Deception, Denial, Distortion and Disinformation (D4) by China
Col Pradeep Jaidka (Retd.)

Deception is practiced by lizards, chameleons and storks for escaping danger or survival. Humans employ deception to create confusion, gain surprise, take advantage and secure victory. Examples abound in the Mahabharat; other examples are Trojan War, Alexander crossing the Indus at night, Zimmerman telegram, et al. Deception as a tool either conceals or enhances two vectors of a meaningful threat analysis – capabilities and intentions. The Chinese have perfected creation, manipulation and employment of both strategic and tactical deception into a sophisticated art which impacts meaningful, cogent threat analysis. Additionally, China liberally resorts to Cyber offensives, Electronic espionage, Information Harvesting and Information wars (excluded in this discussion). In this context the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times” gains more focus.

Although frequently employed and alluded to since ancient times, detailed discussions on deception are not easily found. This article analyzes few Chinese war waging mechanisms and deception stratagems. Most examples in the context of recent India and China events are drawn from Sun Tzu teachings compared to other thinkers. Some are catalogued and related to macro (strategic), military (operational or tactical) levels and recent usage.

Historical Influences on Chinese Thinking and Psyche

Amongst many, two primary historical influences on Chinese thinking namely Weiqi game and the Three Kingdoms history are selected to highlight their influences on present day Chinese thinking.

Chess is played on 8x8 grid board and ‘chessmen’ are moved from predetermined positions, according to preset rules to cause attrition till capture of the opponents ‘King’. In contrast, the Weiqi, an over 2500 year old Chinese board game for two players, has a 19×19 grid, with 361 intersecting points. Adversaries, mindful of the "life status" of their own groups, add ‘Stones’ on intersection points to create formations and potential territories. The aim is to expand own territory and attack the opponent's weak groups, till the opponent concedes his advantage. (The number of legal board positions in Chess is estimated at 10123 and that in Weiqi at 2 × 10170).

Weiqi is played on a larger board (Terrain) with longer games (Time, Patience) with a larger scope for play and many more alternatives to consider per move (Ambiguity and Flexibility). It focuses on ‘Positioning’ and ‘Expansion of territory’ (Manoeuvring with less focus on Attrition). Its influence can be seen in the Chinese propensity towards territorial gains – a phenomenon less seen in post World War II world and Chinese researchers and scientists enrolling as students in the U.S. to access hi-tech knowledge. Recent transgressions by the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control can be also seen in this perspective.

A study of the Three Kingdoms reveals that the Northern Wei kingdom, with its abundant resources and troops (superior force) was accustomed to threaten its militarily weaker Shu and Wu kingdoms in the South. Shu kingdom constantly sought an alliance with the equally weak Wu kingdom whose riverine and mountainous terrain mitigated some of its military weakness for repelling Wei. The inherent ambiguity, deception and inscrutability arising out of enormous permutations of Weiqi and the Three Kingdom history are etched in Chinese minds, culture and strategic thinking. This explains the intrinsic Chinese propensity to form alliances - earlier with USSR and lately the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) nations to further its aims.

Either game employs shrewd long term strategies to win. Military strategists like Xun Yu (Wei state), Zhou Yu (Wu state) and Zhuge Liang (Shu kingdom) are still celebrated in Chinese literature and popular culture. The contributions of PLA Marshal Peng Dehuai and PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing in respectively shaping China’s military and maritime strategy are significant. Today, the strategists supporting Xi Jinping in formulating national policies are likely to be Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and Central Military commission (CMC) members.

Contemporary Influences

The bipolar world that emerged after World War II, focussed on developing technology for global domination. Possessing formidable maritime capability became a prerequisite. The Peoples’ Republic of China was branded a remote player involved in its own internal affairs. The U.S. involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars only brought focus on China. Additionally, China did not develop a reckonable naval force for deployment against Taiwan which helped it continue its growth in an isolated way without much scrutiny – till the1980s when China started to create its presence on the global stage. China’s military too dumped its reliance on numerical superiority towards era of modernization and technology domination. It kept stealthily developing its capabilities in Science & Technology, industrial, Aviation and Space, Missile technology and weapon systems and evading due attention. Today, China amalgamates its civilian talent and military technology to further advance the nation’s interests. Most plans are long term, kept hidden. Deceptive, unobtrusive preparations commence much in advance. Ultimately when the event unfolds, surprise is achieved.

Technical Intelligence and Deception

It is appropriate to analyse the belief that current developments in electronic intelligence (ELINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT), radar intelligence (RADINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT) (collectively ‘TechInt’) would unmask deception efforts thereby assisting in producing realistic threat analysis. It should be remembered that inputs from each of these is specific to its technology and sensors. The logic holds well only if the intended target combines all TechInt inputs to conduct a timely holistic assessment after identifying and discounting ‘D4’. Conversely, if the initiator takes due precautions to execute his D4 plans, this logic would fail.

Historical Linguistic and Philosophical Influences

China’s leadership uses many precepts of ancient thinkers (some listed below) and old idioms that are often laden with historical references and meanings to formulate and guide national strategy. Such expressions remain linguistically opaque and confusing to outsiders. Some echo mutually and continue to influence modern China’s thought and behaviour.

Sun Tzu: The relevance of his “In employing the army, nothing is more important than not being knowable,” “Know the enemy and know yourself”, and “Warfare is a way of deception” continues undiminished.

Tai-pai Yin-ching (Li Ch’uan, T’ang Dynasty, 618–907 CE)

His pronouncements “Military strategy must be kept secret and not promiscuously transmitted”; “unorthodox plans and deceitful mental techniques produce disastrous cruelty, without them, the army could not be effective” and “When your mind is planning to seize something, feign being about to give it away” are significant.

Lectures on Seven Military Classics or Hundred Unorthodox Strategies compiled by Shih Tzu, (960–1126 CE) emphasize deception off the battlefield, especially how to win over foreign emissaries and ply them convincingly with false or misleading information.

The 36 Stratagems: Originally compiled during Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) are “considered the very embodiment of deception and final theoretical formulation.”

Deng Xiaoping’s “24 Character” Strategy

The “24 Character” strategy offers a course to maximize future options through avoidance of unnecessary provocations, shunning excessive international burdens, and building up China’s power over a long term.

Deception – its Guiding Principles and Practices

Deception appears in multi dimensional hues to different viewers. Apart from manipulating the adversary’s understanding of one’s own capabilities and intentions, deception also manipulates the situation with the goal of further degrading the adversary’s capabilities. An example: A ‘snake’ when seen from close quarters may be a piece of rope, but ultimately turn out to be a streak of coal tar.

Deception remains a factor for contemplation in contemporary China. Chinese culture promotes the idea that one need not necessarily be forthright, but should create ambiguity to leverage maximum space for strategic manoeuvre. Chinese thinking that “War is precisely war- a fight to the death”; inherently acknowledges that it not possible in this domain to pay attention to morality. PLA literature emphasizes that deception be applied dynamically in various conditions to gain an upper hand. Sun Tzu’s guiding principles must be mastered for planning and directing war. The Chinese have near perfected creation and manipulation of perceptions; and over time, deception has become integral to fighting wars.

Resultantly, the D4 are built into Chinese psyche to mislead the opponent, combined with other actions that transcend conservative war fighting (e.g. Cyber offensives, Electronic espionage, Info wars). China routinely uses D4 as a key component of national security policy and military planning.

Most Chinese deception practices are hidden from direct view. Very few Chinese civilian and military media sources provide insights - particularly on military deception. The observations of many Chinese commentators are relevant as evidenced in these sayings:

“Although the use of military force is based on benevolence and righteousness, for them to be victorious they must rely on deception”. - Zhang Yu, 8th century commentator on Sun Tzu

Deliberate manipulation of peace treaties and feigned covenants of alliance, including breaking non-aggression pacts - Tso-chuan (conformance is seen in multiple cases).

Avoiding Direct Confrontation

Chinese employ deception in civilian policy during peacetime as a viable strategy to avoid war and achieve strategic gains that would delay or render war unnecessary. War is considered to be the last resort and an admission that civilian policy has failed. Recent events in PLA Western Theatre Command (WTC) responsible for 3488 km long LAC with India including 1597 kms in Ladakh are assertions to this.

The Chinese decision makers train to keep themselves cool and calm under trying circumstances; not to fall victim to such provocations but remain cool-headed and calm and to avoid anger and impetuousness during battle, while attempting to cause the same in adversary’s Commanders behaviour.

This can also be linked to the ‘loss of face’ psyche. The loss of face is averted by holding prolonged discussions, punishing errant behaviour. Even the dual control system of PLA is a tool to save face. While the military overtly deters adversaries, the CPC exercises control through the political commissar who wields more authority and can overrule or restrain the Chinese forces engaging in direct wars. (China has disputes with practically all its 14 neighbours over a total land border length of 22,116 km).


PLA uses two types of decoys - inflatable and solid - to imitate an object or phenomenon and to deceive opponent’s surveillance devices. Both types are light in weight, cheap, portable, easy to assemble and use. A wide range of equipment including tanks, aircraft, artillery, trains, ballistic missiles launch vehicles and various other types of equipment can be simulated. For example an ‘inflatable’ tank weighs only 35 kilograms, can be folded to fit in a soldier’s backpack and inflated in four minutes.

The coatings of inflatable decoys mimic stone and metal. The solid material decoys appear more authentic than inflatable types in accurately replicating exact shape of the impersonated original. These decoys are claimed to mimic infrared signatures of a missile launch or that of a vehicle engine by circulating hot water. Interspersing and moving these in tandem with real equipment can degrade adversary surveillance; divert attacks away from real high value targets or distort adversary evaluation.

PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) Deception Measures

Special engineering and camouflage units are integral to PLARF. These initiate a variety of deception and camouflage measures e.g. disguising military trains as ordinary passenger trains; disguising DF-21 ballistic missile launchers as ubiquitous fuel truck and DF-10 launchers as common cargo trucks; equipping and moving fake troops on genuine special purpose vehicles same as the real unit; placing old, obsolete equipment in the open to hide real equipment thereby distracting adversary reconnaissance and punitive resources.

Militia Support

China’s local militia forces employ teams to initiate deception measures. They deploy decoys, provide camouflage support, assist execute displays, demonstrations and ruses to inhibit laser guided weapons, and using balloons, and deploying chaff.

Strategic Deception

Historically, the Chinese have employed peacetime strategic deception as a superior strategy avoiding the need to resort to war. Examples are : employing deception before and after hostilities during the war between the Communists and Nationalists; China’s diplomatic deceptions in dealing with the U.S. and Soviet Union at the Treaty of Versailles; the involvement of Chinese ‘volunteers’ in the 1950 Korean War, China’s sovereign wealth fund investments in U.S. securities.

Present day practices include - enrolling Chinese scientists as students and researchers in various U.S. establishments for accessing advanced S&T breakthroughs; China’s covert use of Corona virus as a means to further its own expansionist agenda in Asia and diverting world attention away from its major issues like human rights violation in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Trade War fallouts. The PLA continues to defensively train its troops during peacetime on dispersal and concealment drills by simulating overhead pass of reconnaissance satellite.

Some PLA lacunae and deficiencies include - lack of actual combat experience since mid 1980s. The current PLA comprises ‘a fixed tenure force’. Its current leaders and cadre both lack experience in fighting modern wars. Training and developing its troops to fight after adopting modern technology based war fighting concepts and the resultant organisational transformation requires ironing out. Some observe that far more PLA soldiers have participated in parades in Beijing than in combat. Despite these acknowledged deficiencies, Xi launched the most ambitious and potentially far reaching reforms in PLA’s history in late 2015. He has frequently exhorted PLA to be prepared for war.

Although China has announced many breakthroughs and force accretions, yet PLA has not embarked on a major offensive except ‘testing the waters’ against India. China’s reaction following the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) has been that ‘U.S. stay out of the India – China conflict,’- it being a bilateral issue.

China has set up a large Data Centre covering 645,000 square metre area having 10000 machine cabinets near Patola Palace, Lhasa. Based on 5G technology, operating with 530 Mb per second speed, it is owned by Ningsun Technologies, ostensibly, to serve as a communication hub for South Asian countries – Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However the location is ideal for monitoring Indo Tibet Borders, weapons deployment in South Asia and battle field communications. The station’s real intent is probably similar to China’s space station in Patagonia, Argentina.

Can the above listed be indicators of China using D4 to boost its capabilities and hide its intent?
Classical Teachings on Deception and Examples in Chinese War Strategies
Sun Tzu’s Teachings

PLA texts on waging war draw intensively from Sun Tzu advocacy over use of deception, espionage, intelligence, secrecy and psychological operations to confuse and demoralize the enemy, ‘ideally achieving victory without fighting a battle’. PLA texts analyzing the Sun Tzu’s confirm that efforts to mislead one’s adversary are deeply ingrained in the Chinese way of war. This is as opposed to the efficient practice of ruthless warfare, which implies needless bloodshed contrary to moral values.

PLA texts stress on the dynamic nature of war and advocate against conducting war on predetermined strategies based on anticipated conditions. The PLA texts encourage commanders to employ agile and flexible deceptive responses to the actual conditions encountered in battle. Thus PLA interpretations of the Sun Tzu become a key to understanding their rationale for strategy and operations.

‘Enhance the supremacy of unconventional warfare as opposed to the conventional’.

‘The recognition that change keeps warfare in a constant state of flux and benefit by controlling one’s superiority in warfare’.

It is interesting to see how Sun Tzu's “12 ways of deception” - grouped into three categories and laying down tenets for dealing with the various changing conditions - have been applied in the recent Indo-China context. (India specific relevant examples are in italics).

Deception (or Misleading)
  1. When one is capable, give the appearance of being incapable.
  2. Alternatively, ‘Appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak’.

  3. When one is active, give the appearance of being inactive.
  4. When one is near, give the appearance of being far.
  5. When one is far, give the appearance of being near.
  6. All afore listed are exemplified in various Chinese acts in mobilizing, amassing forces in Tibet under pretext of summer training and their subsequent actions in Galwan and Pangong Tso areas.

    Diversion (Situational Flexibility)
  7. When one’s opponents are greedy for advantage, tempt them.
  8. When one’s opponents are in chaos, seize them. (Exploiting India’s preoccupation with Covid-19 and economic downturn)
  9. When one’s opponents are secure, prepare for them.
  10. When one’s opponents are strong, evade them.
  11. Manifestations of 7and 8 are seen in avoiding confrontation with US-China Trade War and in China Seas.

    Distortion and Denial (Weakening the Adversary)
  12. When one’s opponents are angry, aggravate them.
  13. PLA texts advocate “If the adversary commander is bad tempered, obstinate and self opinionated think of ways to enrage him, causing him to join battle while in a state of having lost his reason.” Conformance to this dictum is seen in the frequent retractions from earlier stance during negotiations.

    Corollary is “If enemy morale is high, avoid his capabilities, wait or cause his morale to decline, and then attack him.”

  14. When one’s opponents are humble, make them arrogant.
  15. The US-China Trade War (under Trump) exemplifies both 9 and 10 above.

  16. When one’s opponents are friendly to each other, divide them.
  17. Examples- Providing funds to those inimical to India; steadily growing its influence in Nepal; Using loudspeakers to broadcast (in lingua franca of Indian troops) over futility of fighting in Ladakh and the Indian establishment providing indifferent support to soldiers etc.

  18. When one’s opponents are at ease, make them weary.

China is known to produce ‘Historical maps and documents’ to support territories claimed by China as their own. Another ruse is their frequent deliberate shifts derailing ongoing discussions by projecting newer demands after every meet magnifying uncertainty in threat evaluation and policy making.
The latest being its demand that both sides treat Finger 4 in Pangong Tso area as ‘No Mans’ land.

Corollaries to 12 are: (a) “Create momentum to deceive, obstruct and harass the enemy” and (b) “Reveal yourself to intimidate the enemy” . Examples of (a) are: Doklam, Chumar, Depsang events wherein the PLA adopted a lackadaisical approach after launching operations. Examples of (b) are: launching multiple small skirmishes from Arunachal to Ladakh, forcing India on defensive and dispersing its forces. India’s strategic reserves were tied to Ladakh but not Arunachal.

The advice “If morale is high, avoid his capabilities, cause frustration and wait for his morale to decline, and then attack him” finds echo in “Attack them when they are unprepared; Come forth when they are not expecting you to do so”.

“Show the false to confuse the enemy.” Initially China agreed to withdraw from Galwan and Hot Springs but not from Panggong and Depsang; Some IMINT interpreters accepted the ‘Pink Tents’ on doctored Chinese satellite imageries. PLA also denied any casualties in Galwan ignoring public demand. Later, few battalions were concentrated behind the immediate conflict zone to create an impression of massive build up, whereas on ground the frontline troops were getting evacuated to hospitals in the rear.

Overall, these advices by Sun Tzu on the value of ‘cheating’ (deception) as tool of warfare are instructive:

‘Remember, when designing your war strategy, to deploy deceptions and win the battle of wits’.

‘Pretend to be unable to make an attack when you are quite able to’.

‘One should hide his readiness for combat when he is ready to’.

‘If you plan to attack a nearby place, you should pretend to attack from a far-off place and vice-versa’.

‘Don't take your enemy's capability for granted. Take double precautions against such an enemy.’

Deng Xiaoping’s “24 Character” Strategy

Each four-word phrase in the six phrases when translated mean “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” These “24 Character” strategies advocate a course to maximize future options through avoiding unnecessary provocations, shunning excessive international burdens, and building up China’s power over a long term.

Of particular interest is the phrase, “to hide and bide, observe with strategic patience and keep a low profile” which resonates with Sun Tzu’s “Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity.”

This advice is often followed in situations where the adversary is stronger. The adversary is led to gloat in his domination. The weaker side betrays a posture of weakness and quietly builds his capabilities over sufficient time to deal with the opponent at the opportune time when the strategic situation is manipulated to own advantage. A good example is the U.S. China Trade War where China did not reveal its hand while retaining the advantage of processing the Rare Earth Minerals (REM) for the U.S. and rest of the world. (Two essential uses of REM are its employment in missile guidance systems, Night Vision equipment).

The Thirty-Six Stratagems of Deception

These are subdivided into six categories, each comprising short sentences referring to mutual opposites of Action – Motive sequence e.g. advance and retreat, attack and defence. The groupings are: The Stratagems of Winning; The Stratagems of Defending; The Stratagems of Attacking; The Stratagems of Scuffling; The Stratagems of Merging; The Stratagems of Losing.

Some are briefly discussed below.

Strategy 2 ¬- Surround Wei to rescue Zhao; It implies when the enemy is too strong to attack directly, then attack something he holds dear. This is evidenced in China influencing Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.

Strategy 6 - Feign an attack in the east and attack in the west; Seen in the initial Depsang, Doklam incursions well before Eastern Ladakh.

Strategy 19 - Remove the firewood under the cooking pot or Remove the stick from the axe strategy: When faced with an enemy too powerful to engage directly you must first weaken him by undermining his foundation and attacking his source of power. The disengagement in Galwan can be cited here.

Strategy 30 - Make the host and the guest exchange places: Defeat the enemy from within by infiltrating the enemy's camp under the guise of cooperation, surrender, or peace treaties. In this way you can discover his weakness and then, when the enemy's guard is relaxed, strike directly at the source of his strength.

Strategy 33 - The Strategy of Sowing Discord: It advises the need to undermine enemy's ability to fight by secretly causing discord between him and his friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers, and population. This would keep him preoccupied on settling internal disputes and invariably compromise his ability to attack or defend. Example: signing MOU between PRC and Congress party.


Accepting inevitability of deception in the unfolding geopolitical environment will be an effective insurance against rude surprises. Underestimating PLA deception will breed complacency and enhance risks while overestimating the PLA capabilities will bestow unwarranted advantages. The Chinese inclination and compulsions to employ D4 under any situation should be expected, identified and countered on a continuous basis. Simultaneously, locating and targeting PLA high value assets such as missiles under camouflage, Cyber and Electronic wars, Data harvesting in the future should be undertaken. It is in these fields that the advantage of the opponent lies.

Traditional thinkers who discount the use of deception and other initiatives as unethical will be unable to identify the volumes involved. Continuous alertness will have yield due dividends for all and the future of the region.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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