doing has produced some remarkable empirical research and insights into the type of state that Australia, and the world, is dealing with.’

Chinese anger at what’s been revealed produced unusual pushback, smear campaigns and cyber-enabled interference targeting ASPI and individual staff members. Tackling state-backed information operations and disinformation can also make you a target.

In Enter the cyber dragon in 2013, Tobias Feakin wrote about the cyber capabilities of Chinese intelligence agencies and their ‘industrial scale’ operations.

While Chinese agencies were collecting vast quantities of data, Feakin said, ‘what happens to it once it’s collected is relatively unknown. We’re not certain how the data is processed and analysed, and whether it ever becomes a fully usable intelligence product that’s of value to Chinese policymakers’.

A deeper understanding of what China was doing in the cyber realm, Feakin wrote, would shape Australia’s own policy settings.

A 2014 report on China’s cyberpower by James Lewis dismissed claims that China was waging an economic war in cyberspace. China’s behaviour, he wrote, had more to do with commercial interests than geopolitical strategy:

China’s cyber doctrine has three elements: control of networks and data to preserve political stability, espionage to build China’s economy and technological capabilities, and disruptive acts aimed at damaging an opponent’s military command and control and weapons systems, all of which are dependent on software and networks.

ASPI staff and contributors to The Strategist debated whether the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei should be allowed a role in Australia’s 5G network, tackling the broad Australia–China relationship, other states’ experience with Huawei, the Chinese government’s approach to cyber espionage and intellectual property theft, and the Chinese Communist Party’s view of state security and intelligence work.

In August 2018, the government banned China’s Huawei and ZTE, stating that ‘the involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorised access or interference’.

It was a key moment in the dawning of an icy era in Australia’s relations with China.

The anger that China directed against ASPI was based on the detailed work of the cyber centre and the facts it revealed about Chinese policy and behaviour:

  • China’s censorship of the micro-blogging service Weibo
  • deterrence in cyberspace
  • China’s ‘social credit system’—the use of big-data collection and analysis to monitor, shape and rate behaviour via economic and social processes
  • the ‘dual-use’ dilemma in artificial intelligence: China’s demonstrated capacity and intent ‘to co-opt private tech companies and academic research’ for defence objectives in ways that were far from transparent
  • big data and the battle for privacy: ‘If data is the new oil, China is oil super-rich’
  • how China steals Western intellectual property, examining the experience of Australia, the US and Germany
  • online influence and hostile narratives in East Asia, using the examples of Taiwan, the Hong Kong protest movement, West Papua and the Philippines
  • the People’s Liberation Army’s sponsorship of more than 2,500 scientists and engineers to study abroad, working with researchers and institutions across the globe, particularly in the Five Eyes countries
  • cyber-enabled covert foreign interference in 97 national elections between 2016 and 2019, which was overwhelmingly attributed to Russia or China
  • the need for the West to have a technology strategy: ‘China is not an enemy. They aren’t an adversary. They’re a competitor, and we need to ask ourselves, How do we compete with them?
  • a new Sino-Russian high-tech partnership, adapting to an era of great-power rivalry
  • China’s tech-enhanced authoritarianism expanding globally, creating a massive data-collection ecosystem (facial recognition, bulk data collection, tools for smart cities and artificial intelligence) as tools for shaping global governance
  • dealing with a more confrontational China and the risk that commentary on China’s influence and interference operations could affect Chinese-Australian communities adversely
  • Chinese government–linked information operations against the Hong Kong protests, using Western social media platforms
  • China’s use of talent-recruitment programs to gain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means, drawing in almost 60,000 overseas professionals between 2008 and 2016
  • a persistent, large-scale influence campaign linked to Chinese state actors on Twitter and Facebook
  • foreign interference and the CCP’s united front system: co-opting representatives of ethnic minority groups, religious movements, and business, science and political groups, which the party claimed to speak on behalf of and used to claim legitimacy
  • the Chinese ‘super-app’ WeChat, which had approximately 1.2 billion monthly users worldwide, including 100 million outside China, and extended China’s ‘techno-authoritarian reach into the lives of its citizens and non-citizens in the diaspora’ through ‘surveillance, censorship and propaganda’
  • China’s coercive diplomacy against foreign governments and companies, recording 152 cases of coercive diplomacy affecting 27 countries and the European Union over 10 years and a sharp escalation in these tactics from 2018
  • China’s central bank digital currency, which, if successful, could ‘create the world’s largest centralised repository of financial transactions data and … unprecedented opportunities for surveillance’
  • the fundamental changes Australia’s Chinese-language media landscape had undergone over two decades, at a cost to quality, freedom of speech, privacy and community representation. CCP influence ‘targets individual outlets while also manipulating market incentives through advertising, coercion and WeChat’.

In 2020, Hanson responded to criticism that ASPI’s research on China was ‘one-sided’ and ‘dystopian’. He noted that Australia had put lots of effort into understanding China’s economy, but other critical areas were ignored, such as technology transfer programs, united front activities, military modernisation and interference in diaspora communities:

ASPI has one of the largest concentrations of Chinese-language speakers in any think tank in the country. Their specialisations include China’s military, technology transfer, online censorship, smart cities, social credit and industrial espionage. Our China research runs across different thematic programs and, while it attracts attention, is still only a modest part of ASPI’s total research output.

Hanson said ASPI didn’t have an editorial line on China, but it did follow a very clear research method: original empirical work that, wherever possible, generated new data. Researchers had to trawl through masses of information in multiple languages over months and sometimes years in order to create new datasets:

This focus on empirical research is grounded in the idea that analysis informed by the hard work of empirical research is the most valuable contribution we can make to the policy debate. People don’t have to agree with our analysis, but it at least provides a factual basis for a debate.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.