The cyber domain is an increasingly critical factor in China’s pursuit of strength through modernisation, and of protection from perceived threats.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a China that had become isolated, complacent and self-referential was subjected to a rude awakening at the hands of Western powers imbued with a sense of cultural and moral superiority that mirrored the country’s own. The resulting struggle for modernisation, and for a new identity that enabled China to retain a measure of cultural self-respect while becoming economically and technically competitive with the West, has been prolonged and painful. The lesson China’s Communist leadership has drawn from this experience is stark and uncompromising: a state that is weak will be subjected to bullying and humiliation. And China’s leaders are determined above all else to ensure that the country is never again humiliated. At the same time, the rise of the West and the decline of China fits into the conceptual framework of history as a cycle expressed in the opening line of the classic Ming dynasty novel Sanguo Yanyi (Romance of Three Kingdoms): ‘it is said that when the state has long been united it is bound to become divided; and having long been divided is bound to become reunited.’1 Within that framework, China’s time has come (again) and the West’s is in the process of waning. This may seem a simplistic notion, and there are many Chinese scholars who would dismiss it. But texts such as Sanguo Yanyi have shaped the collective Chinese psyche in much the same way that the Bible and the works of Shakespeare have shaped the thinking of the Anglophone world, and their impact cannot be brushed aside lightly. 

One concomitant of China’s sense of humiliation is a strongly held perception that the West has sought to deny the country access to much science and technology to preserve for itself a clear strategic advantage. This view combines with a conviction that the West’s agenda is intrinsically hostile to communism, as evidenced by the triumphalism that attended the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union. While China’s leaders harboured no illusions about the shortcomings of the Soviet system, they viewed the confusion and economic collapse that attended its downfall, and the consequent emergence of the United States as the unchallenged global superpower, as inherently undesirable and strategically destabilising. And they feared, as they still do, that they would be the West’s next target.

Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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China’s Cyber Power

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