• 21 February, 2024
Geopolitics & National Security
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China’s 2024 Threat To Indian Democracy

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Sun, 04 Jun 2023   |  Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Indian state of Karnataka went to elections on May 2023. It was surprising to note how the Chinese media gave coverage to a state election in India, a phenomenon that was not seen before. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) published articles with heading like “What Congress’ Win over Modi’s BJP in Karnataka Means for India’s 2024 Election,” and “Bye-bye Modi? Ruling BJP voted out in key Indian state ahead of national vote.”

This gives a clear indication that China and many other nations who do not find Indian Prime Minister Modi’s government suitable for their agenda would undertake steps to either unseat him or weaken his position so that he cannot take hard decisions. Fair and free elections are the hallmark of any democracy. The interference from these external forces is a clear and imminent threat to national security.

The Old Methods

China has been funding terrorists and Maoists in India. Now, the same secret funds could be diverted to a few suitable candidates who it thinks would toe its line if elected. After all, China is accused of funding 11 Canadian candidates in the 2019 federal elections through the Toronto consulate.

There are 174 Chinese companies registered in India. Funding through them could be one of the easiest ways to influence election results in India. After all, the track record of most of these companies hasn’t been optimum in India.

In July 2022 the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raided over 44 places across the country in a money-laundering investigation against Chinese smartphone manufacturers Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, and their distributors. During these raids, a fraud of ₹6500 crore was unearthed.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) modules based in Nepal are another prominent method of transferring illegal money to India. The 1770 km unfenced Indo-Nepal border is porous, poorly guarded, and most suitable for illicit trade like transferring fake or real currency. The Nepal modules connect with close and regular connections based in border areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Money is physically smuggled to these entities leaving no electronic trail. Was the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) withdrawal of ₹2000 currency notes to stem these operations? Only the Indian government can answer that question.

Hawala is another prominent method to deal with illicit money transactions. The Middle East and especially Dubai is a prominent player in Hawala transactions. Routes taken from the Middle East are mostly via Kerala and sometimes Nepal. As per an estimate, a decade ago Indian exchequer was losing over ₹10 lakh crore every year due to Hawala.

Most Effective: Students, Academia, And Influencers

Every revolution, mass movement, and elections have had students at the forefront. They have energy, collectivism, and a malleable persona. Teachers and social media influencers have the maximum impact on shaping the thought processes of these students.

Even in India, most universities are left-leaning with many academia as Communist Party of China (CCP) sympathizers. Their views and guidance have an immense effect on students’ malleable minds.

China also hires social media influencers on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. With smartphones in hand, students spend hours every day on these platforms. As per a study in 2021, students 13-19 years of age make up 31 percent of social media users in India. These numbers could be much higher today.

CCP understood the importance and threat of social media very early on. They also understood the student power during the 4th of June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. That is the reason China banned all the external social media platforms mentioned above and created its sinicized version. Now whole nation, including students consumes the same propaganda that CCP peddles. A detailed study is available in my previous article.

Chinese Equivalent of Free World Social Media

The New Method

What money cannot achieve, sometimes technology could do that for you. The new age technology is scary and the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) makes it scarier. How does AI work? AI in its simplest form is used to manipulate public opinion. CCP uses massive swarms of political bots to spread propaganda and fake news. The on-site agents may or may not have started sectarian, religious, or political unrest but these bots which are autonomous accounts jump in at an opportune time. They are programmed in the political and religious arena to spread one-sided political or religious messages, creating the illusion of public support.

Typically disguised as ordinary human accounts, bots have been responsible for spreading misinformation and contributing to an acrimonious political climate on sites like Twitter and Facebook in almost every Indian state but especially in North East India, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Farmers’ protests, anti-CAA protests, the US BLM, and Capitol protests are some of the most glaring examples.

Modus operandi to disrupt the election process:

  • Attacking voters from the opposing camp on social media and discouraging them from going to the voting booth
  • Infiltrate the online spaces used by targeted campaigners to spread highly automated content
  • Generate a massive storm of messages that would choke off opposing messages and thereby support the desired candidate’s campaign
  • As per reports, similar techniques were used to make Donald Trump look good in the 2016 presidential elections and bad in the 2020 elections
  • Similar techniques were used by bots to make #MacronLeaks viral on social media just days before the French presidential election. The real information was mixed with falsified reports, to build a narrative that Emmanuel Macron was a fraud and a hypocrite.

However, with big data and machine learning techniques, the whole game plan has moved to the next level. The highly sophisticated micro-targeting operation using these advanced technologies could give mind-boggling results in influencing people.

Smartphone Penetration in India and Chinese Companies’ Dominance

As per Statista.com India already has one billion smartphone users in 2023. According to a report by Counterpoint Research, 79% of India’s smartphone market share was dominated by Chinese smartphone makers in June 2022. Chinese app dominance has been shattered after the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) misadventure in Galwan. In the pre-June 2020 period, China commanded a whopping 50 percent market share of the Indian app market. Today that figure lingers around 29 percent.

As per an IB Times report, China has stolen the personal information of 80% of Americans. The methods used to steal data, include hacking healthcare companies and technology, such as smart homes, sensors, and 5G networks. A similar pattern emerged in India when China-backed hackers infiltrated the Aadhaar database and stole data from 1.1 billion Indian citizens including names, addresses, photos, phone numbers, email IDs, and biometric data in 2018. A study conducted by Haoyu Liu (University of Edinburgh), Douglas Leith (Trinity College Dublin), and Paul Patras (University of Edinburgh) found that Chinese smartphones pose a serious threat to personal data.

Keeping China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law in mind, the Indian telecom ministry granted permission to a dozen firms – including Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung’s network unit to conduct 5G technology trials, however, Chinese Huawei and ZTE were kept out.

The Chinese laws state — “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law. The state protects any individual and organization that aids it.” In simple terms, every Chinese company is forced to share data with CCP and spy for the nation.

One must wonder, what would China do with such a huge database. Why are these details important? These details showcase how China is sucking out valuable data from Indian citizens’ phones and personal electronic devices (PED). Data is the new oil. Without data, AI has no power. Besides commercial use to study consumer buying patterns, data has a lot to offer, and in the modern era that data could be used to manipulate people’s thought processes and decision-making. And that’s where it threatens Indian democracy.

The Assault on Democracy

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once said — “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Well, AI is making Joseph Goebbels’ job easy. The collected data is further updated with legitimate or illegitimate surveys on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.

AI facilitates very precise audience targeting which is crucial in political campaigns. Utilizing all the data, AI identifies hardcore supporters of a particular candidate. Those supporters are chucked out of the system as CCP doesn’t want to waste money on those who already support or oppose a particular candidate. Even after that, a substantial number is left who are swing voters and need a push. These voters are divided based on caste, religion, age, and social standing. They are further divided based on their surfing habits, and what kind of videos, news, or messages they are forwarding or spend time watching.

The advancement in AI is mind-boggling. The data is harvested to better understand the personalities of potential voters and build a psychological profile to target voters in a more precise manner. Tailormade texts, memes, and videos are sent to each individual through WhatsApp and other social media platforms. By analyzing each locality’s data in real-time, AI enables campaigners to go after specific voting areas prepared with the burning issues to either incite them or make promises.

But the biggest damage CCP would do to a democratic process is through deep fake videos, audio, and pictures. One of the most scarily convincing deepfakes is this Morgan Freeman deepfake. The Dutch deepfake YouTube Channel Diep Nep first shared the video last year. There is no explanation required. Watch this deepfake and imagine what is in store for less informed people, in the coming days:

Conclusion

Even if these methods are not effective today, that day is not far away when the Chinese methods would be so convincing that voters would not be able to distinguish between real and fake. The worst scenario for any nation would be when China tries to get an “agent” elected to a democratic parliament.

China has usually seen India as a secondary threat compared to the United States and Japan. However, India’s stand during the 2017 Doklam stand-off, Galwan and Tawang intrusions, rejection of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and active participation in Quad have changed that belief in Chinese strategic circles. China today sees India as a greater threat. “Containing India” has become a buzzword in these circles.

The time is ripe for China to weaponize its control over Indian data. India’s legislation dealing with all things online is — the Information Technology Act 2000. It is not adequately built to deal with new and emerging threats and breaches such as election interference through social media. India’s Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 2022 also lingers on. This lackadaisical approach could cost India and Indian democracy dearly.


Author
A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.

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POST COMMENTS (11)

Dhiren - a fellow traveller

Jun 12, 2023
This time I am feeling writing it in Hindi... फुलप्रूफ सीमा सुरक्षा एलएसी पर रणनीतिक परियोजनाएं शीघ्र पूरी करें ऐसे वक्त में जब साम्राज्यवादी चीन गाहे-बगाहे भारतीय संप्रभुता को चुनौती देता रहता है वास्तविक नियंत्रण रेखा यानी एलएसी पर रक्षा तैयारियों को तेजी से पूरा करने की जरूरत है। इस दिशा में भारतीय सीमा सड़क संगठन को काराकोरम में 17,800 फुट ऊंचाई पर स्थित सासेर दर्रे के पास सामरिक महत्व की चार किलोमीटर लंबी सड़क बनानी होगी जो 56 किमी लंबी सैन्य उपयोग वाली महत्वाकांक्षी सड़क का हिस्सा होनी चाहिए। दरअसल, इस मार्ग को उत्तरी लद्दाख में सामरिक दृष्टि से बेहद महत्वपूर्ण देपसांग और दौलत बेग ओल्डी तक पहुंचने के वैकल्पिक मार्ग के रूप में देखा जा सकता है। भारत इस बात को नजरअंदाज नहीं कर सकता कि चीन सेना को शीघ्र एलएसी तक पहुंचाने के मकसद से अपने क्षेत्र में बड़े पैमाने पर सड़कों व पुलों का निर्माण कर रहा है। निस्संदेह जरूरी हो जाता है कि वास्तविक नियंत्रण रेखा से लगे इलाकों में सड़कें व अन्य बुनियादी ढांचा परियोजनाएं निर्धारित समय अवधि में पूरी कर ली जाएं। ऐसे ही कदम देश के अन्य राज्यों से लगती चीन की सीमा पर भी उठाये जाएं। खासकर अरुणाचल में बनायी जा रही रणनीतिक महत्व की सेला सुरंग के काम को जल्द पूरा किया जाये। इस सुरंग के बनने के बाद अरुणाचल प्रदेश के सीमावर्ती तवांग जिले में सेना की आवाजाही हर मौसम में सुनिश्चित हो सकेगी। इन परियोजनाओं के यथाशीघ्र पूरा होने से न केवल सेना व सशस्त्र बलों को लाभ होगा बल्कि स्थानीय लोगों की आवाजाही भी आसान हो सकेगी क्योंकि स्थानीय लोग ही सेना व खुफिया एजेंसियों के लिये आंख व कान का काम करते हैं। यही वजह है कि अरुणाचल के सीमावर्ती इलाकों में वाइब्रेंट विलेज कार्यक्रम को गति दी जा रही है, ताकि संवेदनशील सीमावर्ती इलाकों में स्थानीय लोगों की सक्रियता बनी रहे। अरुणाचल प्रदेश, सिक्किम, उत्तराखंड व हिमाचल प्रदेश में ऐसे तीन गांवों की पहचान हो चाहिए जो इस व्यापक योजना के क्रम में हों।

Sundararaman Ramanathan

Jun 07, 2023
Very in depth analysis of the prevailing situation and it is much note worthy for appropriate actions to blunt the dragons.

Gladiator

Jun 05, 2023
1. First Hinduism was under threat, so Vote for Modi. Now India is under threat so Vote for Modi. The idea of India is bigger than BJP. it's 1.3 Billion people backed by 1.4 million strong armed forces with a 3 Trillion $ economy to draw from. 2. If the threat of Funding from Chinese companies acting as a front for Anti - India activities is so real, how come Gujarat (home state of Ironman) is leading the pack in allowing more and more Chinese investments ? 3. Why would China want to change a Govt who ceded Depsang Plains without firing a shot, without even launching an International diplomatic offensive and tgen allowed Trade with China to balloon further. Add to that the climbdown from Kailash Ranges (our only bargaining chip) with nothing in return from PLA !! It doesn't get better than this. The Political Party at the Centre is emasculating the Armed Forces from the day they assumed power. How are they different from Congress ?

Aninda Mukherjee

Jun 05, 2023
Incisive, like all the articles by the author. His deep knowledge of the environment is evident

GP Singh

Jun 05, 2023
Very well written.

GP Singh

Jun 05, 2023
Well researched and nicely presented.

narendra

Jun 04, 2023
Reminds me The Netflix web series..The Blacklist. A drama but idea and story line very close to geo poliitcal reality. if one see the world through 'The Raymond Reddington lens' surely understood the conspiracy behind.

Subrata Bose

Jun 04, 2023
It is strange but true, foreign interference and funding in domestic politics has always been there and will continue. The scale in 2024 is likely to be greater. one will have to brace up to see many such interesting developments as brought out in the article. A well and timely warning to the people to watch out and read between the lines into every social media posts, media reports, incidents or flare-ups.

Thiagarajan Narayanan

Jun 04, 2023
Very scary to imagine what could be in store for us in 2024! Hopefully, our Govt machinery is capable of blocking unwanted or false propaganda among the Indian populace by our adversaries. The threat has been nicely analysed & repercussions brought out in a lucid manner by the author. I am sure the Government machinery would take cognizance & act proactively. Thanks for sharing👌👌👌👏👏👏

Rajesh Dhawan

Jun 04, 2023
Once again very good articulated with good piece of information and clearly informing the threat from China in another area. I am happy to note that India is also giving befitting reply to China though they are not as big as China is. This period upto 2024 is very vulnerable to Indian politics and may be hampered by many rivals sitting outside and supporting Jaichand in India. Overall good reading.

Deovrat Pagay

Jun 04, 2023
According to Morgan Stanley, India will contribute 15% of the world’s GDP. In the Modi regime, India has progressed by leaps and bounds. But there are areas which need to be addressed in the technology domain. India has to make sustained efforts in this field to face the threat from China. AI and the EM spectrum are the gamechangers. Strategy, Technology & Diplomacy need a strong boost, the sooner the better.

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