PART ONE: A brief analysis of the People’s Republic of China’s Three Warfares, and how it conducts disinformation (DI) campaigns and media warfare

Lost amid endless speculation in social media about the outbreak of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a simple reality: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which runs the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is in Year 17 of its San Zhan, or “Three Warfares” strategy to gain long-term dominance in the world. China’s leadership has self identified public opinion and media warfare (its terms) as a key activities in the second of these three warfare areas. Those three areas are:

  1. Legal
  2. Public Opinion
  3. Psychological
A medical worker takes a swab sample from a resident to be tested for the CCP virus in Wuhan, China
on May 15, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images) This appears in The Epoch Times, Dec. 2, 2020

A critical component of the second area, public opinion, is Disinformation (DI). The PRC employs DI campaigns extensively in an effort, sometimes successful, to shape and mold public opinion across the globe in its favor. The truth is irrelevant in China. Social media is used as both a tool to keep the populace misinformed, to suppress opposition, and to shape internal opinion in a way deemed most beneficial to the CCP. Externally, the PRC employs a vast army of millions of social media campaigners and propagandists, some disguised as journalists working abroad, to tell its story.

Media in the U.S. and elsewhere has caught on to some aspects of this. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of San Diego concluded that the CCP puts out nearly 450 million fake social media posts a year.[1] Much to its credit, the New York Times has at times aggressively covered Chinese DI campaigns. The media outlet reported on this in August and September 2019 when Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube removed Chinese social media accounts that were linked to China, including taking action to eliminate 1,000 and suspend 200,000 more Twitter accounts. Ironically, China prohibits Twitter in its country but makes extensive use of Twitter in DI campaigns aimed at other countries and especially at Chinese living abroad. In Beijing alone, China has two million people working on propaganda and DI campaigns. “The end goal is to control the conversation,” Matt Schrader, a China analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, told the Times reporters.[2]

This is the first in a multi-part series about China and DI campaigns. Today’s portion provides important background and covers some of China’s practices prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. The next part will deal exclusively with the Coronavirus and how the CCP has responded to this crisis, lied about aspects of it, and attempted to propagandize it into pro-Chinese and anti-Western themes.


Stefan Halper is a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, where he was once Director of American Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies. There he lectured on latter 20th Century US foreign policy, China, and contemporary international security issues. Halper holds doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge. He is a Life Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Halper has served four American presidents in the White House and Department of State.[3]

More recently, Halper became entangled in the FBI’s “Operation Crossfire Hurricane” scandal, allegedly helping conduct government surveillance of the Trump campaign in 2016. While noteworthy, Halper’s involvement in these activities took place three years AFTER he had prepared and submitted a 559-page report, titled China: The Three Warfares for the Office of Net Assessment. 

What is the Office of Net Assessment? Created in the early 1970s, it is an independent organization within the Department of Defense and is charged with identifying emerging or future threats and opportunities for the United States.[4] Prior to 2013, Halper had produced two similar analyses for the Office of Net Assessment; The Iraq War in 2005 and The Afghan End Game in 2010.

A comprehensive study of China: The Three Warfares would turn anyone into an expert on China’s government, military and diplomacy. This work has six project advisors, three of them being retired U.S. Navy admirals. There are 11 Contributors, all field experts, whose papers and interviews are part of the overall project. There are about 850 footnotes to the main report, dozens of primary sources, and hundreds of open source materials and secondary sources (news reports, briefs) cited as well.

Here’s just one example: Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in India’s navy. One of the contributors to China: Three Warfares, Bhaskar wrote a paper appearing within the report titled “China’s Three Warfares Concept Related to India and the Indian Ocean Region.” In it, Bhaskar writes, “There is one suggestion that the Chinese have dug deep into their own historical records of military strategy, going back to Sun Tzu ( c. 540 BC) who laid great emphasis on the imperative of ‘winning without engaging in War.’”[5] Today Bhaskar is the director of Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based independent think tank.

Graphic depicting Century of Humiliation. Source:

Halper and his collaborators provide an important historical context behind China: Three Warfares. The report covers the Century of Humiliation, or the period in China’s history when Western powers, Russia and Japan all extracted concessions from an ever-weaker Chinese government. This began in the 19th Century, and continued into the 20th Century when China suffered greatly at the hands of Imperial Japan. Vestiges of this period exert a strong influence on the thinking of China’s leaders, who are concerned about cultural identity despite their nation’s burgeoning manufacturing base and economy. “Sweeping Western influence is not a new problem,” reads a 2011 opinion article in Xinhuanet, the official news agency of the PRC. “As an importer of cultural products, ideas and technologies since the 19th Century, China has every reason to worry about its cultural identity.”[6]

In more recent times, China believed that the United States and (to a lesser extent) NATO used propaganda and public opinion strategies to obtain widespread support for the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, for removing Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia in the late 1990s, and then in the second Persian Gulf War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in 2003. “Indeed, the ability of coalition forces to undermine popular support for the (removal of the)Milosevic and Saddam Hussein regimes, influence global views, and preserve domestic support are seen by the PRC as key factors in the outcome of each conflict,” writes Dean Cheng, Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.[7]


In his project, Halper traces the origins of San Zhan and the Three Warfares (TW) back to 2003, when the CCP published them as “political work regulations” for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Although the individual(s) in China who developed the strategy are not identified, writings about it clearly identify TW as asymmetrical and warlike in practice. Its purpose is to change the mindset of China’s political and military leaders away from conventional warfare, expanding areas of conflict to the political realm of opposing nations, to the manipulation of public opinion, and to legal systems as well.

One key aspect of this is a strong desire on the part of the PRC to improve its projection of soft power. Joseph Nye coined this term, defining it as like-minded cultural, ideological and institutional policies, in the Clinton administration.[8] Nye believed that soft power could help a nation, the U.S., shape the world. “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.” He argued, “if its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.” 

Cheng posits that China has been striving assiduously to counter an American advantage in global access and coverage. For example, in one article China’s propaganda guidelines call for it to seek news dominance (xinwen quan) and information dominance (xinxi quan) on a path resulting in psychological dominance (xinli quan).[9] To this end, in September 2011 the Chinese Foreign Ministry began offering press briefings daily, supplanting the old twice-a-week briefing frequency. China created a 24-hour English language global news service (CNC World English Channel), and expanded its state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) to operate on a more global level.[10]

China has also poured tremendous resources into social media and the internet as well (more about this in Part Two). Additionally, the development and expansion of Confucius Institutes, which have a purpose of promoting Chinese language training and also focus on providing information about China’ education, culture, economy and society, is another strategic effort aimed at soft power. There are more than 530 Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries on six continents as of 2019.

Within the PLA, there are four stated goals in the area of media warfare:

  1. Preserve friendly morale
  2. Generate public support at home and abroad
  3. Weaken an enemy’s will to fight
  4. Alter an enemy’s situational assessment.[11]

To accomplish these, Chinese strategists and tacticians follow “Four Pillars of Media Warfare.” Planners in the PLA pursue these four points:

  1. Top-down guidance: Media warfare is consistent with the larger national strategy, as outline by the senior leaders of the PRC and the CCP. Tacticians follow high-level guidance on both content and timing of any news.
  2. Pre-emption: The first to broadcast or release news on social media gains the advantage by dominating the message and better framing the debate, which then defines the parameters of subsequent coverage.
  3. Flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions: Operations remain flexible and adjustable given different political and military circumstances.
  4. “All available” resources: China combines peacetime and military operations to pursue civilian-military integration and local unity to leverage both its commercial and civilian assets (news organizations, broadcasting facilities, internet users) in a comprehensive and systematic campaign.[12]

Peter Mattis, who worked as an international affairs analyst for the U.S. and is now a Fellow in the China Program at the Jamestown Foundation, details the steps which China’s government and its PLA take in a crisis with respect to the U.S. They are:[13]

  1. Establish China’s version of the incident: Beijing will issue statements at or near the beginning of each crisis in order to establish a Chinese position on what happened.
  2. Statement of principles for resolution of an incident: Chinese officials will point to these at the start of any negotiations as setting parameters for discussions to follow. These are considered minimally-acceptable points which meet Beijing’s commitments to the Chinese public. This incorporates the TW concept, and are described for both foreign and domestic audiences.
  3. Shut down any unofficial but normal information channels: U.S. officials often complain that their Chinese counterparts will refuse any communication, including personal channels, once a crisis begins. That is because PRC leadership is establishing information control and dominance of the media and (if possible) social media to as to continuously frame and shape the ensuing debate.
  4. Emphasize Beijing’s commitment to the U.S.-China relationship: This is a version of the “blame game” which PRC will play by making the crisis a testing point of U.S. goodwill and future intentions towards China. Usually in the onset, Beijing will firmly express its own commitment to bilateral relations, implying that Washington does not take the relationship as seriously as does China. [14]


The Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, representatives of the FBI and the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, the MITRE Corp, Booz Allen Hamilton, and others have written an Analytic Exchange Program White Paper titled Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaigns. It was published in October 2019. [Email me at, and I’d be glad to share a copy with you.] A sentence of the executive summary reads,“….disinformation campaigns should be viewed as a whole-of-society problem requiring action by government stakeholders, commercial entities, media organizations, and other segments of a civil society.”[15] Another section says the following:

A targeted disinformation campaign … is more insidious than simply telling lies on the internet. One untrue meme or contrived story may be a single thread in a broader operation seeking to influence a target population through methods that violate democratic values, societal norms, and in some jurisdictions, the law.

A disinformation campaign occurs when a person, group of people, or entity (a “threat actor”) coordinate to distribute false or misleading information while concealing the true objectives of the campaign. The objectives of disinformation campaigns can be broad (e.g., sowing discord in a population) or targeted (e.g. propagating a counternarrative to domestic protests) and may employ all information types (disinformation, misinformation, malinformation, propaganda, and true information). The target of a disinformation campaign is the person or group the threat actor aims to influence in order to achieve the campaign’s objectives.

In the White Paper, AEP chronicled the PRC disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the protestors and the larger pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2019 as one of its two examples of disinformation campaigns. Citing The Guardian(UK) and the Washington Post, AEP pointed out how social media platforms removed or suspended more than 200,000 fraudulent accounts circulating false information.[16]

The New York Times reported that China’s strategy was to create an alternative version of events which it claimed would only lead to bloodshed and violence. China asserted that last year’s protests were not supported by Hong Kong residents and provoked by foreign agents. China’s goal is to undermine sympathy for the seven million residents of Hong Kong and for the protesters’ demands for greater freedoms. This stems from a Chinese government-written bill presented in spring 2019 that would have allowed residents accused of crimes to be sent for trial  to places with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty, mainly mainland China.[17]

As the protests continued throughout the summer of 2019, China ramped up a two-pronged DI campaigned aimed at internal and external audiences. The AEP White Paper pointed out that the “threat actor” originating this disinformation campaign was the Chinese government, and that the campaign established fake Facebook and Twitter profiles as Americans living in Nevada, Ohio and Texas. Additionally, the Chinese used their state-run media (China Daily, Xinhua News, CGTN) to place paid advertisements on Twitter and Facebook. The main purpose of the campaign was to discredit the pro-democracy movement. The campaign pushed narratives praising the police, and depicting the Hong Kong protestors as terrorists and cockroaches.[18]

As the protests escalated, police tactics turned more violent and China intensified an already-aggressive DI campaign aimed at both internal and external audiences. The internal communication has been especially vile and heinous. Here’s an example: Weibo, a Chinese-controlled social media service similar to Twitter, has posts calling for violent action against the protestors.

“Beating them to a pulp is not enough,”one person said about protesters on Tuesday, echoing an increasingly common sentiment on Weibo. “They must be beaten
to death. Just send a few tanks over to clean them up.”[19]

AEP’s White Paper cites the extensive use of bots which DI campaigners employ to greatly amplify their messages. A “bot” is a computer algorithm designed to execute online tasks autonomously and repetitively, simulating the behavior of human beings in social networks and interacting with social media users by sharing information and messages. According to one researcher, in 2017 there were 23 million bots on Twitter, 140 million bots on Facebook and 27 million bots on Instagram. About 5 to 8 percent of all social media accounts are NOT authentic but instead are bots. [20]

According to AEP, China’s government made extensive use of bots to repost and spread false narratives against the Hong Kong protestors.  It classifies “threat actors” as those who are originating the campaigns. If you hit “Share” or “Retweet” a fake story, AEP classifies you as an “Unwitting Agent” of a disinformation effort.[21]

Like their counterparts in Russia, Iran, and elsewhere, the Chinese propagandists and DI campaigners are adept at selecting words, pictures, and phrases designed to evoke emotions and to get you – and others – to “Share” their posts. Thus you might unknowingly help their efforts.

Governments, businesses small and large, and media conglomerates have all become intertwined economically with the PRC over the past 20 years. At the same time, China has greatly expanded its propaganda and DI campaign activity. Only after comprehending Three Warfares, San Zhan, and its ramifications can one reach logical conclusions with respect to how PRC has approached the Covid-19 outbreak. Details are coming in Part Two.


[1] Drew, Kevin “Social Media With Chinese Characteristics,” US News & World Report, June 2016, retrieved from

[2] Zhong, Raymond; Myers, Steven; and Wu, Jin “How China Unleashed Twitter Trolls to Discredit Hong Kong’s Protesters,” September 2019, retrieved from

[3]Halper, Stefan “China: The Three Warfares,” May 2013, Office of Net Assessment, retrieved from

[4] Gady, Franz-Stefan “The Future of Net Assessment at the Pentagon,” June 2015, The Diplomat, retrieved from

[5] Halper, op. cit., page 476

[6] Xinhuanet, “China’s Cultural Security Lies in Openness and Exchanges,” October 2011, retrieved from

[7] Cheng, Dean, “Winning Without Fighting: China’s Public Opinion Warfare and the Need for a Robust American Response,” p. 3, November 2012, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, p. 3, retrieved from

[8]  Li, Eric “The Rise and Fall of Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, August 2018, Retrieved from

[9] Cheng, op. cit., p. 7

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid, p. 4

[12] Ibid

[13] Mattis, Peter. ‘Out with the New, In with the Old: Interpreting China’s “New Type of International Relations”’. Jamestown Foundation, China Brief. Volume 13, Issue 9. April 25, 2013

[14] Ibid

[15] Analytic Exchange Program, Combatting Targeted Disinformation Campaign, October 2019, p. 2

[16] Ibid, p. 19

[17] Myers, Steven Lee and Mozur, Paul, “China is waging a disinformation war against Hong Kong protesters,” New York Times, August 18, 2019, retrieved from

[18] AEP, op. cit., pages 19-20

[19] Ibid

[20] Center for Information Technology and Society, “How is Fake News Spread? Bots, People like You, Trolls and Microtargeting,” U.C. Santa Barbara, retrieved from

[21] AEP, op. cit., page 21

Published by jkerezy

I'm an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies (MJS) at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, and have also had a "side job" as a high school speech and debate coach for the past 13 years. I also worked in journalism, public relations and marketing for many years before going into higher education. My professional email address is

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