The “Great Cannon” and China’s information arsenal

The following article was originally posted at The Pearl of Lao-tzu.

While classic censorship continues to be a vital part of the PRC information control repertoire, its relative importance is decreasing as the techniques deployed by the regime become increasingly sophisticated.

We have seen the rise of a new approach to internet management since the Hu Jintao administration’s Sixth Plenum in 2011. This new regime focuses on ”control and management” rather than outright suppression of independent voices.

Over the last few years, a ”soft” censorship had developed that allows criticism but silence collective expression and the formation of independent public opinon. The strength of this approach to information management lies in its subtlety; the spread and impact of a certain message is controlled without the need of direct censorship.

If my interpretation is correct, the management of the release and spread of Chai Jing’s Under the Dome was an impressive example of this new approach to information management.

The viral documentary was promoted by the official press and within a few days the video had 200 million hits. The Ministry of Science and Technology profited from the heightened public interest when it announced a five year air pollution control project and in a widely publicized speech Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress: “Environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts … We must fight it with all our might.”

However, Chai Jing’s documentary was soon shut down and further ”hype” of the topic was discouraged. This left many observers perplexed, but I would argue that their failure to understand the situation is simply a result of them being unable to think beyond the dichotomy of liberalization-censorship or civil society-state.

”Under the Dome” was actually a perfect example of how the Chinese information regime made use of a legitimate voice from civil society (民间) to advance its own environmental reform agenda; the ”answers” that are suggested in Chai Jing’s documentary are almost identical to the government’s. At the same time, independent, public debate on the matter was limited.

Chai Jing’s case can be compared to how U.S. Democrats and French Socialists tried to exploit the enormous success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to legitimate their politics in contrast to those of their opponents to the right, while completely avoiding any serious debate on inequality.

The overall approach of the new Chinese internet regime is thus one of guidance and containment rather than suppression, but it does not mean that brute force is not employed when necessary. One example is the ”seven baselines” for a clean Internet that were adopted at the China Internet Conference in August 2013 and followed by a campaign against influential and critical celebrities on China’s Weibo, the so-called ”Big V:s”.

Now it seems that the information control forces of the PRC have a new weapon in their arsenal: the ”Great Cannon” that was used for an attack on GitHub and

A recent research report suggests that the attack did not make use of the Great Firewall, as was initially assumed, but was carried out ”by a separate offensive system, with different capabilities and design, that [the authors of the article] term the “Great Cannon.”

The authors explain how this independent device hijacks traffic from individual IP addresses and is capable of arbitrarily replacing unencrypted content.

While the attack on GitHub was a simple DoS attack, the ”Great Cannon” potentially has the far more important capability to ”exploit by IP address”

A technically simple change in the Great Cannon’s configuration, switching to operating on traffic from a specific IP address rather than to a specific address, would allow its operator to deliver malware to targeted individuals who communicates with any Chinese server not employing cryptographic protections.  The GC operator first needs to discover the target’s IP address and identify a suitable exploit.  The operator then tasks the GC to intercept traffic from the target’s IP address, and replace certain responses with malicious content.  If the target ever made a single request to a server inside China not employing encryption (e.g., Baidu’s ad network), the GC could deliver a malicious payload to the target.  A target might not necessarily realize that their computer was communicating with a Chinese server, as a non-Chinese website located outside China could (for example) serve ads ultimately sourced from Chinese servers.

It should be clear to all that the Chinese information regime is evolving. To make sense of this evolution, the analysis and the terminology must evolve as well.

Puck Engman


Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and the factional threat

Följande inlägg publicerades ursprungligen på  bloggen The Pearl of Lao-tzu

The spectacular Bo Xilai case appears today as a prequel to the unprecedented campaign to curb corruption under Xi Jinping.

The scandal surrounding Bo, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, unfolded gradually over the course of two years. It became public on 6 February 2012, when Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun fled the city and sought brief refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he presented the staff with details regarding the murder of British citizen Neil Heywood, implicating Bo Xilai.

Six months later, Gu Kailai, an influential businesswoman married to Bo Xilai, was handed a suspended death sentence after having been found guilty of murdering Heywood through cyanide poisoning.

Shortly thereafter Wang Lijun himself was sentenced to 15 years in prison (and deprivation of his political rights) for power abuse, bribe taking, defection and ”bending the law for selfish ends.”

Following a protracted process Bo Xilai was finally put to trial in the fall of 2013. After finding him guilty on charges of corruption, taking bribes and abuse of power, the Intermediate People’s Court in Jinan sentenced Bo to life imprisonment.

While not unique, the Bo Xilai affair was highly significant. Not only because of the high standing Bo enjoyed within the CCP, but also due to the fact that the scandal took even the most experienced of specialists by complete surprise.

Up until Wang Linjun’s revelations, foreign diplomats and businessmen were competing to visit the rapidly developing metropolis of Chongqing and meet with its charismatic leader. Amongst the politicians, business leaders and diplomats coming from all over the world one can note, for example, the visit by Henry Kissinger, who attended a mass meeting as the special guest of Bo Xilai.

Bo’s Chongqing model – a policy of leaning to the left politically and socially, while encouraging foreign investment and economic development – enjoyed powerful support within the CCP as an alternative to general liberalization programmes promoted in places like Guangdong.

In October 2011, for example, the front page of the People’s Daily praised Chongqing for its achievements in constructing a socialist culture. Chinese top leaders – such as former Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo, the current Vice President of China Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping – payed visit to an exhibition in Chongqing dedicated to the campaign against organized crime led by Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun.

Zhou Yongkang, who was in charge of China’s law enforcement as head of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, was among the first party leaders to visit the city. Like so many other high officials, he was reportedly full of praise for the Chongqing model, suggesting that its recipe for reform ”should be emulated by all other places in China.”

This did not happen. Instead the Chongqing model was dismantled while Bo Xilai’s associates were either purged or converted to the new line.

Under the brief leadership of Zhang Dejiang, now the third ranking member of the Politburo’s Standing committee, the western metropolis was cleansed of Bo’s influence. In November 2012, Zhang felt confident enough to state that ”the Chongqing model does not exist.”

How could the Chongqing model go from being promoted on the first page of the People’s Daily to having its existence negated by one of the top-ranking official in China in just one year? Corruption and power abuse probably played a role, but the rapid reversal seems hard to explain without acknowledging the existence of strong, disparate interests within the party, what is usually referred to as ”factionalism” by China watchers.

As Alice Miller wrote recently, there are numerous examples of factionalism playing a decisive role in party politics since the founding of the CCP. In August 1959, for example, alleged members of an ”anti-party clique” were purged. They were accused of having pursued a ”right opportunist line” under the leadership of People’s Liberation Army Marshal Peng Dehuai and former CCP General Secretary Zhang Wentian. A couple of years later, Xi Zhongxun, father of Xi Jinping, was purged as a leading member of another anti-party clique.

Factionalism, as well as the purging of members of alleged cliques, surged during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The movement started in May 1966 with the purge of one gang of four, the PengLuoLuYang ”anti-party clique”, and ended in October 1976 with the purge of another, the ”counterrevolutionary clique” of Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen.

Immediately following the Cultural Revolution, the party made it its top priority to punish factional leaders. Core members of regional ”gangs of four” were dismissed from the party and sometimes criminally charged as responsible for ”beating, smashing and looting.” At the same time those who had earlier been persecuted as members of various ”counterrevolutionary cliques” were rehabilitated and put into work.

As Miller points out, references to factions largely disappeared from official discourse in the Reform Era:

Hu Yaobang’s demotion as party general secretary in January 1987, for example, was not accompanied by charges that he had formed a faction. Nor was Zhao Ziyang’s dismissal as party chief in the midst of the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong’s in 1995, or Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu’s in 2006.

To be sure, networks and groups with coinciding interests never disappeared from party politics, but these groups were not recognized as factions within the official discourse.

Today, however, in the aftermath of the Bo Xilai affair, the rhetorics used to denounce the Cultural Revolution seem to have made a comeback to explain the corruption, misconduct and power abuse that plagues the party today.

In the case of Bo Xilai, former Premier Wen Jiabao was one of the first officials to publicly suggest a link to the past. A month after the Wang Lijun incident, at a press conference in connection to the National People’s Congress in March 2012, the Premier warned that the Cultural Revolution was not necessarily gone forever:

Although our party has made resolutions on a number of historical issues, after the implementation of reform and opening up, the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and feudalism have not been completely eliminated.

As the economy developed, it has caused unfair distribution, the loss of credibility, corruption and other issues. I know that to solve these problems, it’s necessary to not only enter into economic reform but also political reform, especially reform of the Party and the state’s leadership system.

Reform has reached a critical stage. Without the success of political reform, economic reforms cannot be carried out. The results that we have achieved may be lost. A historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution may occur again. Each party member and cadre should feel a sense of urgency.

This ”sense of urgency” (not to say crisis) that Wen Jiabao felt was appropriate seems to have become one of the main characteristics of the Xi Jinping administration. Not only have long-time specialists of Chinese politics come to reevaluate the stability of party rule, the CCP seems to be thinking along the same lines.

Wang Qishan –  the ”devil” in charge of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – has ominously recommended Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856) to Chinese officials. In this classic work, the author argues that when a regime tries to reform itself to meet the demands of certain social groups this leads to a redistribution of power that might actually increase the risk of revolution. The implications for the Communist party are clear, its success in improving social and economical conditions may actually weaken the strength of its rule.

In this state of increasing anxiety, it is no wonder that the references to the Dark Ages of the People’s Republic of China, the ”ten years of domestic turmoil,” have become increasingly frequent.

Late last year, party officials attending a meeting preceded over by Xi Jinping were told that ”organizing cliques within the party to run personal businesses” was ”absolutely not tolerated.”

In January this was followed up by an article in Xinhua revealing the existence of three ”cliques”: the ”Shanxi clique”, the ”Secretary clique” and the ”Petroleum clique”. The ”Petroleum clique” consists of officials in the oil industry, where Zhou Yongkang started his career and eventually became the CEO of China’s biggest oil company. Xinhua also stated that when corrupt senior officials are taken down, ”gangs of officials with countless collusive interests” are revealed.

A few days later a commentary in the People’s Daily further clarified the connection between corruption and factionalism:

Some cliques of officials are in essence parasitic relationships of transferring interests, and turning public power into private goods,” the commentary said. “The violations of laws and discipline are shocking, and the repercussions threaten to bring ruin to the country and its people

While these commentaries only referred to Zhou Yongkang indirectly, a white paper released by the Supreme People’s Court in March is much clearer. In the report, the names of Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai appear together. The two of them are accused of having collaborated with ”other people” to ”trample on the rule of law, sabotage the unity of the party and engage in non-organizational political activities.”

While the term ”non-organizational political activities” (非组织政治活动) is new in itself, it is strongly reminiscent of post-Cultural Revolution calls to end factional and informal politics.

In an interview with Beijing Youth Daily, Zhang Deshui from Peking University went as far as to say that the report from the Supreme People’s Court implied that the accused had “done something like the Gang of Four” when they ”created small interest groups, attempted to gain power and influenced the political attitudes of the public.”

Everything suggests that Alice Miller is right when she concludes that the factional competition of today is less about the ”all-out free-for-all power struggle” of the Cultural Revolution and more about ”an interest-driven competition that plays out within the increasingly institutionalized structures and processes according to broadly accepted norms and codes.”

However, the returning references to factionalism in official channels reveal that, while the way factionalism is used might not be theoretically appropriate, the concept is well-suited to a political discourse that carries with it a warning of imminent crisis.

Puck Engman