Tag Archives: PLA

Chinese Evaluations of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pt. 2

This article originally featured in The Naval War College Review in 2008 and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. Read Part One of the republication here.

By Gabriel Collins, Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray

Sensors, Systems, Research, Development, and Training

American efforts at exploiting advancements in commercial off-the-shelf technology have received attention. One article observes that “the updated (COTS) CCS MK II [fire control] system is not only used on the Los Angeles and Ohio classes, but is also used on the new Seawolf and Virginia class submarines”;44 another points out that “92% of the hardware and 90% of the software used in non-publicly available projects in fact come from popular commercially available technologies.”45 China’s intense interest in the U.S. Navy’s use of COTS may stem in part from Beijing’s effort to develop a world-class commercial information technology industry and to incorporate its products into the PLA.

Chinese analysts also monitor American submarine sensor development. One article notes, “At present, the U.S. is the world leader in developing periscope technology and using it on its submarines.”46 U.S. efforts to bolster the submarine force’s mine warfare capabilities receive particular attention.47 Moves to develop and acquire the Long Term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) have been noted, with one researcher stating that “the U.S. is now buying 8 long-range mine scouting systems to be put on the Los Angeles and Virginia class nuclear attack submarines.”48

Chinese observers pay fairly close attention to American submarine-related research and development efforts. For example, websites on Chinese naval matters frequently report on the awarding of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Office of Naval Research (ONR) contracts.49 Chinese journals take advantage of these announcements and also scour the U.S. open press for sources that can be exploited. For example, a rather lengthy article in the June 2002 issue of 现代舰船 (Modern Ships) reprinted the “Submarine of the Future” briefing slides (complete with a logo in the upper left-hand corner of each) generated by the DARPA-sponsored, Lockheed Martin–led industrial consortium “TEAM 2020.” These slides depict futuristic hull forms, sonar configurations, propulsors, weapons storage ideas, interfaces for unmanned underwater vehicles, and other elements of advanced submarine designs and concepts.50 It seems that little, if any, publicly released information regarding U.S. submarine-related research and development escapes the attention of Chinese analysts.

In keeping with the technological dynamism of U.S. platforms and their constant improvement, Chinese analysts also credit the American submarine force with an extremely rigorous selection and training process for commanding officers. In a coauthored article in Modern Navy, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a PLA expert on the United States and former naval attaché in Washington, emphasizes that “the U.S. Navy’s selection process for the commanding officers of nuclear submarines is very strict.” Yang details the numerous education and training programs that successful candidates must attend, as well as the periodic qualifying tests they must undergo. A major emphasis of his article is the extent to which submarine commanders must periodically update their “specialized [technical] knowledge.”51

Historical Issues

Although China is emerging as a submarine power, its submarine force, and indeed its navy overall, generally lacks blue-water experience, to say nothing of a combat history. Of course, this paucity of experience stands in stark contrast to the U.S. submarine force, and PLA Navy analysts are acutely aware of that disparity. In fact, Chinese naval analysts have expressed particular admiration for the record of American submarines in World War II, pointing out that “the U.S. submarine force had the fewest losses” of any major submarine force “but had high combat effectiveness. According to statistics, the U.S. submarine force destroyed 1,314 enemy ships during the war.”52 Moreover, Chinese sources indicate an appreciation for the accumulated knowledge that the U.S. Navy has achieved through decades of intense submarine operations. Another Chinese source observes: “The U.S. is a country with 100 years of experience in building submarines, and with so many years of experience the USN constantly emphasizes the ability of a submarine to take punishment [and survive].”53

While there are numerous Chinese writings on the U.S. Navy’s submarine force’s campaign against Japan, this article focuses on the Chinese perceptions of American submarine operations during the Cold War. Some of the observations made in this context may explain aspects of contemporary PLA Navy submarine doctrine. For example, an article in Modern Ships relates an anecdote of a “Soviet Type 627 [known in the West as “November”] nuclear attack submarine [that] once went all out in a race with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, revealing the Soviet attack submarine’s capabilities. [This revelation] apparently has had a major impact on the development of a new class of American submarines.”54 This appraisal of the peacetime interaction between the two navies may suggest that overly aggressive tactics employed by the Soviet Navy yielded too much information to the U.S. Navy. In general, it is quite clear that Chinese sources understand that a “main mission of [U.S.] nuclear attack submarines [during the Cold War] was to deal with the Soviet Navy’s SSBNs.”55

With respect to the Cold War at sea, one Chinese book published in 2006 is worthy of particular note.56 The translation of a Russian book, Secrets of Cold War Undersea Espionage, states that “U.S. nuclear and conventional submarines would often lurk along the routes of Soviet warships, and even within Soviet territorial waters, conducting intelligence activities.”57 It is noted that “the SOSUS [Sound Surveillance] system substantially helped the U.S. to cope with the capabilities of the Soviet submarine force.”58 The subject of acoustic signatures is also raised: “In the ocean, there are simply too many sources of noise. . . . In order to cope with this problem, the U.S. decided to build an acoustic signature catalogue (resembling a fingerprint) for Soviet submarines.”59

Chinese ASW and the U.S. Navy Submarine Force

When considering Chinese views of the American submarine force, it is certainly relevant to consider how China appraises its own antisubmarine warfare forces. Generally, China considers its ASW forces to be weak. One Chinese naval analyst observes: “[Chinese] people are focused on China’s submarine force (both conventional and nuclear) development, but often neglect the threat we face from [U.S. Navy] submarines.”60 It is, moreover, suggested that “there is still a relatively large gap between [China’s] ASW technology level and that of the world’s advanced level.”61 In appraising the ASW capabilities of its own surface forces, another naval analyst notes, “Across the world, most naval ships are now equipped with towed array sonars, which has increased their ASW capabilities, but most of our ships only have hull mounted sonars.”62 Finally, there is a concern that these antisubmarine assets are themselves highly vulnerable: “Submarines can carry out ferocious missile attacks from tens or even 100–200km ranges, causing the submarine hunting vessels to become the hunted targets.”63

Chinese aerial ASW is also highlighted as a particular weakness. One Chinese analyst judges that the Z-9 helicopter lacks adequate range and internal space for the ASW mission.64 A second argues that while the Z-8 has better range and capacity, it is too big for most surface combatants to carry and chronic engine troubles have limited production.65 The Russian-import Ka-28 ASW helicopter is reported to be capable but few in numbers.66 As for Chinese maritime patrol aircraft, some designs have apparently been developed, including a variant of the Y-7 Fearless Albatross, but the outlook is said to remain bleak.67 Thus, one evaluation of Chinese aerial ASW concludes, “Our country at the present stage does not have an ASW maritime patrol aircraft . . . but the number of submarines in our peripheral seas is increasing, and their technological sophistication is also increasing. This contradiction is becoming more obvious every day, creating a grim situation.”68

In Chinese discussions of Russian ASW systems, there is a pointed recognition that the Soviets leaned heavily toward the use of tactical nuclear weapons (e.g., nuclear depth charges and torpedoes) in ASW operations.69 Tactical nuclear weapons are also mentioned in the context of mine warfare. An article in the July 2006 issue of Modern Navy, in discussing possible PLA Navy use of sea mines, suggests the potential combat value of nuclear-armed versions.70 It will be important to watch closely for any sign of Chinese efforts in this direction.

While the overall impression is that of Chinese ASW weakness, there is one notable exception. Significant prioritization appears to be given to the use of sea mines for the antisubmarine mission, as if to produce a “poor man’s ASW capability.”71 One discussion explains, “Because of a tremendous change in the maritime strategic environment, since the early 1990s the PLA has made mobile ASW sea mines a focal point of weapons development.” The analysis continues, “[China] is energetically undertaking the research mission [of] using [mobile ASW sea mines] against U.S. nuclear submarines.”72 The same discussion also hints at a review possible PLA Navy ASW role: “The major mission of self-guided sea mines is to isolate American nuclear submarines outside the First Island Chain.”73

It is noteworthy for the future development of Chinese antisubmarine warfare that hydroacoustics has been called a “key point” technology for state investment.74 The conventional wisdom has long been that the Chinese submarine force is focused entirely on the anti-surface ship mission. This assumption may have become outdated, perhaps especially after the PLA Navy received the last of eight new Kilo-class diesel submarines (and accompanying weaponry) from Russia in 2006. According to Professor Li Daguang of China National Defense University, these new Kilos have four missions: to blockade Taiwan, threaten carrier battle groups, employ land-attack cruise missiles as a “strategic weapon,” and “form an underwater threat to the U.S. nuclear submarine force.”75 There is also preliminary evidence that China is moving toward deploying antisubmarine rocket weapons on its newest surface combatants.76 This system is no “silver bullet,” as the Chinese would still have severe, perhaps insurmountable, targeting and cueing problems, but successful acquisition and deployment of ASROCs would extend the engagement range of Chinese ASW weapons significantly. It is also worth noting that Chinese sources discuss “many openly published dissertations concerning underwater targeting for a homing depth charge.”77

To reverse the equation: How do Chinese naval analysts appraise American ASW, and in particular the submarine force’s part in it? Clearly, the PLA Navy understands the overall centrality of SSNs in U.S. antisubmarine warfare. Thus an article in Modern Navy states: “The nuclear attack submarine . . . is the most effective tool for ASW.”78 However, some PLA Navy observers appear rather unimpressed by American efforts in ASW. The same official Chinese Navy journal observes: “The U.S. Navy actually has not had sufficient exercises in the [ASW arena] and also lacks experience.”79 In the same article, it is likewise noted that “conducting ASW in the littorals represents a special difficulty for the USN” and that “the combat advantage of the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine force in the littoral areas is far from obvious.”80 On this note, Campaign Theory Study Guide, a 2002 textbook written by China National Defense University scholars that draws on a variety of high-quality doctrinal publications, emphasizes that “nuclear powered attack submarines have difficulty operating in close proximity to shore due to natural conditions.”81 Another Chinese naval analysis suggests that “up to 2005, the USN has altogether 350 ASW platforms, just 11% of the number of [ASW] platforms it fielded in 1945. Moreover, many of these current naval and air platforms are not specialized for ASW, but more often are multi-mission platforms.”82 This quantitative comparison across historical periods is crude in some ways, but there is no denying that inherent physical principles combined with the vast geographical area of the Pacific Ocean will likely keep ASW an asset-intensive mission, even in the age of “net-centric warfare.”

The U.S. Navy Submarine Force-Level Trajectory

Chinese discussions of the American submarine force focus heavily on the continuing decline in its size. As one article from a People’s Republic of China (PRC) naval interest publication states, “The decline of U.S. submarine strength is inevitable.”83 Indeed, that a wide variety of Chinese naval sources share this evaluation suggests that this “decline” now passes for conventional wisdom within the PLA Navy. The Chinese naval community is likely paying close attention to internal U.S. debates, knowing that investments made (or forgone) today in submarine fleet modernization shape the future fleet.

Some Chinese assessments of the Seawolf program appear to point out indirectly the internal political tensions that hold down American submarine build rates now and perhaps in the future. One volume notes: “Although the Sea Wolf– class SSN gathers the era’s most advanced technology in a single hull, and possesses beyond-first-class performance, the appraisals of ‘Sea Wolf’ by American public figures from all walks of life differ, with a roughly half-and-half split between praise and condemnation.”84

Taking the long view, Chinese naval strategists recognize that force levels have dropped drastically from Cold War levels. One source observes, “Since 1989, the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine [force] has been reduced by half.”85 A more recent Chinese naval press article estimates that “[U.S.] nuclear attack submarines will decline in number by close to 40%, eventually reaching 30 boats.”86 This calculation is roughly consistent with a projection in Modern Navy that anticipated a sustained build rate of one boat per year.87 Rear Admiral Yang Yi, writing in 2006 on the future size of the American submarine force, quoted one American analysis as follows: “China already exceeds [U.S. submarine production] five times over. . . . 18 [USN] submarines against 75 or more Chinese navy submarines is obviously not encouraging [from the U.S. perspective].”88

A Reputation for Mastery?

This article demonstrates that Chinese strategists are keenly interested in the U.S. Navy’s submarine force. Thousands of articles have reviewed various aspects of American submarine capabilities, operations, and developmental trends. There is clear evidence that Chinese naval analysts have enormous respect for U.S. submarines, submariners, and their weapons. Certainly, China aspires to be a submarine power and hopes to emulate certain aspects of American experience. However, it is equally clear in these writings that the U.S. submarine force is seen as a key challenge in any military confrontation between Beijing and Washington. It is significant in that regard especially that Chinese analysts are increasingly drawing attention to, and seeking to remedy, their antisubmarine warfare deficiencies. The study also reveals an apparent assumption within Chinese naval analytic circles that American submarine force levels are on a downward trajectory.

The authors are research faculty in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. They are members (Dr. Goldstein is the founding director) of the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone and not the assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other entity of the U.S. government.


  1. “美国雷声公司拟用商用流行技术更新潜 艇作战系统” [U.S. Raytheon Corporation Draws Up a Plan to Use COTS to Upgrade Subs’ Systems], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真 技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 10 (2003), p. 19.
  2. 戴维 [Dai Wei], “ESM 对潜艇支持的新 作用” [ESM’s New Role in Submarine Support], 情报指挥控制系统与仿真技 术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology], no. 7 (1999), p. 19. 46. 李平, 陆炳哲 [Li Ping, Lu Bingzhe], “美 国虚拟潜望镜研究及进展” [Research and Progress of the American Virtual Periscope], 船舶电子工程 [Ship Electronic Engineering] 26, no. 5 (2006), p. 199.
  3. This article does not analyze Chinese examinations of U.S. sonar, navigation, combat control, ESM, or radio systems.
  4. 李书甫 [Li Shufu], “水下无人航行器” [UUVs], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons], (April 2003), pp. 57–60.
  5. See, for example, the “US Submarines, Antisubmarine Warfare and All News” section of the China Defense.com Forum at www .china-defense.com/forum/index.php ?showtopic=1541.
  6. 王绪智 [Wang Xuzhi], “潜艇大革命—近岸 作战催生美国下—代多用途核潜艇” [The Submarine Revolution: Littoral Warfare Will Drive the Multirole Nature of America’s Next Generation Nuclear Submarine], 现代舰 船 [Modern Ships] (June 2002), pp. 30–33.
  7. 杨毅, 赵志军 [Yang Yi and Zhao Zhijun], “美国核潜艇艇长是怎样选拔的?” 17 Collins et al.: 85 [How Are American Submarine Commanding Officers Selected?], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (December 2001), p. 17.
  8. 杜朝平 [Du Zhaoping], “美国为什么不装 备常规潜艇” [Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (January 2004), p. 19.
  9. Qi Yaojiu, “Reflecting Again on the San Francisco,” p. 41.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Du Zhaoping, “Why the U.S. Is Not Equipped with Conventional Submarines,” p. 21.
  12. 拜科夫, 济科夫 [Zykov and Baikov—in Russian], 水下间谍战的秘密 [Secrets of Undersea Espionage] (Shanghai: Shanghai Translation, 2006).
  13. Ibid., p. 10.
  14. Ibid., p. 12.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 70.
  17. 管带 [Guan Dai], “走向未来的中国反潜作战” [Looking toward Future PLA Navy Antisubmarine Warfare], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 33.
  18. 蓝杰斌 [Lan Jiebin], “中国反潜装备的发展” [China’s ASW Equipment Development], 舰载武器[Shipborne Weapons] (February 2004), p. 29.
  19. 巡抚 [Xun Fu], “中国海军反潜武器的发展” [PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development], 舰载武器 [Shipborne Weapons] (August 2005), p. 29.
  20. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  21. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  22. Tai Feng, “Does China Need Antisubmarine Patrol Aircraft?” p. 73.
  23. Ibid., p. 75.
  24. Ibid., p. 73.
  25. See, for example, ibid., p. 72; and Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 30.
  26. 刘衍中, 李祥 [Liu Yanzhong and Li Xiang], “实施智能攻击的现代水雷” [Carrying Out Intelligent Attacks with Modern Mines], 当 代海军 [Modern Navy] (July 2006), p. 29.
  27. For a much more detailed discussion of this issue, see Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray, “China’s Undersea Sentries: Sea Mines Constitute Lead Element of PLA Navy’s ASW,” Undersea Warfare (Winter 2007), pp. 10–15.
  28. Lin Changcheng, “The Hidden Dragon in the Deep,” p. 30.
  29. Ibid., p. 31. The “first island chain” comprises Japan, its northern and southern archipelagoes, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Greater Sunda Islands. See Xu Qi, “Maritime Geostrategy and the Development of the Chinese Navy in the Early Twenty-first Century,” trans. Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, Naval War College Review 59, no. 4 (Autumn 2006), pp. 47–67, esp. note 11.
  30. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 28.
  31. 陈位吴 [Chen Weiwu], “解放军新基洛” [The PLA’s New Kilos], 国际展望 [World Outlook] (July 2006), p. 25.
  32. Xun Fu, “PLA Navy Antisubmarine Weapons Development,” p. 29.
  33. Ibid., p. 32.
  34. 许世勇 [Xu Shiyong], “美海军实施网络反潜 新战略” [The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (September 2006), p. 44.
  35. Ibid. For an equally unimpressed American view, see John R. Benedict, “The Unraveling and Revitalization of U.S. Navy Antisubmarine Warfare,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005), pp. 93–120.
  36. Xu Shiyong, “The U.S. Navy’s New Network ASW Strategy,” p. 44.
  37. 薛兴林 [Bi Xinglin, ed.], 战役理论学习指南 [Campaign Theory Study Guide] (国防大 学出版社 [National Defense University Press], 2002), vol. 3, p. 261.
  38. 石江月[Shi Jiangyue], “‘中国潜艇威胁’与美 军反潜战的复兴” [“The Chinese Submarine Threat” and the Revival of the U.S. Military’s ASW], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships] (May 2007), p. 17.
  39. 胡锦洋 [Hu Jinyang], “外媒: 中国海上‘狼 群’挑战美军潜艇霸权” [Foreign Media: China’s “Wolf Pack” at Sea Challenges American Submarine Hegemony], 海事大 观 [Maritime Spectacle] (July 2006), p. 45.
  40. Wang Yu and Yao Yao, eds., World Naval Submarines, p. 127.
  41. 孟昭珍, 张宁 [Meng Zhaozhen and Zhan Ning], “潜艇承担的新任务” [Submarines Assuming New Missions], 情报指挥控制系统 与仿真技术 [Intelligence, Command, Control, and Simulation Technology] (April 2003), p. 12.
  42. 石江月[Shi Jiangyue], “美国海军需要什么样 的舰队?” [What Kind of Fleet Does the U.S. Navy Require?], Navy Require?], 现代舰船 [Modern Ships], (December 2006), p. 12. 87. 张晓东, 王磊 [Zhang Xiaodong and Wang Lei], “美国海军未来 20 年发展规划” [The 20-Year Development Program of the U.S. Navy], 当代海军 [Modern Navy] (August 2006), p. 51. 88. Yang Yi, “Who Can Estimate the Future Number of Submarines?” p. 28.

Featured Image: Virginia-class submarine Indiana (SSN-789) Departs for Sea Trials, May 2018. (via Navsource)

Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security

Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. 80pp. $23.45

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN


Since his rise to power six years ago, thousands of analysts and policymakers across the globe have attempted to understand the intentions of, and the mechanisms employed toward, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping’s seemingly expansionist vision for China. That vision, dubbed “The Chinese Dream” by Xi in 2012, solidified his plan for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Although arguably vaguely defined, “The Chinese Dream” has been viewed by some as Xi’s call for rising Chinese influence on the international stage – economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, and militarily, i.e., China’s “grand strategy.”

In support of this vision, Xi has embarked on a multitude of political and military reforms and now, backed by one of the world’s most technologically-advanced militaries, Xi is ready to thrust his revitalized China further onto the world stage. During his opening speech to nearly 2,300 party delegates and dignitaries at the October 2017 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi publicly described the extraordinary complexity of China’s domestic and foreign policy challenges and opportunities: “Currently, conditions domestically and abroad are undergoing deep and complicated changes. Our country is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development. The outlook is extremely bright; the challenges are also extremely grim.”1

In his new book, Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Andreas Rupprecht, author of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, attempts to break out of his comfort zone and succinctly capture the complexities of Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitical environment of the Asia-Pacific Region. The content of Flashpoint China is predominantly focused on Chinese regional security issues; however, in his introductory paragraph, Rupprecht states the goal of Flashpoint China is to “draw upon” Modern Chinese Warplanes and “offer an overview of potential military conflicts along the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”2 This is a laudable goal, for even attempting to synopsize the complexity of Chinese military history and foreign relations in a mere eighty pages would challenge the most knowledgeable defense and foreign relations expert. Yet for the most part, Rupprecht succeeds. There are some content areas however that could benefit from further research and development.

Following the introduction, Rupprecht utilizes Chapters Two through Five to succinctly introduce the various foreign policy concerns for China in each of its five Theater Commands. Each chapter opens with a succinct description of the nuanced histories behind each foreign policy concern, provides an overview of PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities available to each Theater Command, and closes with well-structured charts of each Theater Command’s PLAAF and PLANAF order of battle. It is through this structured approach that Rupprecht meets his goal of drawing upon Modern Chinese Warplanes and answering the following question: If conflict were to occur at any of the flashpoints, what People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) units and platforms are likely to be involved?

Over the last two to three decades China’s entire military force has undergone a rapid and unprecedented military modernization campaign designed to transform it into a regionally-dominant and globally-significant force. To further tie his two books together however, Rupprecht would be remiss to not include an update of what has transpired within and across the PLA between the books’ publication dates (2012 and 2016, respectively) in the introductory section of Flashpoint China, specifically how PLA reforms and the subsequent establishment of the five Theater Commands have affected the PLAAF and PLANAF. Additionally, Rupprecht briefly describes concepts such as China’s “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” (what the Chinese refer to as “counter-intervention”) capabilities. Counter-intervention represents how China plans to “deny the U.S. [or other foreign] military the ability to operate in China’s littoral waters in case of a crisis.”3 Collectively, these organizational, doctrinal, and operational changes should weigh heavily in a book of this nature yet Rupprecht does not fully incorporate their significance in his work. To do this, the author would need to answer the following question: How would PLAAF and PLANAF platforms and capabilities likely be employed to prevent U.S. or other regional forces from intervening in a conflict at any of the flashpoints?

Some of these geographical areas and issues carry a higher military priority for China. According to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in its 2017 Annual Report to Congress, “Taiwan remains the PLA’s main “strategic direction,” one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance [and represents a “core interest” of China]. Other focus areas include the East China Sea [ECS], the South China Sea [SCS], and China’s borders with India and North Korea.”4 And as the strategic importance of a geographical area increases for China so does its allocation of PLA assets.

For example, the richness and variety of the geopolitical concerns involving the countries presented in Chapter Two of Flashpoint China (Japan, Russia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and South Korea), provide significant examples of historical, current, and potential military conflict for China; however, in Chapter Two Rupprecht doesn’t reflect on the order of  strategic priority and therefore the military significance of the Northern and Central Theater Commands. Instead, Chapter Two opens with a very brief paragraph regarding Mongolia, thereby dampening the impact of the chapter’s “flashpoint” narrative.

Additionally, the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the ECS dominates the military significance of China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Japan; however, Rupprecht merely allocates a single sentence to the situation: “The dispute over the Senkaku Islands – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China – is meanwhile a matter of heated rhetoric and near-open hostility.”5 Since the historical dispute took a dramatic leap forward in April 2012 following the Japanese purchase of three of the eight islets from their private owner, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has assumed primary responsibility for this flashpoint area. Unfortunately, Chapter Two mistakenly assigns PLA responsibility for China’s ongoing dilemma with Japan in the ECS to the Northern and Central Theater Commands: “The PLA subordinates responsibility for Japan and the Korean peninsula to the Northern Theater Command and to the Central Theater Command.”6 When the purchase was made public, the PLA immediately began regularly deploying maritime and airborne patrols from Eastern Theater Command bases into the ECS to assert jurisdiction and sovereignty over the islands. Additionally, as Rupprecht alludes to on page 25, in November 2013, China declared the establishment of its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the ECS which included the area over the disputed islands. Subsequently, both the PLAAF and PLANAF established routine airborne patrol patterns and the use of ECS airspace and the straits of the Ryukyu Islands to conduct long-range, integrated strike training with PLA Navy (PLAN) assets in the western Philippine Sea.

A map of the Southern Theater Command’s Area of Responsibility (from Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Click to Expand)

Additionally in Chapter Two, Rupprecht aptly describes the history of Sino-Russian relations: “For years, relations between China and Russia have been described as a ‘tightrope walk’, and have frequently oscillated between close friendship and war.”7 However, the author fails to capture the significance of the military connection between Russia and China, especially as it relates to Rupprecht’s stated theme for this book, for China’s military modernization arguably started with mass acquisitions of Russian military technologies in the early 1990s. Over the ensuing decades, China embarked on a widespread effort to acquire Russian military technologies, reverse-engineer that technology, and then indigenously mass-produce similar technologies adapted to Chinese specifications. That period however may be rapidly coming to a close as many China analysts assess that China has now transitioned from a Russian technology-dependent force to a truly indigenous production force. In fact, China’s most recent procurement of Russia’s technologically-advanced Su-35 FLANKER S fighter aircraft and S-400 strategic-level surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, touched on by Rupprecht on page 18, may be the last significant items on China’s military hardware shopping list.

Another example is found in Chapter Three which Rupprecht opens by stating, “The issue of Taiwan is a very special one for the PRC, and certainly the top priority in regard to the PLA’s modernization drive. This is clearly indicated by the official order of protocol, which lists the responsible Eastern Theater Command first.”8 Although the Eastern Theater may have primary responsibility for the Taiwan issue, the extraordinary political, strategic, and economic significance of the Taiwan dispute represents a “core interest” of China. This fact cannot be overstated. The entire essence of Chinese military modernization efforts over the recent decades have been in direct support of the possible requirement to take back Taiwan by force should alternative means of reunification prove fruitless. As Chinese Communist Party legitimacy would ride on the success or failure of a PLA campaign to “liberate” Taiwan, an effort of this magnitude would involve PLAAF and PLANAF assets from multiple Theater Commands, something Rupprecht’s narrative and order-of-battle charts do not capture.

The geography, the respective sovereignty claims, and the strategic and operational scope of each Theater Command’s responsibilities matter greatly with respect to China and its ambitions. Each chapter ends with a wonderful map that provides a highly informative, geographical illustration of each respective theater. The geographical impact of each chapter’s flashpoints may be better served however by moving each chapter’s map to the beginning of the chapters rather than the end.

Rupprecht’s best work is reflected in Chapter Four. China’s sovereignty claims and the controversial Chinese land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) presented in Chapter Four are definitely the most contentious issues facing the Southern Theater Command. And here Rupprecht does not disappoint. The author allocates numerous pages to both describe and illustrate the significance of the SCS dispute to China, its regional neighbors, and the U.S. Just as in Modern Chinese Warplanes, Rupprecht has included spectacular, colored photographs of various Chinese aircraft into Flashpoint China. Various PLAAF and PLANAF fighters, reconnaissance and transport aircraft, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are presented in wonderful detail throughout the book. Chapter Four however is especially unique for its inclusion of vivid photographs of China’s land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands.

A UAV is showcased in a Chinese military parade (Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security)

How Chinese, U.S., and regional neighbors approach this issue politically, diplomatically, and militarily carries significant strategic, operational, and tactical implications. History has proven how a single tactical event in the region can carry immediate and substantial strategic implications. For example, the infamous EP-3 incident of 2001 provides just one example of how tactical miscommunication and miscalculation can have significant strategic implications.9 These type of airborne interactions continue on a regular basis as U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operate in international airspace over the SCS. Chinese fighter aircraft routinely intercept the U.S. aircraft, sometimes operating outside the assessed bounds of safe airmanship. Japanese fighters also come into regular contact with Chinese aircraft, regularly scrambling to check Chinese airspace incursions over the ECS and through the Ryukyu Straits. These tactical events often receive attention from the government and military leaders of the respective countries and occasionally result in public demarches.

In a book of this nature, each SCS claimant country deserves its own dedicated section as China’s rise has forced each country’s government to reassess their national security and military means with some countries making substantial increases in their military expenditures. For example, Vietnam is “in the process of addressing its limitations with respect to combating modern threat scenarios with its existing obsolete equipment, and has embarked on military modernization plans over the last few years.”10 Additionally, the 02 May – 15 August 2014 Hai Yeng Shi You 981 oil rig standoff (also referred to as the “CNOOC-981 incident”) provides a real-world event which not only illustrated the contentiousness of the SCS claims between China and Vietnam, but also revealed an operational reaction from the PLA, with specific operational responses from both the PLAAF and PLANAF.11

Finally, the most impactful flashpoint for China in the Western Theater, presented in Chapter Five, regards India. Typically the issue between the two countries revolves around unresolved border disputes; however, much to India’s chagrin, China also continues to advance its military-to-military relationship with India’s rival, Pakistan. This is especially relevant for Rupprecht’s efforts within Flashpoint China as Pakistan’s Air Force and China’s PLAAF conducted the sixth consecutive iteration of the annual “Shaheen” series of joint exercises in 2017. Since its inception in 2011, the Shaheen exercise series has consistently grown in complexity and scope, incorporating a wider variety of PLAAF aircraft and platforms such as multi-role fighters, fighter-bombers, airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and surface-to-air missile crews and radar operators.


In Flashpoint China Andreas Rupprecht ambitiously attempts to couple the highly complex geopolitical environment surrounding modern day China with the PLAAF and PLANAF’s ever-evolving order of battle and force projection capabilities – an assignment with which even the most renowned scholars would struggle, especially within the allotment of so few pages. Via the well-structured narrative and fabulous photographs, Flashpoint China goes a long way in tackling the question of what PLAAF and PLANAF assets could China bring to the fight should a military conflict occur at any of the presented flashpoints. Readers however would have certainly enjoyed reading the author’s assessment of how might the PLA use its air power in support of Chinese military intervention into these contentious hotbeds. But this may have to wait for another day. Still, if brevity of space and time were the only options available to the author, then Flashpoint China can certainly prove useful as is. However, with even some minor content and structural improvements, the book could prove irreplaceable.

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.


1. Buckley, Chris. “Xi Jinping Opens China’s Party Congress, His Hold Tighter Than Ever”; The New York Times; 17 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/asia/xi-jinping-communist-party-china.html

2. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 9.

3. Ibid. p. 15.

4. OSD. Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” OSD, (Annual Report, OSD 2017)

5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 21.

6. Ibid. p. 21.

7. Ibid. P. 17.

8. Ibid. p. 31.

9. Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “U.S. Plane in China After It Collides with Chinese Jet”; The New York Times; 02 April 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/02/world/us-plane-in-china-after-it-collides-with-chinese-jet.html

10. Wood, Laura. “Future of the Vietnam Defense Industry to 2022 – Market Attractiveness, Competitive Landscape and Forecasts – Research and Markets”. Business Wire; 04 October 2017. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20171004006043/en/Future-Vietnam-Defense-Industry-2022—Market

11. Thayer, Carl. “4 Reasons China Removed Oil Rig HYSY-981 Sooner Than Planned”. The Diplomat; 22 July 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/07/4-reasons-china-removed-oil-rig-hysy-981-sooner-than-planned/

Featured Image: Two JH-7 fighter bombers attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Western Theater Command taxi abreast on the runway before takeoff for a sortie near the Tianshan Mountains in late March, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Wang Xiaofei)

Déjà Vu at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham


Last year, CIMSEC published an article analyzing Beijing’s decision to send an unusually low-ranking delegation head, Lieutenant General (LTG) He Lei who serves as the Vice President of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Science (AMS), to the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The selection was a sharp departure from general past practice. In 2011, Beijing dispatched its Defense Minister (the highest-ranked representative to date) followed by the Vice President of the PLA AMS (lowest-ranked representative so far) the following year. From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief-level PLA general officer, closer in rank to the other attending defense ministers. This year, Beijing chose once again to send LTG He to the premier security forum in the Indo-Pacific region, despite last year’s pledge to send a delegation led by a four-star officer of Central Military Committee rank.

It was speculated that Beijing’s decision was a subtle refutation of last year’s stated agenda of “upholding the rules-based regional order, practical measures to avoid conflict at sea, and nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific” and pointed to a deeper problem that China has with the annual dialogue itself. Beijing chooses not to discuss its maritime disputes in any multilateral forum, asserting that bilateral negotiations are the appropriate mechanism to deliberate such contentious issues. The South China Sea (SCS) is a recurrent SLD topic – and China, much to its chagrin, has little influence over the non-friendly and as the Chinese might suggest, hostile agenda. There’s a growing sense within Beijing’s political elites that the SLD has become nothing more than an international forum to highlight (and shame) China’s perceived rule-breaking behavior in the region.

It was also suggested that Beijing may have been short-sighted. By downgrading its presence at the SLD, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States and its allies. China yielded another highly visible international platform where its competitors could stake out their strategic positions, counter Chinese strategic messaging, and further challenge and encourage Beijing to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

The following analysis compares and contrasts the 2017 and 2018 dialogues in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes while trying to answer questions such as why did Beijing again send LTG He, what message is Beijing trying to convey, and what does it portend for the region in the near future?

2017 SLD Highlights

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the keynote speech, averring that Asia’s future peace and prosperity depend on preserving the rules-based regional order that has worked so well for so long. He suggested that China can only expand its strategic influence to match its economic might within the bounds set by the same rules-based regional order. The message implied that Beijing was undermining the rules-based order in Asia and warned that a coercive China would drive its regional neighbors to bolster alliances and partnerships between themselves and the United States. Prime Minister Turnbull also exhorted his regional neighbors to assume greater responsibility for their own security and prosperity.

During the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called out China for disregarding other nations’ interests and international law, militarizing the SCS, and undermining regional stability. He reiterated that the United States would continue “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the SCS and beyond.” Secretary Mattis urged China to recognize that North Korea has become a strategic liability and cautioned Beijing that seeking cooperation on Pyongyang did not mean Washington would not challenge Chinese activities in the SCS. Secretary Mattis also restated America’s steadfast commitment to the defense of Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. 

During the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order), then-Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada leveled similar criticism against China in her speech. She implied that Beijing bore most of the responsibility for the extant regional instability and criticized China for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the East China Sea and SCS. Minister Inada also urged Beijing to follow international law and respect the prior year’s tribunal ruling on the SCS and expressed support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were expectedly swift and coordinated, but ultimately uninspiring. The PLA delegation held a media briefing on the summit’s sidelines at the end of the second day, defending China’s position as a rising power that abides by international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The delegation repeated longstanding policy positions on Taiwan, North Korea, and the SCS while expressing frustration that Beijing is unfairly singled out for criticism. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed the tepid response the next day and called out Mattis and Inada’s statements on the SCS and Taiwan as “irresponsible.”  

During the second special session (New Patterns for Security Cooperation), LTG He presented a self-serving speech underscoring the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework featuring “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.” LTG He emphasized China’s peaceful and benevolent rise that contributes to global peace and prosperity and promoted the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while promising to advance within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations the adoption of a Code of Conduct framework for the SCS.

2018 SLD Highlights

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the keynote speech. Although the tone of his speech was largely conciliatory and deferential to Beijing, Prime Minister Modi repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific,” highlighting the critical role that America plays in the regional (and global) order, and underscored the imperative for a common rules-based system based on the consent of all.   

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 – Keynote Address by Narendra Modi (Photo by IISS)

During the first plenary session (U.S. Leadership and the Challenges of Indo-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis rebuked China for “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific and declared that America does not plan to abandon its leading role in the region. He also specifically called out Beijing’s destabilizing militarization of the SCS, while further encouraging and challenging China to act responsibly in accordance with established global rules and norms.

During the third plenary session (Shaping Asia’s Evolving Security Order), the Vietnamese Minister of National Defense General Ngo Xuan Lich made the emphatic point that “under no circumstances could we excuse militarization by deploying weapons and military hardware over disputed areas against regional commitments.” Two weeks later, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry denounced China’s recent redeployment of missiles to Woody Island as a serious violation of its sovereignty in the SCS (Vietnam also has its claims) and that this has threatened freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also “requests that China immediately put an end to these wrongful activities and withdraw the military equipments it had illegally deployed on Vietnams Hoang Sa Islands (Paracel) Islands.”

During the fifth plenary session (Raising the Bar for Regional Security Cooperation), the French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson largely echoed Secretary Mattis’ sentiments with the former making the bold statement on the SCS…“fait accompli is not a fate accepted” (referring to Chinese attempts to deny international access to the disputed waters). Both announced their intent to jointly sail their deployed naval vessels across the SCS to demonstrate their nations’ inherent right to traverse international waters and to send the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were again expectedly swift and coordinated, but much sharper and more assertive (and perhaps even better prepared) than last year. The PLA delegation forcefully defended Beijing’s military activities in the SCS and sharply criticized Secretary Mattis’ “irresponsible remarks” on the issue and for his unhelpful “hyping” of the situation. LTG He also took advantage of the public forum to reiterate Taiwan as a Chinese “core interest” and a “red line that cannot be challenged.” This is part of its deliberate campaign to push back hard against the Taiwan Travel Act, approval of marketing licenses to sell U.S. technology to Taipei that would allow for building of advanced Taiwanese submarines, a U.S.-Taiwan agreement to share defense research, and the dispatch of formal U.S. officials to the opening ceremony of a new office building to house the American Institute in Taiwan (the defacto U.S. Embassy).   

During the fifth special session (Strategic Implications of Military Capability Development in Asia-Pacific), LTG He vigorously defended Beijing’s actions and activities in the SCS to include the recent deployments of weapon systems to its military outposts. He re-asserted the Chinese strategic narrative that the islands belonged to China, Beijing was only acting to defend the country’s indisputable sovereignty, and that U.S. FONOPs were the “real militarization of the SCS.” He also reiterated the point that China has not obstructed any military vessels following international laws and was open to discussions on the interpretation of FON. The rest of his speech characterized the ongoing PLA reforms and modernization efforts as benign and largely defensive in nature, praised Beijing for its constructive role in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and repeated last year’s talking points on the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework and the BRI.   

So What’s Next

At the end of the day, the scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. It seems content for now to limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher-visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

That said, Beijing may one day conclude that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the biased and fading SLD, when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum? This regional forum is already widely seen in Beijing as a growing counter to the SLD and an important part of a strategic agenda to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect a re-emerged, revitalized, and restructured Xiangshan Forum after an unexpected and self-induced one-year hiatus.

The BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) ultimately needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics that the forum can help foster and promote under Beijing’s terms.

The new Chinese strategic approach calls for the balanced integration of interests – both long-term economic development with concomitant security reforms intended to restructure and realign global political and security order. This will be pursued in tandem with safeguarding and enhancing the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 


Beijing clearly views the SLD as an adversarial international forum used by its perceived strategic rival – Washington – and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value (but not necessarily the overwhelming need) to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept the criticism of China as a natural outgrowth of its rise as a global power.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: SINGAPORE (June 1, 2018) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers remarks during the first plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 June 2. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)

Controlling the Masses: Protests and Media in the People’s Republic of China

This article is published in partnership with the U.S. Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC).

By Yena Seo

In the Western world, the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and petition are considered vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Free media acts as the fourth estate by providing information to the masses, while citizens under a democratic government can expect to have their speech heard through assembly and petition. In the People’s Republic of China, the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and petition intersect as the government uses the media – rather than brute force – to repress and silence democratic movements. Media control in China affords the government a one-two punch when countering pro-democracy protests: censorship silences social movements from the bottom, and those that succeed into physical demonstrations are oppressed and marginalized via the state media’s protest paradigm.

According to Freedom House, China is home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments.1 The Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) ensure media content is consistent with the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).2 In regard to pro-democratic protests, the government’s media approach consists of two prongs: repression and silence. State media coverage of protests falls under the protest paradigm, a phenomenon in which news outlets spotlight the appearance and behaviors of protesters – rather than their mission – in an attempt to marginalize them.3 The protest paradigm is a powerful tool for the Chinese media, which often portray protesters as violent and lawless, yet do not provide much content on the social movements themselves. Online, the Chinese government uses censorship to silence citizens, both leading up to and during demonstrations. Nationwide technical filtering, or “the Great Firewall,” blocks international news outlets.4 Furthermore, it blocks major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and Chinese alternatives such as Sina Weibo and WeChat are heavily monitored.5 Censorship is used to eliminate potential pro-democracy movements before they blossom into full-scale physical demonstrations; if large social uprisings do occur, the government censors terms and images associated with them. These tactics create a sophisticated strategy that enables the CCP to not only silence protesters, but systematically oppress them.

Media coverage of pro-democracy protests in China can be traced back to 1989, when government troops fired on thousands of Chinese citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. During the protests, state television networks fell into the protest paradigm as they broadcasted endless condemnations of the “hooligans” and “counterrevolutionaries” responsible for the demonstrations.6 Radio stations carried out announcements of local arrests to further marginalize participants.7 Since the Internet was not widely utilized at this time, the government did not have to resort to pure censorship; instead, state media was able to suppress the spread of the movement by depicting it as violent and criminal. Tiananmen Square’s protest paradigm has also extended past its original coverage. On the 25th anniversary of the demonstrations, the Chinese government censored any and all mentions of the massacre. Even the most indirect references to June 4th – the date when the Chinese military opened fire on protesters – were blocked or deleted.8 The sole mention of the 25th anniversary in state media was in an unsigned op-ed piece in The Global Times, in which the author ridiculed those seeking to mark the anniversary as a day of remembrance: “The mendacious impression is made by anti-China forces in the West and Chinese exiles who have been marginalized there. They hope it will deal a heavy blow to the stability of Chinese society but they will end up failing.”9 Media outlets in Hong Kong, in contrast to mainland organizations, actively covered the anniversary. The South China Morning Post created a special multimedia project featuring video footage and photos from Tiananmen Square.10 Even on Hong Kong media websites, however, comments from Chinese users were removed.11

Indeed, media outlets from Hong Kong and mainland China have vastly different coverage of pro-democracy protests, due to the “one country, two systems” policy implemented after Hong Kong was reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.12 The former British territory maintained its social and economic systems, allowing media organizations in Hong Kong to be free from the same kind of state control as mainland news outlets; however, online censorship still occurs on a widespread scale. Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution illustrated the differences in pro-democracy protest coverage. Mainland media organizations aligned with the protest paradigm, reporting on the negative impacts that the protests had on “life in Hong Kong.”13 State media portrayed the demonstrations as disorganized, immature, and not to be taken seriously.14 The People’s Daily, a major state-controlled newspaper, called the Umbrella Revolution “illegal” and described the protesters as being selfish: “They incite people, paralyze traffic, impede businesses, cause conflict and seriously disturb the normal life of the people of Hong Kong, and even pose a threat to life and property.”15 Over the course of the demonstrations, images of the protests did not appear in any of China’s state-run media.16 In contrast, media from Hong Kong amplified the voices of citizens partaking in the Umbrella Revolution, who were protesting an election reform that would mandate Beijing’s approval of candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive position.17 Hong Kong broadcasters such as NOW and Cable TV provided extensive coverage of the demonstrations, including footage of student leaders storming government headquarters and clashing with the police.18 Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, ran its own live online feed that featured aerial imagery of crowds captured by a drone.19 Despite Hong Kong’s relative institutional independence from the CCP, censors still aggressively scoured Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, to crack down on the protests; the rate of censorship was more than double that seen on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.20 Instagram was shut down in China during the Umbrella Revolution protests, and users reported posts being deleted from their social media platforms, even those in private chats.21

But censorship on pro-democracy protests is not limited to uprisings in China or its territories. When countries abroad faced their own pro-democracy movements, the Chinese government took swift action to prevent such revolutions from having a domino-like effect. Searches for the Chinese name for Egypt were blocked on Sina Weibo, resulting in an error message stating, “Due to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search returns cannot be shown.”22 The Chinese government is wary of democratic uprising around the world influencing politics at home, and treat such social movements – whether in territories such as Hong Kong or on another continent – as “a matter of life or death…a fuse that can take down their world.”23

Free media has a profound impact on democratic movements, perhaps more than any other social institution. A free and independent press is a catalyst to free speech, assembly and petition. Understanding this, the Chinese government has taken a comprehensive approach toward the media in an effort to suppress pro-democracy uprisings. The state media’s protest paradigm approach and the government’s online censorship tactics make an effective system in oppressing the freedoms essential to democracy. As long as state media continues to vilify political changemakers and the government maintains strict online censorship and surveillance, China will continue to succeed in countering any kind of pro-democracy movement, whether in territories such as Hong Kong or on the mainland.

Yena Seo is a student at Ithaca College studying Journalism and Politics, with a concentration in International Studies. She plans to pursue a career in national security.

Works Cited

Calamur, Krishnadev, “One System, Two Media: How China, Hong Kong are Covering the Protests,” NPR, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/01/352747590/one-system-two-media-how-china-hong-kong-are-covering-the-protests.

Chappell, Bill, “25 Years After Tiananmen Protests, Chinese Media Keep It Quiet,” NPR, June 4, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/06/04/318756603/25-years-after-tiananmen-protests-chinese-media-keep-it-quiet.

Freedom House, “Freedom of the Press 2017: China,” accessed March 31, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/china.

Martinez-Gutierrez, Paula, “Media Coverage of Protests in China,” Brown Political Review, March 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2015/03/media-coverage-of-protests-in-china/.

Newsweek Staff, “Covering the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Then and Now,” Newsweek, June 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/covering-tiananmen-square-massacre-then-and-now-339542.

Parker, Emily, “Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/social-media-hong-kong-protests.

Ramzy, Austin, “Egypt Wave Barely Causes a Ripple in China,” TIME, February 8, 2011, accessed March 31, 2018, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046901,00.html.

Shahin, Saif, Pei Zheng, Heloisa Aruth Sturm, and Deepa Fadnis, “Protesting the Paradigm: A Comparative Study of News Coverage of Protests in Brazil, China, and India,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21, no. 2 (2016), 143-164. Accessed March 31, 2018. doi: 10.1177/1940161216631114


[1] Freedom House, “Freedom of the Press 2017: China,” accessed March 31, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/china.

[2] Freedom House.

[3] Saif Shahin, Pei Zheng, Heloisa Aruth Sturm, and Deepa Fadnis, “Protesting the Paradigm: A Comparative Study of News Coverage of Protests in Brazil, China, and India,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21, no. 2 (2016), 145, accessed March 31, 2018, doi: 10.1177/1940161216631114.

[4] Freedom House.

[5] Freedom House.

[6] Newsweek Staff, “Covering the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Then and Now,” Newsweek, June 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/covering-tiananmen-square-massacre-then-and-now-339542.

[7] Newsweek Staff.

[8] Bill Chappell, “25 Years After Tiananmen Protests, Chinese Media Keep It Quiet,” NPR, June 4, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/06/04/318756603/25-years-after-tiananmen-protests-chinese-media-keep-it-quiet.

[9] Chappell.

[10] Chappell.

[11] Chappell.

[12] Krishnadev Calamur, “One System, Two Media: How China, Hong Kong are Covering the Protests,” NPR, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/01/352747590/one-system-two-media-how-china-hong-kong-are-covering-the-protests.

[13] Calamur.

[14] Paula Martinez Gutierrez, “Media Coverage of Protests in China,” Brown Political Review, March 4, 2015, accessed March 31, 2018, http://www.brownpoliticalreview.org/2015/03/media-coverage-of-protests-in-china/.

[15] Calamur.

[16] Calamur.

[17] Emily Parker, “Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2014, accessed March 31, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/social-media-hong-kong-protests.

[18] Calamur.

[19] Calamur.

[20] Parker.

[21] Parker.

[22] Austin Ramzy, “Egypt Wave Barely Causes a Ripple in China,” TIME, February 8, 2011, accessed March 31, 2018, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046901,00.html.

[23] Calamur.

Featured Image: Tiananmen Square (Wikimedia Commons)