China’s Cyber Command?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 15

Unveiling China's Cyber Command?

The development of China’s cyber warfare program has captured worldwide attention in recent years. While evolving doctrines and incidents of cyber intrusions with alleged links to the Chinese government have helped China watchers glean the development of China’s growing cyber warfare capabilities, far less certainty surrounds the command and control side of this enigmatic operation. This is partly because key tasks of China’s computer network operations and information warfare had been, until recently, decentralized in different departments in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Headquarters (i.e. the Third and Fourth Departments) and specialized bureaus located in the different military regions.

On July 19, the Peoples Liberation Army Daily (hereafter PLA Daily) reported that the PLA General Staff Department—the operational nerve center of the Chinese military supervised directly by the PLA’s Central Military Commission—held a ceremony to unveil what the Chinese-media called the country’s first "cyber base" (Global Times, July 22). The establishment of the "Information Security Base" (xinxi baozhang jidi), which is headquartered under the PLA General Staff Department, may serve as the PLA’s cyber command. The "base" is reportedly tasked with the mission to address potential cyber threats and to safeguard China’s national security. According to Chinese-media reports, the establishment of the cyber base was a strategic move ordered by President Hu Jintao to handle cyber threats as China enters the information age, and to strengthen the nation’s cyber-infrastructure (PLA Daily, July 20; China Times, July 20; Global Times, July 22).

According to a report in the Global Times, an offshoot of the party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, an anonymous officer in the General Staff Department said that, "The setup of the base just means that our army is strengthening its capacity and is developing potential military officers to tackle information-based warfare." Other tasks will include online information collection and the safeguarding of confidential military information by "build[ing] up walls." The officer emphasized that, "It is a ‘defensive’ base for information security, not an offensive headquarters for cyber war" (Global Times, July 22).

The stated missions of the new cyber base appear to complement the PLA’s information warfare (IW) units, which the PLA has been developing since at least 2003. The PLA’s IW strategy was largely spearheaded by Major General Dai Qingmin, then-director of the PLA’s electronic warfare department (Fourth Department), who advocated a comprehensive information warfare effort (Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2009).

The high echelon of military officers from the General Staff Department represented at the unveiling ceremony seem to also reflect the importance that the leadership attaches to this newly minted program. Indeed, the launch ceremony, which was held in Beijing, was chaired by PLA Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde and attended by other top brass of the PLA General Staff Department. The entourage included four deputy chief of staffs: General Zhang Qinsheng, General Ma Xiaotian, Vice-Admiral Sun Jianguo, General Hou Shusen; and the two assistant chief of staffs: Major General  Qi Jianguo, Major-General Chen Yong; as well as leaders from the other three General Departments—General Political Department, General Logistics Department and General Armament Department (PLA Daily, July 20).

One attendee worth pointing out is Deputy Chief of Staff General Zhang Qinsheng (1948 – ), who is a member of the 17th CCP Central Committee and currently the commander of the Guangzhou Military Region. General Zhang previously served as director of the military training department of the Beijing Military Region, and deputy director of the military training department of the General Staff Headquarters. While at the National Defense University, he served as director of the Campaign Teaching and Research Office, dean of studies, and director of the operations department of the General Staff Department. During his career, Zhang has built a reputation as being an expert on "informationized warfare" and conducted research on network command systems. In December 2004, then-Major General Zhang was elevated to chief of staff assistant of General Staff Department, and was promoted to vice chief of staff in December 2006. In 2007, he was appointed commander of Guangzhou Military Region. Zhang was recently elevated to the rank of general by President Hu in mid-July 2010 (Xinhua News Agency, July 20).

It is important, however, to note that the line between offensive and defensive capabilities in computer network operations is murky at best. Even Chinese experts acknowledge this gray area. In reference to the establishment of the U.S. cyber command, Professor Meng Xiangqing from the PLA’s National Defense University Institute for Strategic Studies stated:

“It is really hard to distinguish attacks and defenses in Internet war. In traditional wars, there was a definite boundary between attacks and defenses. However, in the war of internet, it was hard to define whether your action was an attack or a defense. If you claim to fight against hacker attack, it is hard to say that you are just defending yourself." Meng added, "To fight against a hacker attack, you might attack other Internet nodes, which leads to the Internet paralysis in other countries and regions. Moreover, the Internet is a virtual world. It is hard to say that acquiring information from other countries is a defense” (People’s Daily Online, May 25).

At the very least, the establishment of the cyber base highlights the rise of China’s cyber warfare program. Moreover, the promotion of experts in informationized warfare to positions of prominence in China’s military ranks, namely General Zhang, who took over as deputy chief of staff with the portfolio for intelligence after General Xiong Guangkai retired, may signal the increasing influence of the cyber dimensions in Chinese decision-making on military strategy.
Furthermore, the establishment of a cyber base within China’s military complex shed light on the direction of China’s military modernization. More specifically, the establishment of the base indicates that the PLA’s commitment to cyber security is increasing and its role as a major cyber power will only continue to grow in the foreseeable future. With the emergence of a centralized, coordinated effort to strengthen its cyber networks, the presence of a command center in top decision-making bureaucracies focused on cyber security lends credence to the concerted push undertaken by the Chinese leadership to develop its cyber capabilities.