Cover: Chinese Next-Generation Psychological Warfare

Chinese Next-Generation Psychological Warfare

The Military Applications of Emerging Technologies and Implications for the United States

Published Jun 1, 2023

by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga


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Research Questions

  1. How does China think about future psychological warfare and the cognitive domain? What are some emerging operational concepts?
  2. What emerging technologies are the Chinese military interested in leveraging for next-generation psychological warfare? Is there any evidence of tangible Chinese efforts to actually develop these capabilities?
  3. What shortcomings do Chinese military psychological warfare researchers identify that might hinder desired progress?
  4. How might Chinese psychological warfare capabilities evolve, and what would they mean for Chinese strategic behavior in a crisis or conflict?
  5. How could Chinese capabilities affect U.S.-China dynamics over peacetime competition, crisis, and conflict?

China views psychological warfare, centered on the manipulation of information to influence adversary decisionmaking and behavior, as one of several key components of modern warfare. The U.S. military's increased focus on China and preparations for a potential U.S.-China conflict mean that it is important to understand how Chinese psychological warfare capabilities may evolve and what they would mean for Chinese strategic behavior in a crisis or conflict. The author explores Chinese military thinking about next-generation psychological warfare. China is interested in both advanced computing, such as big data, and brain science for their potential military applications to improve future psychological warfare capabilities.

Leveraging a wide array of Chinese-language primary-source materials, the author provides an overview of Chinese thinking on psychological warfare, key capabilities, and related operational concepts that the Chinese military is pursuing and presents a hypothetical case study to illustrate how these capabilities, if realized, may be applied to a future U.S.-China contingency. One high-risk future scenario is if the Chinese military and broader leadership believes that these emerging technologies enable Beijing to predict or otherwise influence adversary decisionmaking. This could lead Beijing to have misplaced confidence in its ability to deter adversaries from fighting or coerce them to not fight at all.

Key Findings

Chinese military thinking on psychological warfare is much more diverse than previously understood

  • Although there are areas of general agreement (the objectives of psychological warfare), there is clearly debate over various operational concepts.

The People's Liberation Army psychological warfare community has discussed a variety of technologies that it envisions leveraging for future operations

  • These include advanced computing, especially big data and information processing; brain science, especially brain imaging; and legacy proposals that remain of interest, including sonic weapons, laser weapons, subliminal messaging, and holograms.
  • There is strong evidence the Chinese military has developed and employed information manipulation capabilities and laser weapons already, although it is unclear whether these have been specifically intended as psychological warfare.

There are three alternative futures that illustrate potential trends and the long-term outlook for Chinese psychological warfare

  • The first is an embrace of information manipulation as a leading edge of national power.
  • The second is a bold new direction for warfare, centered on a Chinese military embrace of emerging technology for predicting or otherwise shaping adversary decisionmaking.
  • The third is a failure of imagination, causing a continuation of the status quo for Chinese military capabilities.

The real-world impact of next-generation psychological warfare capabilities may be even less important than Beijing's assumption about whether they will work as intended, or, once employment begins, even its perception that they are working as intended

  • This raises the risk that once China realizes that its psychological warfare efforts are not having the intended effect, such as the adversary taking a different course of action, Beijing might respond in unpredictable ways.


  • The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) should pay special attention to indications that the Chinese military is becoming more interested in predicting or influencing adversary decisionmaking.
  • DoD should continue to improve its understanding of Chinese psychological warfare theory (doctrine) and development of new capabilities across the research and development process.
  • DoD should better understand China's psychological warfare workforce.
  • DoD should better understand Chinese psychological warfare operations and training.
  • DoD should pay special attention to how Beijing is applying military-civil fusion toward psychological warfare.
  • DoD should better understand Chinese concerns about adversary psychological warfare for defense.
  • DoD should consider how to protect its troops from Chinese psychological warfare (nonlethal) weapons.
  • DoD should consider how to protect its troops from Chinese information collection and information manipulation.
  • DoD should consider dialogue with China, specifically the Chinese military, on the implications of new technology for warfare and the acceptable scope of conflict.
  • The U.S. intelligence community should pay special attention to an increase in intelligence deception from China.

This research was sponsored by Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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