India’s second wave of COVID-19 has prompted growing questions and suspicions of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) involvement, following a deadly border clash last year.
In this episode, we sit down with Cleo Paskal, an expert on the Chinese Communist Party and its Indo-Pacific strategy, to understand how the CCP systematically exploits the weaknesses of its adversaries.
In the Chinese communist playbook, anything can be weaponized, from using apps like TikTok to subtly influence the minds of America’s youth to depriving people of life-saving treatment if they don’t toe the Communist Party line, Paskal says. Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at Chatham House.
Jan Jekielek: Cleo Paskal, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Cleo Paskal: To be able to actually go into a deeper discussion is a delight and a privilege, so thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: How is this whole perception of coronavirus in India meets America seen at the moment?
Ms. Paskal: So, it’s a very good question. There are two parts to it. One is, “What does it mean to live in China’s neighborhood?” And the other is that specific case. So first, “What does it mean to live in China’s neighborhood?” The countries next to China had been observing and interacting with the Chinese Communist Party in a very intimate level for much longer.
China was trying to attack India in 1962. There has been the economic outreach. There’s been the elite capture attempts. All that sort of stuff, and going back much further, the Korean War. So, the understanding of what the Chinese Communist Party is, is actually pretty advanced. Much more advanced than our discussion is.
I learned a lot from Indian strategists about how the Chinese Communist Party functions— how it tries to infiltrate a country and how it tries to advance its comprehensive national power—much more so than we do. We feel like we’re insulated.
But it’s like one of those science fiction movies where you have that sort of vibrating energy field that’s going out and co-opting other nations or countries along the way. The closer you are to that expansion, the more clearly you see it coming.
So they don’t have any problems saying, “This is a really serious issue. Beijing doesn’t function like other countries. It is expansionist.” They also do it quite bluntly. They don’t have this issue of talking about it and saying, “We’re racist for talking about it.” Because that isn’t part of the issue.
If you’re Indian, you know what racism is. You know that if you’re criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, it’s a political party that you’re criticizing, it’s not a people. So that takes away that layer of self-censorship when you’re talking about what the issue is.
Specifically, in terms of a case study around Coronavirus, what’s been happening, and again, I’ll use India as a case study—they have no problem thinking that this could be used as, whether this specific situation is that case or not, but whether China would use biological weapons.
They’ve been tracking it for a long time. In fact, they’re very concerned, not just about the collaboration between the U.S. and China on gain of function, but between China and Pakistan, because China has also been using labs in Pakistan to work on some of these things.
So, if the U.S. was outsourcing things that it thought was too dangerous to China, what is China outsourcing to Pakistan? So, they’re at a whole different level of analysis of the development of biological weapon systems vis-a-vis China.
Again, they have no filter on wondering whether a country would do it or not. They’ve seen what China is capable of in the region. So, it’s very helpful to listen to what countries like India or what the Taiwanese are saying or some of the other neighbors in the region are saying, because they’ve been looking at it for longer. There are no illusions about what kind of regime they’re dealing with.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s two things going on in India, from my looking in very much from the outside. One is there is a strong reaction to what was found in the Fauci emails, so to speak.
The other part, which is really interesting, is the response to the second wave of coronavirus, with some people really casting an eye towards China, which is, again, maybe not surprising, but interesting. So, tell me about these things.
Ms. Paskal: If you remember before the financial crisis, the 2008 U.S. financial crisis, the credit default swap issue in the West had a lot of prestige globally, in terms of financial sectors. So, you would bring in a New York hedge fund manager if you’re in India, to advise and to brief your people and discuss the international financial system.
Then after 2008, when the system started to collapse, there was a total loss of faith in the West being able to lead economically in those areas. What’s happening now, especially with the Fauci emails in India, is a very similar crisis of faith and belief in the western systems—in particular, the U.S. and the UK systems—for being honest reporters on issues like gain of function or ivermectin and things like that.
This is about perception, I’m not talking about the science. I’m not qualified to talk about the science, but I can say that from what the Indians are saying there was a series of investigations done in India. There was a very interesting paper published very early on in January or February of last year, where they were saying, “This virus looks manipulated.”
In Fauci’s emails, he called it, “Outlandish.” Now, the Indians are not delighted about that because it destroyed the credibility and the careers of, at least temporarily, those scientists who now may be proven to be right. So, all of these paragons of scientific virtue that Indian used to look to—the Lancet, for example—and various other things, are now being called into question.
So, it’s a big loss of prestige and soft power on the part of the West, at a scale that is similar to the financial crisis, but in the scientific community. The upside to it is that maybe India will start to take its own people more seriously and have extremely good scientists.
But in terms of their view of the West, we’re not going to be invited to conferences the way we were before. We’ve proven that we’re not reliable or trustworthy in some of the most critical topics of our time.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. I want to talk about the second wave in a moment, but before I go into that, what is the India’s relationship with the WHO? Because this is one of the central multilateral institutions that’s supposed to be helping steward the global health regime, in so far as that exists. What is India’s relationship with the WHO and how has that changed?
Ms. Paskal: India, much more so than the U.S. was a believer in multilateral institutions. When I would go to India, they would talk to me about millennium development goals and sustainable development, the UN type of terminology that in the West we honestly don’t pay that much attention to.
But India believes in it. Indian bureaucracy believes in it, and is very engaged in the UN. But there’s been such an effective elite capture of the UN by China, that these aren’t multilateral institutions anymore. They’re proxies, in many cases, of Beijing’s interests. Beijing will not only put its own people in places where it can, but it will put people in place that it has influence over. It’s very targeted, and it’s very effective.
So, India is finding that again these institutions that it thought were maybe a little bit dodgy, but the usual bureaucratic dodgy, are actually tools of Chinese political warfare in a way that they hadn’t anticipated. The WHO in particular has become a problem.
This political warfare language is very helpful to China, but the way China has been using language to cover over its desires and its push has been recognized by India and India is starting to reappropriate the language.
In the case of the WHO, now we’re starting to hear and I’ve heard it a couple of times on Indian television, they are referring to WHO as the Wuhan health organization. They are using language to reappropriate the narrative in a way that I didn’t hear two years ago.
For example, they’re not talking about the India-China border, they’re talking about the Indo-Tibet border. These are specific cases, but it’s starting to gain traction. They’re not talking about the South China Sea, they’re talking about the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] sea.
Again, this is this issue. The closer you are to China, the more you see how it operates. If you’re smart, and the Indians are pretty smart, you fight back on the same terms.
I’m learning a lot from India as it adjusts over the last year and a half, especially since the 20 Indian soldiers were murdered by the PLA in the Himalayas, about how you can effectively fight back against the Chinese Communist Party in all of these different sectors.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s go back to this other question of the politics around the second wave of Coronavirus in India. There was this spike. There was very alarmist reporting from the West, which is something that you’ve commented on before.
Also, there’s a suspicion that the CCP is somehow involved in India. Again, as you were saying, these are perceptions, but perceptions are very important.
Ms. Paskal: Yes. There are two issues. There’s the perception, and then there is what has been happening and the macro-perception, which is important for us to understand. The only country in the region that can really give China a run for its money, in many, many different ways, is India.
Fundamentally, the Chinese Communist Party justifies its existence by saying only an authoritarian regime can run a country with a billion people. But you’ve got India right next door and if it’s successful, then that shows, “No, you don’t need an authoritarian government.”
And by the way, it is one of the reasons why, similarly, Taiwan is an existential threat, because they also say the Chinese people aren’t ready for democracy. Well, which group of ethnic Chinese are doing better? Would you prefer to live in Taiwan or would you prefer to live in mainland China? At a macro-political warfare, psychological level, both India and Taiwan are existential threats to the justification of the existence of the Chinese Communist Party.
Economically, India is the only country that has the potential scale to displace China in terms of global supply chains. If you’re going to be moving factories out of China, you can move some to Vietnam or Cambodia, but India is a place where you can do it on a fairly large scale.
So, the Beijing planners know India is a problem. A successful India is an existential threat to the justification of the existence of the Chinese Communist Party. So, there is enormous effort that goes in to try to undermine the idea of India as a viable country.
We’ve seen, for example, several months ago, there was an attack on an iPhone parts manufacturing plant in Bengaluru, which used to be called Bangalore. It was a Taiwanese company, but they had a mainland Chinese manager and there happened to be a problem between the management and the unions who are communist-affiliated.
They trashed the factory with several million dollars’ worth of damage and the images of that trashed factory went on social media extremely quickly. China is very good social media manipulation, basically saying, don’t move your factories to India, they will be destroyed.
Then there was an attack on the Mumbai electrical grid, which was also linked back to China. There was an attack by Maoists in India that killed over 20 Indian security personnel.
And then there was the second wave. The first three, I’d say pretty certainly that 80 to 90 percent have some links back to the CCP as part of this political warfare narrative to undermine the legitimacy of India in your mind. Because you’re reading the newspapers or you are reading online and you might only see one article on India every week or every two weeks.
But if it’s—factory destroyed, electrical grid unstable, security forces attacked by Maoists— that gets into your head and you think India’s not viable as an alternative to China.
But then comes the second wave. Now, there are definitely domestic issues within India that led to the exacerbation of the second wave in terms of not having oxygen available. But the way that the second wave happened is unusual. It hit the financial capital, Mumbai, the political capital, Delhi, and the technological capital, Bangalore, with very little intermediate spread. It has a very peculiar double mutation.
So, like with the original virus, it needs to be investigated. This needs to be explained. I don’t know what the explanation is, but if you’re a country that’s been on the receiving end of things that you know have been linked back to the CCP in order to undermine your nation, then you’re going to be very suspicious.
So within India, there’s a lot of discussion about this being a targeted attack. We’re talking about perceptions now about how China is doing everything it can, including potentially this second wave, to undermine the legitimacy of India and undermine the government.
Fundamentally, what this says—I’m not talking about the science, but what this says about the perceptions of the population is, China is burned in India. There is no going back to any form of political concessions with China. No Indian politician will be able to go to the population and say, “Hindi Chini bhai bhai,” [Indians and Chinese are brothers] that we’re going to be friends with China again.”
That doesn’t mean China has lost influence. It just means that the influence will probably come in through the Russian lobby, as opposed to directly into India through what is still in place, but there’s a much less effective China lobby.
Mr. Jekielek: There is also the Western reporting element that also largely portrays India as being unable to deal with its own internal problems, this kind of thing.
Ms. Paskal: Yes. Our Western reporting on India has been pretty lousy and it has also been within the think tank community. There are a lot of interests that don’t want to see a better U.S.-India relationship—obviously China, obviously Pakistan, obviously the Wahabis, but then there are others.
For example, I have a lot of respect for the foreign policy, but the French don’t want to see the U.S. and India get closer together because that could affect French arm sales. When you start to look at who’s benefiting, obviously the Russians, that’s a whole other discussion. But there are a lot of established vested interests that don’t want to see the U.S. and India get closer together.
They’ve had time to put people into think tanks—India is a pluralistic, complicated democracy. If you want to find outraged stories or terrible things that have happened, there are a billion people—you’re going to be able to find something. It’s not like the country doesn’t have problems.
Country certainly has problems. We don’t see the same sort of coverage of China, in terms of the horrific things that happened to Chinese people as you would in India. Part of that is political interest.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely fascinating! I want to touch on this a little bit, because you mentioned a couple of times, “What is the Russia connection?” You mentioned this via the Russia lobby. What is the Russia connection here?
Ms. Paskal: If you are a political leader or a military leader in a lot of the non-Western world and you’re probably in your 50s, 60s, 70s, then you would have been a young person during the time of the Soviet Union. And you, if you’re an African leader or an Indian leader then large chunks of Asia have gone to the Soviet Union for some sort of training.
The Soviets treated people very well. They realized they’re building up a network and there was a whole kind of anti-imperialist language around it that was appealing to a lot of newly independent countries. That a lot of it is postcolonial period.
The Soviets would have made sure that they had a good time while they’re in Soviet Union, and they kept very good track of what sort of a good time that people had. Then stayed in touch when they went back to their own countries.
That keeping of information didn’t disappear with the Soviet Union. Those relationships were maintained. That leverage, sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s coercive, those relationships would stay in place.
We tend to think of Russia as a declining superpower, no longer a superpower. But in terms of intelligence, it is still a superpower. It has information on leaders globally that go back a very long time. It knows families, it knows predilections, it knows bank account numbers.
It has a leverage that shouldn’t be under appreciated. As it grows closer to China, and you can track that closeness through many things, but two things that I found useful is defense cooperation. There’s a lot of high-end defense cooperation, including the development of high-end weapons space, that sort of stuff.
Also, where are the Russians hiding their money? Are they hiding it more in Europe or are they hiding it more in Macau? Because if they have your money, they have some sort of hold over you. That’s something the Russians can bring to the table in terms of leverage with China.
If for example, there’s this discussion about whether India is going to buy this S400 missile defense system from Russia. That is hugely to the benefit of the Chinese for the Indians to buy it then you can see Chinese money potentially running through Russia in order to influence Indian decisions.
The Indian decision makers think they’re dealing with Russia, who is an old friend, but actually, part of it is coming through China.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating what you’re talking about. We were talking earlier a little bit about this amazing story of and I want to make sure I get his name, Premier Daniel Suidani, is that?
Ms. Paskal: Suidani.
Mr. Jekielek: Suidani, that’s how you pronounce his name of the Solomon Islands. Seemingly, a small tiny island chain in the Pacific. A couple of years back, they basically switched formal recognition of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, which was of course, a big deal. There’s very few countries that still recognize Taiwan as China, right? But there’s this kind of standout Premier Suidani. Tell me this—the story is absolutely incredible.
Ms. Paskal: In September 2019, the Solomon Islands, which is not enormous, but it’s very strategic. The Battle of Guadalcanal was in the Solomon Islands; It’s in kind of South Western Pacific switched recognition from Taiwan to China, in September 2019. Then Carabus, which is another very large geographic area in the Pacific also switched—same time, just after.
Premier Suidani, who is the Premier of the second most populous province, Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands, very vocally said, “This is not good for our people. If you align with an authoritarian country, your government becomes more authoritarian.”
His analysis, his understanding of China is very profound. In fact, it’s again another example of the closer you live to China, the more you see what it is and the more you’re really concerned if you’re a man of principle in honor, which he was, which he is. He refused to take any Chinese aid in his province.
Very soon after COVID hit, things got shut down and Taiwan wanted to send Malaita Province PPE and various sort of health provisions to help with COVID. The government of the Solomon Islands attempted to block delivery of that Taiwanese health aid to Malaita Province.
This is the beginning of starting to understand how in a Chinese-run world or Chinese-influenced world—healthcare is used as a weapon to punish political dissidents. Eventually, they sued the government and they got the aid.
But what happened subsequently was Premier Suidani, unfortunately, got quite sick. He’s getting headaches and he needed a CAT scan and there’s no CAT scan machine in the Solomon Islands, so he requested help in a bunch of different ways.
The government of the Solomon Islands wouldn’t help him. Australia wouldn’t help them financially. That’s a sort of another topic we can discuss later. He started a GoFundMe to try to raise the $100,000 he needed to go get a CAT scan in Australia.
And just to reinforce, this is a politician who doesn’t have $100,000 for his own treatment. This is an honest politician. If you don’t have the money to pay for your healthcare, it’s because you’re not taking bribes. In fact, his team was allegedly offered the money for the treatment if he would shake the hands of the Prime Minister, which would be shaking the hand of China.
Again, this is a situation where his personal position on China meant he was going to be declined healthcare. This is essentially an extraterritorial social credit system type control over the healthcare of an individual person. If you don’t accept China in your heart, you’re going to be left to die. That’s fundamentally what was happening with Premier Suidani.
And there are not a lot of people on the planet who can say, “I’d rather die than take Chinese money.” And Premier Daniel Suidani of Malaita province in the Solomon Islands is that man, and we should have been there to help him.
The country and the person that was there to help him was Taiwan. President Tsai made the decision that this is a man of principle and honor. As a country that represents all of those same attributes of democracy and standing for what’s right and for values, they are going to help them. He is now in Taiwan, waiting to get his CAT scan.
Mr. Jekielek: And that’s incredibly fascinating, because it adds a whole other level of intrigue to this whole dynamic, right?
Ms. Paskal: Yeah. I would just underline that this is, understanding what happened with COVID, and Taiwan with COVID is another indication of how you’re essentially dealing with social credit for healthcare, right?
When Taiwan came forward with the information about human-to-human transmission, and how dangerous it was; very useful information that could have mitigated a global pandemic. Because they believed the wrong things, according to Beijing, that information was killed. It wasn’t let into the global health system that could have helped other people.
Not only are they punishing people individually for thinking the wrong things. In the case of China itself, they’re using human beings as spare parts, if they don’t believe the wrong thing—if they don’t believe the right thing in terms of political beliefs or religious beliefs, or whatever. We know how extreme it can go domestically, but it is affecting the global health system as well.
The Taiwanese don’t believe the right thing, so their health information is not allowed into the World Health Organization. Premier Suidani doesn’t believe the right thing, so he’s not going to be allowed to get a CAT scan. Right?
It is understanding how invasive and destructive and coercive the mentality of the Chinese Communist Party is—in terms of an individual’s right to think anything they want or believe anything they want, is imperative for understanding what we’re dealing with.
This elite capture doesn’t stay with the elite, right? It comes right down to whether you can get healthcare for your mom if she needs it or whether you’re going to find out about human to human transmission in time to save 100,000 people or not.
Understanding this particular element of the party is critical for understanding exactly how dangerous this whole mentality is. If we let it into our systems, which we already have. If we don’t extract it from our systems, how dangerous is this for us as individuals.
Mr. Jekielek: This goes back to exactly what we were talking about earlier. When you see it happening, sort of near China, but then, how is it going to affect places that are little further. Incredible, incredible things you’re talking about here. I want to jump into this report that you did for Chatham House. You’ve worked on this for a number of years.
You looked at multiple countries from the U.S. Large countries like Tonga. I thought that was a fascinating small island, but somehow important as well—that I completely wasn’t aware of the significance of. You’re highlighted in this report, as we’ve been mentioning, how important perception is.
Of course, there’s the reality of, what the strategies are of these different groups and so forth, but also how the perceptions of each other impact those—the development of those strategies. It’s incredible.
Ms. Paskal: Yeah. So what we did with the project was we held roundtables and interviews in seven different countries: In the U.S., the UK, France, India, the kingdom of Tonga, Japan, and China. I did the first six, somebody else China, and asked them the same set of questions—standardized questions. Then also had a discussion about how they felt about the other countries, the other six countries going forward in the Indo-Pacific.
Because we wanted to figure out whether there were areas that the countries, like-minded countries, were not collaborating in effective ways. They could because of misapprehensions or perceptions that the other country could find out about. Then clarify and work on to develop better relations with and whether there were openings for collaborations that we hadn’t identified before.
For example, in the case of Tonga, the discussion became very clear that actually the country they really wanted to work with the most was India—because they found it culturally compatible. They’re both countries where family and faith is very important. Extended families are very important. The economies are similarly structured. The goods that are produced in India are of a cost and a quality that are appropriate to Tonga.
They want to buy bolts of Indian cotton as opposed to cheap polyester stuff from China or expensive manufactured clothing from Australia or New Zealand. It kind of fits into their economic nation. If they’re economically stable, then they don’t need loans from China and they don’t have to submit to political leverage in other areas from other countries.
That sort of potential came out, but also fractures came out. So there’s a very interesting thing going on at the recent G7 meeting. President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson just signed an update of the Atlantic Charter. The Atlantic Charter was originally signed in 1941, between Churchill and FDR, and it set forth a vision for the world after war.
Like, “Okay, we’re fighting but what are we fighting for? So, we’re fighting for people to determine their own future—democracy.” A bunch of very important framing values that then fed into the founding of the United Nations and NATO and various other organizations.
When I was in India, one of the things that they were talking about was the need for an Indo-Pacific Charter. Okay? The Atlantic, the 20th Century was the century of the Atlantic and the 21st Century is the century of the Indo-Pacific. The major population groups, major economies, the potential conflict, all of that now is mostly centered around the Indo-Pacific as opposed to the Atlantic.
There are new areas that need governance; like internet, space and undersea—you get a range of things. Their idea was, “Why don’t we have an Indo-Pacific charter where it could be India, Japan, U.S. sort of putting together a framework.”
If the quad is how we fight—the quad being the militaries of Australia, Japan, United States and India—then an Indo-Pacific charter is why we fight? What do we want? What are we getting out of this?
In the same way that the Atlantic Charter led to, in part, the independence of India. Although the two million armed and trained Indian soldiers coming back from World War II and saying, “Why should we still be a colony?”, had a very big impact on that also. An Indo-Pacific charter would say, “If you’re a democracy, if you’re Taiwan, we defend your right to stay a democracy,” right? Because we’re facing the same major issues we did back then. Now, they’re saying Indo-Pacific Charter is the way to help frame this.
President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson just signed an updated Atlantic Charter, which is very good for the UK, because it positions itself at that same sort of global level that it was in late 1930s. It gives the UK more visibility—visibility to EU and it reinforces a special relationship and all that stuff.
But it leaves people in Delhi going, “Hold on a second. Are you back to saying that the two great global powers are the U.S. and the UK? Because we don’t get along so great with the UK at the moment. So, are you going to be interacting with India? Is the U.S. going to be interacting with India via the UK because that’s not going to work?”
If they follow up the Atlantic Charter, if through the course of this perceptions exercise that we did. We understood quite clearly what the Indian view of Europe, to a certain degree the UK was. Although they get along fine with France for various reasons, then you understand that if you do an Atlantic Charter, you’d be very well placed to follow it up with an Indo-Pacific charter.
Iif the Atlantic Charter is step one and the Indo-Pacific charter is step two, you’re okay. If you just do the Atlantic Charter, then from the perception viewpoint of the Indo-Pacific, you’ve knocked yourself down. It doesn’t and ultimately it won’t help the UK and the region either. It will help the UK in Europe, but it won’t help the UK in the Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and the big thing that also came out of your report was that this sort of dramatic change in perception or understanding of China and frankly, role of China in the region. Right?
Ms. Paskal: Yeah. It was as you mentioned—we did this project a little over two years. We started the field research in 2019 and the last round tables were in Japan in March of 2020. So I flew out of Tokyo in March 2020, when the world was just starting to really shut down because of COVID and then we tracked it after that.
We had a good little kind of frozen in amber view of what the world was like in these strategic communities before COVID and then what happened after COVID—there was a fundamental change. And for some, it was exacerbated in large part by China’s activities. When China thought that everybody was weakened by COVID, they got super aggressive in the region.
It went into the South China Sea, but particularly in the Himalayas. That was when you had the attack on the Indian troops in the Himalayas. So again in India, you had the country that was on its knees, because of COVID and the lockdown, and then you had the PLA taking advantage of that to try to grab territory.
Anybody that had been, sort of on the fence about trying it beforehand after those 20 men were killed. And Indians have enormous respect for their armed services, right? So, when they died, there were public funerals. Everybody knew their names. People put the images of the men who were killed as avatars on their social media profiles. This went very deep into the Indian psyche.
India reacted in ways that were very interesting. They banned Chinese apps, they did a whole bunch of very smart, comprehensive national defense moves, which we can talk about if you’re interested, but the psychology fundamentally changed.
I had done a workshop in November 2019 about all of these perceptions. Within a year, it was completely different. What was willing to be said and done about China was completely different. The same was true to a certain degree in every single other country as well.
We saw shifts, for example, in the UK. They went from, “Maybe we’ll let Huawei into our systems” to “Yeah, we’re not going to let Huawei into our systems.” This last year and a half has fundamentally changed the perception of Beijing around the world.
However, that doesn’t mean the elite capture has gone away. That doesn’t mean there won’t be retrenchment. That doesn’t mean that Beijing won’t be able to recapture its position, and it may not do it directly, but as we saw with them using Russia—they may be using other methods.
They may be weakening our own societies. They may be using proxies. You have to take a look at what the actual effect is on the ground in terms of being able to make Beijing less effective at exporting its model to see whether the change in perceptions is actually having a difference in China’s ability to project power.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. Well, and policy, obviously, in all these other countries, and certainly in the U.S. I can’t help think about, what you mentioned, the banning of the apps. Of course, India banned both TikTok and WeChat—the most prominent. But numerous other Chinese apps are collecting all sorts of data.
We know TikTok is collecting biometric data very invasive as we speak right now. There was an Executive Order, from President Trump to ban WeChat and TikTok. That got kind of caught up in the courts. It was recently rescinded. But the new administration, President Biden basically said they’re going to look at it still and make some determinations.
Meanwhile, India has basically banned these things outright. Meanwhile, and from what I’m hearing about TikTok, it’s actually expanded its market from youth into adults, and it’s just collecting like crazy. So, what do you make of this?
Ms. Paskal: Let’s talk a little bit about why the Indians banned TikTok, so that you can understand what it is. Because I didn’t understand it. I mean, they killed 20 men. It was really just sort of the most brutal murders. It was spiked clubs and pushing off cliffs. It was like a viscerally, horrible, horrible thing and the response was to ban TikTok, right?
I was a little bit kind of… I didn’t understand it. So, I talked to Indian colleagues and they explained. Yes, it collects a lot of data. That data can be used—is being used in China to refine their weaponized AI systems. It has direct defense applications. It also has data collection that can be used for coercion, for blackmail, or whatever.
It’s also, it’s not just, it doesn’t just take in information, it curates information, but it sends out to try to manipulate the people who have the app into believing certain things or heading in certain directions politically. That doesn’t necessarily mean, and again it’s important China benefits—either if China does better or if other countries do worse.
If you can create social division or exacerbate social division in another country, and paralyze it socially, damage it socially, China wins. It doesn’t mean countries don’t have social problems. It just means that there is a vested interest from Beijing; making those situations worse. And you can do that through apps like TikTok.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, I just want to clarify one thing. So, did your Indian colleagues actually say that they know as a fact that this is being done with this app or this is alleged or there’s a potential for this?
Ms. Paskal: This is. I was told that these are all things that can be done with it and are very likely to be done with it. Okay? And including very specific cases, if you’ve got WeChat, so I’ll finish with TikTok. The other thing that they did by banning TikTok was they knocked about $6 billion off the valuation of the parent company ByteDance, just because they were knocked out of the Indian market. When you start to look at what banning TikTok actually was, the hit that it did to Beijing was extremely effective.
When you look at WeChat, because China wants to monitor all communications in and out of the country, if you’re dealing with somebody in China, you’re usually talking or can be talking to him via WeChat, right?
If you have WeChat on your phone it’s monitoring your communications. If you’re an Indian company operating in Africa, and you’re going after, you’re bidding for a contract, and you’re bidding against a Chinese company, the Chinese government or whomever can have access to your bids. Because it’s going through your phone that has WeChat on it, then they know how much you’re bidding, and they can ensure that your Chinese competition under bids you by just a bit—that seemed to have been happening in a very systematic way.
Okay, so it has all of these other implications again, in terms of knocking out India’s effective competition to China. If they have the information, the commercial information about how India operates, they know exactly where they can subsidize their companies in order to increase their market access in places like Africa.
These are not toys. Right? These apps are very critical elements of Chinese political warfare that advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party. And you brought up that in the U.S., this has been caught up in lawsuits.
China has this overt doctrine. It has the three warfares, media warfare, psychological warfare, and the third is lawfare-is using legal systems in order to advance its interest.
If you have a problem with WeChat in the U.S., and suddenly you have a grassroots group that’s coming to defend WeChat—a lot of first amendment right’s cases that serves Beijing’s interests very well. Right?
So using the courts, using our systems, using what’s in place to protect the individual American, Canadian, British or French, in order to protect Chinese interests is par for the course.
It’s also used, those three warfares interplay. So, if you’ve got media coverage, it’s very difficult to get stories that are critical of China placed in Western media because of the fear of lawsuits. Which is why you’re getting a lot of stories about, for example, corruption and Chinese linked corruption in Vancouver being placed in the media in India—because the Indians aren’t scared about it.
That’s why, again, when I’m trying to see some unfiltered coverage about China, I find the coverage in India is often much more comprehensive and in depth and sophisticated than what we’re seeing in a lot of the Western media.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and we’re definitely going to be inviting some Indian experts as one of which you recommended to me earlier onto the show for exactly this reason. I’m very excited about that, frankly.
Another thing that always gets me is there’s such a lack of understanding in the West of this civil military fusion doctrine in China. Just the general idea that the Chinese Communist Party controls essentially everything under it and the country or at least—can and if anything critical—does. It’s just not something that’s very well-known in the West to this moment.
Ms. Paskal: So, I mentioned that I learned a lot about China from the countries around China. Actually, the most I learned about China is from reading the Chinese doctrines themselves. I mean, none of this is hidden. They’ve declared war on the U.S.
This is like, it’s all there and we talked about the three warfares, but civil military fusion is a doctrine—it’s overt. It’s anything that can be used, if required for military purposes. They’ve got the right to do it, and they practice it.
A few months ago or a little around a year ago, there was a test where they took a factory that was manufacturing, I think, trucks to see how quickly it could be changed over to be manufacturing vehicles that had a more military purpose. They did it in 24 hours, right? So, it’s not just words, it’s actually practice. They have these so-called fishing fleets that are clearly part of a naval—have a naval element to them.
You’ve got that, you’ve got the three warfares. You have unrestricted warfare, which is an incredibly important term to understand. These again, these are all Chinese terms that come out of the Chinese think-tanks. Unrestricted doctrine of unrestricted warfare is essentially everything is fair game.
When we did those studies, the standardized studies for example, one of the things that we questioned was, …, “Do you think the UN Convention on Law of the Sea will still have legitimacy in 2024?” Well, “UN Convention on Law of the Sea” is an international agreement that standardizes how we interact with each other in terms of borders, maritime borders and exploration, that sort of stuff.
The six non-China countries thought it was a stupid question. Of course, “UN Convention on Law of the Sea” is still giving effect in four or three years. Of course, none of the Chinese participants thought it would have legitimacy in 2024—none of them. Some thought it might be adapted, some thought it might be rejected, because it’s not convenient for China.
In the context of unrestricted warfare, it’s completely legitimate to ignore international agreements if it restrains you in any way. If it restraints the other side, great all for international agreements. But if it restrains the Chinese Communist Party’s movement or decision making in any way, it will be rejected. Which is something to bear in mind if you’re putting a lot of effort into getting them to sign up to international negotiations. Because whatever concessions you’re making might not result in any adherence to what they’re signing afterwards.
The most important doctrine to understand in terms of understanding how Beijing operates and how it thinks is the Doctrine of Comprehensive National Power, which is the guiding principle for Beijing. This is how it sees China and it sees the world—the goal, overt goal, Again, this is all in the Chinese texts for the Chinese Communist Party is for China to be the number one country in the world in terms of comprehensive national power.
And comprehensive is comprehensive. That can mean access to resources, access to foreign capital, access to pieces of strategic infrastructure. It can mean control over somebody else’s media. And it is an empirical way of calculating this.
They have numerical values given to each of these aspects that go into an overall number. that tells you whether your country is doing better or your country’s doing worse. And what that means is there’s two ways—there are two ways to be number one. One is that your country does better, China does great, it’s wonderful also. The other is, all the other countries do worse, right?
If you have in that context, if you understand that mentality in that context, if you have a domestic pandemic, if you have a situation where you are going to do worse, because your people are getting sick and it’s going to affect your economy, you’re going to have to do some degree of shutdown. Then given the logic of comprehensive national power, it makes sense to take a pandemic and turn it into an epidemic, so that everybody else does worse also.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, epidemic into a pandemic, right?
Ms. Paskal: We talk a lot about when the U.S. should have shut its borders? When should the U.S. have not allowed flights from China, for example? Well, we don’t talk about when China should have blocked people leaving its country, right? Why was the onus on us? China had all the information much more so than we had or even have about the nature of this virus.
Why wouldn’t, if they cared about the international community, if they didn’t want to turn this thing into this horrible economy, destroying society, destroying murderous virus, why didn’t they stop people leaving their country, right? So, why is it on us? Why shouldn’t it be on them?
That is an example of the way that Chinese political warfare has made us turn against ourselves on these decisions as opposed to looking at clearly the true culprit—at least in terms of the transmission of the virus, which is the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Jekielek: Cleo, this has been an incredible discussion. I think we’re going to have to finish up. Any final thoughts?
Ms. Paskal: Be very aware of why you’re thinking what you’re thinking because the true front line now is our minds. It’s what we think, how we’re making decisions, who we think are the good guys, who we think are the bad guys, who’s our friend, who’s our enemy, both in terms of our neighborhoods and our countries and the world.
So, be very aware. You are targeted. It’s not just TikTok, it’s not just the media, it’s not just the think tanks. The goal now of the Chinese Communist Party is political warfare—which is the front line of its attempt to achieve that number one position in terms of comprehensive national power is your mind.
Take a minute every now and then and just think, “What I’m thinking? Is what I’m doing benefiting me and my country and my people, or is it benefiting Beijing?”
Mr. Jekielek: Cleo Paskal, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Ms. Paskal: Thank you. It’s like I’m very grateful to you for giving the space for these conversations. I learned a lot from the people you talk to. And this is why we fight back. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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