Falun Gong: The Fear Within

This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Website. 


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

In April 1999, a decade after the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, an encore of the ’89 tragedy unfolded at the same venue. The scale of proportions was the same and so were State anxieties that unleashed mass persecution. In the event, the State came down with its bludgeons on over 10,000 followers of the Buddhist inspired Falun Gong spiritual movement, government assessment placed the number of practitioners at over 70 million. The number of casualties in the crackdown and the subsequent repression which continues to date remains uncorroborated, however estimates suggest over 3,700 deaths in re-education labour camps and custodial torture and a shocking 65,000 in fatal organ harvesting.

Falun Gong philosophy is centred on the Buddhist concept of Dharma Chakra and its morality driven by Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance. The Movements only plea is to be given recognition, not as some “lunatic fringe” (as state intelligentsia had labelled them), but as a legitimate entity of the People’s Republic of China. So what was it about these gentle devotees that brought upon the ire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)? It certainly could not have been their deep breathing and smooth flowing rhythmic exercises that invited brutal battering, extrajudicial imprisonment in the tens of thousands, psychiatric abuse, torture, alleged fatal organ harvesting and a continued repression that has forced millions of adherents underground.

Most puzzling is the persistent severity of the crackdown and the vicious denunciation of the Movement (membership said to be more than the CCP) as a heretical one. Particularly so, when the labour is pacific in nature and is neither irreverential nor has it set out to desecrate the communist state. At which time why the Central Committee of the Politburo considers it a menace to the “stability and unity” of the Middle Kingdom remains perplexing. Despite persecution, the fact is that Falun Gong, even today, remains the preferred life style choice of millions of mostly elderly Chinese many of who are in positions of power. Stability of political dispensation and territorial unity is considered to lie at the heart China’s national interests. To the CCP, it is non negotiable and any event that is perceived to even remotely endanger these interests, sets into motion an extreme response. The extraordinarily brutal reaction to root out Falun Gong, an idea that can be traced back to two millennia of Chinese civilization, in the name of upholding recently imported principles of Marxism-Leninism is all the more inexplicable when one notes that these latter principles have long since been buried when the state adopted “State Controlled Capitalism” to drive their economic policies. Is it that the politics of commercialism and economic change can surge ahead divorced from the politics of the state without undermining stability and unity? Or will we in the immediate future witness devolution of economic activities sacrificed at the altar of centralized political power? And what of the States abiding belief in the idea of Da yitong or the imperial concept which saw politics and socio-economics as two sides of the ‘Great Systemic Whole’ which never quite collapsed with the Qing Dynasty in 1912? It is significant that today the political dispensation in China, with its siege mentality, repressive social policies and a self ordained (almost imperial) historical mandate; finds itself at odds with the consequences of its economic vigour and any social dynamic that seeks to make moral interpretations contrary to that by the CCP.  Falun Gong is convinced that the practice of atheism has enabled the Communist Party to interpret freely what is virtuous and what is good or bad. Such a flexible approach is abhorrent to the movement for it gives to the ruling elite the powers to blur the distinction between the corrupt and law-abiding. Morality then becomes an act of mass belief that the Party is invariably “truthful, magnificent and exalted.” Falun Gong practitioners, on the other hand, evaluate right or wrong based on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. And this is where the rub comes, for to the CCP any form of spirituality gives people an unchanging standard of good and bad. This obviously hinders the Party’s perpetual efforts to “unify” people’s thinking in order to “stabilise” their own position. The consequences of sharing, the hitherto monopoly on societal power, may explain the fears within. Thus far China’s splendid economic surge and its exhortations to its people to find “goodness” in getting rich fast has muzzled the impulse to pluralism in political thought and indeed has postponed the need to reckon with the contradictions between central political power and economic vitality. However, as the current economic downturn shrivels political options, the probability of a face off between an “old state” against new societal impulses becomes a reality. It is true that the Peoples Liberation Army may tip the balance, as with the Tiananmen Square uprising of a quarter a century earlier, the old state (albeit in mauled circumstances) may triumph; but this only puts off the inevitable. In 1859, John Stuart Mill, the British political economist, suggested in his philosophical work On Liberty that “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” Repression against the Falun Gong represents one more such dwarfing in a litany which began with Mao’s invasion of Tibet, the “Great Leap Forward,” The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the massacre of Uighurs, Tiananmen Square massacre and the Umbrella Revolution. In each of these seismic episodes the State responded brutally to societal events as it shielded its all consuming hankering for political power; at the same time the incidents exposed a deepening fear within. Whether today we can distinguish the concluding steps of a despotic regime in a last ditched attempt to turn back the clock on economic reforms and cling to autocratic power; or the emergence of a new political order that is in sync with the socio-economic vitality of the Chinese people, remains an arguable proposition.

Unmanned Naval Warfare: Developing a Mechanism for the Future of Unmanned Systems


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in Geopolitics Magazine, May 2015.)

The year is 2020. A strategic entente has long been reached between the USA, India, Australia, Japan and the ASEAN to provide cooperative security in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the West Pacific. Japan has since 2018 been unleashed from military strictures imposed after the World War II by the San Francisco treaty of 1951, the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 and the Cairo Declaration of 1943. In the meantime the situation in the South China Sea has reached a flashpoint. China has unilaterally declared the South China Sea as defined by the 9-dash line as a territorial sea while enabling the third island chain strategy to provide security to their energy and trade routes. The third island chain runs an arc from the north of Japan, east of the Mariana Trench passing through the Makkasar and the Lombok Straits extending to the Chagos archipelago. The US installation of ABM batteries in the littorals, series of hot incidents in China’s East China Sea air defense identification zone and the escalating clashes between maritime security forces in the South China Sea has provoked an aggressive reaction from China. In a rapid joint amphibious assault PLA forces have occupied the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait.

In the Indian Ocean, China as a part of their Africa strategy has laid stifling embargos on use by the entente of all “Maritime Silk Road” gateways and infrastructures that they helped finance particularly the TanZam rail corridor and ports of Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, ports of Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo in Tanzania and the port of Djibouti. They have similarly denied access to the ports on the west coast of Africa particularly Kirbi in Cameroon. The PLAN have deployed the Liaoning carrier group along with supporting nuclear attack submarines and surveillance elements for SLOC control and security in the North Indian Ocean.

The Indian CCS have accepted the need for joint Entente operations to enhance surveillance and mark PLAN forces. Accordingly the Vikramaditya carrier group has been deployed in standoff mode while several US long endurance surveillance and strike UAVs have been tasked for surveillance of Chinese forces.US unmanned denial forces have been assigned distant ‘marking’ tasks. The composite Entente task force is designated TF 911; it is supported by precision and persistent satellite surveillance, ABM batteries and nuclear attack submarines.

 After a series of fruitless diplomatic exchanges and strident demarches, Chinese high command establishes a 200 nautical mile moving Exclusion Zone around the Liaoning Group. Task Force Commander (TFC) 911 is ordered to challenge this zone. Accordingly he prepares to tighten the surveillance perimeter and bring in his long range strike and surveillance UAVs to maintain shadowing distance of 190 nautical miles by reprogramming their surveillance sectors while deploying his unmanned denial forces to marking range of 100 nautical miles. As the new deployment pattern is executed TFC 911 receives an alarm report that the satellite surveillance picture is snowed out while both UAVs and unmanned denial forces were not under command and had reverted to their default “come home” mode which would navigate them away from the scene of operations to a distant stand by way point.

Cyber attacks unleashed by the PLAN had breached and spoofed the satellite surveillance networks; while the command and control links of the unmanned vehicles had been penetrated, their command computers disabled and control codes hacked into; effectively both UAVs and unmanned denial forces had turned rogue! CTF 911 is faced with a serious operational quandary, should he risk man with material to go in harms way? Would the introduction of manned units comprise an escalation of the situation? Will an engagement involving casualties spin out of control? At a more profound level was a doubt; could the unmanned replace the manned combatant?

To be sure this is a gaming scenario, but the fear of loss of control of remote forces is a reality that no Commander at sea can wish away particularly when cyber security is an inverse function of use, while use is central to efficiency. Also, the gap in singularity between man and remote weapon will always exists as an exploitable vulnerability. The CTFs’ operational dilemma is an existential predicament when the option to use unmanned vehicles is available. His more profound doubt captured the essence of the unmanned combatant; to integrate and enhance rather than replace.

The Battle of Lake Poyang [i]

In 1363 CE a curious battle was fought between the ruling Han fleet of Chen Youliang and the warring founder of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang, the outcome of the battle would decide control of China. Chen had amassed a large Han armada comprising big deep draught heavy artillery tower ships for the investment of the riverine city of Nanchang along the south west bank of the Poyang lake, the largest inland fresh water body in China. The aim was to gain a strategic foothold in Ming territory. Drought conditions and nature of the waters made pilotage difficult due shallows and strong shore setting currents created by the river Ga Jiang that drained into the lake. The Han armada was restricted in manoeuvre to a disproportionately small deep water pool. The Ming fleet however saw tactical advantage in speed, mobility and manoeuvre. Accordingly their fleet depended on agility, shallow draught and lightly cannoned hulls. The engagement between the two was pitched, asymmetric and prolonged without reaching a decision till the Ming Navy introduced small unmanned fire ships into the fray. The crafts were loaded with straw and tinder, dummies were erected to simulate a watch on deck and they were towed stealthily to their release points upstream and upwind of the Han armada. The straw was set afire just as the tow was slipped. With their helms seized the fire-ships drifted rapidly on to the bunched Han armada, ramming and setting ablaze the lumbering tower ships. Nanchang was relieved and the Han never recovered from this defeat.

The Battle of Poyang is important to our study for two reasons: firstly, the use of unmanned war ships is not a new phenomenon in maritime conflicts as the 14th century Zhu Yuanzhang will testify; secondly, planning, coordination and direction is a command function that cannot be left to the ‘intelligence of a drifting fire ship; thirdly, as the Commander of Task Force 911 realized in our creative scenario of 2020, the future of unmanned systems at sea and across the entire spectrum of maritime operations must remain focused on integrating with the manned platform.

Case for Unmanned Combat Platforms

Convergence of three critical factors will impact the development and constituents of tomorrows’ Fleet, and indeed, will form the driving force for the adoption of unmanned combat platforms. Firstly, a convincing argument may be made of how unmanned platforms will improve combat capabilities without the risks involved in committing humans for high hazard operations such as minesweeping, surveillance, low intensity operations and marking of high value potentially hostile units. Secondly, a cost benefit analysis will readily reveal the obvious that payload to platform dimensions is adversely affected by the need to provide safety and hotel services for manned platforms, as a thumb rule this may be taken between 20% to 25% by volume and an equal amount by cost. Lastly, the economics of matching tight budgets with increasing demands on the operational tempo of the Navy will call for cutting back on manpower through increased automation, technology substitutes and incorporating artificial intelligence; this in turn will have a positive effect on reducing bulk, increasing platform lethality and enhancing mobility.

Technology Trends and the Planner’s Vision        

The spectrum of applications where unmanned systems may find use, range from automated systems that ease operator load and in turn reduce complement of crew to completely autonomous platforms that makes decisions based on artificial intelligence and may be programmed for a variety of missions from start to termination without human intervention. However our 2020 scenario will suggest an operational vision that is tempered by four guiding factors:

  • Unmanned systems will augment and not replace existing and projected manned force structures.
  • Unmanned systems will be standardized to four basic design categories: Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV to include sea bed mobility). Mission packages will be modular and will conform to respective design categories. Platform size will be minimized.
  • Unmanned systems will be compatible for operations by all major surface combatants.
  • While automation will be enhanced to give near autonomy to platforms, high level human supervision will, however, prevail. Weapon release will in most cases require human control.

Platform Priority for development may be distinguished by operational needs, a suggested set of priorities are: Priority 1: Scouting, Priority 2: Mine sweeping and hunting, Priority 3: Undersea offensive operations.

Operational Mission Requirements: Unmanned Combat Systems

We have thus far, through the devices of a simulated scenario and historical reference made a macro case for the development, induction and integration of unmanned systems into the Navy of the foreseeable future. While our approach has been evolutionary we have to remain sensitive to the fact that risk aversion and economics alone cannot be the reason for an unmanned orientation. After all from a moral standpoint, armed conflict is a national political endeavour that is characterized by human violence; to remove the human from one side in order to sanitize war fighting is to run the danger of trivializing armed conflict to a video game. The man must not only take responsibility for decisions he makes, but also for the consequences of his action. Because the systems we are dealing with are maritime systems, in peacetime they will be forward deployed in international waters for operations that aim at monitoring and projecting presence to a greater degree than other technologies. As discussed earlier their very character will encourage their use in a wider variety of contexts than current manned units. Both forward deployment and broader applications give to the unmanned maritime systems an operational potential that in theory places them in the vanguard of operational utility. Given such a potential it is extremely important that the Commander at sea envision what transformation the system will bring about and how both man and material must respond. Two factors play a pivotal role in understanding the altered circumstance; firstly, the unmanned system remains a tool in the hands of planners to further, as always, political objectives whether these are humanitarian, economic, surveillance or power projection. Second, most contemporary assessments about these systems build a rationale a that unmanned systems, being defenceless against a well equipped foe, can figure with any prominence only in the Navy’s benign and policing roles without a mention on the impact that it may have on the future operational maritime space. This second consideration is hardly surprising since assessments can only be made with some anticipated use in mind and perhaps the most simplistic is that it extends an existing capability; overlooking the discreet strike role that these systems played in America’s war on terror in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan and the surveillance role that they continue to play in disputed waters such as the South China Sea.

Deployments of unmanned systems in numbers particularly space based systems for operational and even tactical scenarios will require changes to our command and control doctrines and structures. This is significantly true in dense and complex situations when the fleet commander and his deployed combatant elements are recipients of combat information from unmanned systems over which they have no control yet will have to respond to. Satellite and long range surveillance imagery are cases in point when the sensors and remote sensing devices could well be national assets that deliver right up to the tactical level. Therefore while defining the mission requirements for the instruments of unmanned naval warfare it is important to keep the larger context of the nature of armed conflict in stark perspective. The primary requirement, within the parameters of the planner’s vision (discussed earlier) is for war fighting. This will include scouting by which is meant missions’ involving search, patrol, tracking or reconnaissance.[ii] All four design categories of unmanned systems may be engaged in scouting operations. It must be noted that when deployed on patrol missions, a strike capability is intrinsic either by a cooperating unit or by the unmanned system. Human supervision is an essential part of our requirements for our unmanned combat systems accordingly a special cadre will have to be raised for control. Tactical and operational assignments may include deception, electronic warfare, information warfare and environment data collection (both meteorological and hydrological) in all three dimensions. The planner will also remind us that operational decisions always carry with them a probabilistic uncertainty much in the mould of CTF 911’s quandary. In the aggregate what the planner behind his desk will do well to pay heed to while defining the mission requirements of the unmanned combat system and the Commander at sea hark back to before deploying his mission is Clausewitz’ insightful message on the non-linearity of warfare, that the “complexity of war is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Mission Packages

Mission packages for the four standard design categories identified earlier must necessarily lead off from the operational mission requirements identified earlier and conform to the considerations that influence the planner’s vision. Platform standardisation, modularity of mission packages that would permit easy role configuration changes within a standard platform as well as between platforms (where possible) as well as adaptation of the technology trends particularly those related to automation, autonomy and control will be central to the realisation of the mission packages. In broad terms, five main mission packages have been identified which may further be de-aggregated to functional modules. The 5 packages are:

  • Scouting, navigation, target acquisition and weapon delivery.
  • Sensors.
  • Meteorology, hydrology, bathythermal and underwater topography.
  • Information warfare, Electronic warfare and communication relay.
  • Battle Damage Assessment.

Conclusion: To Catch the Transformatory Moment

Induction of unmanned combat systems into the Indian Navy has thus far been haphazard. It has neither been guided by an integrated approach between services nor has development of unmanned systems for the navy followed a set of priority driven requirements. The approach hitherto has been, unique designs for stand alone specific missions and a concentration on performance. How else does one explain the sponsoring of the Nishant short endurance UAV, acquisition of the medium endurance UAV Searcher, acquisition of the long endurance Heron and the induction of an assortment of mine sweeping and mine hunting UUVs? There has been no movement towards developing a planner’s vision nor a policy orientation directed at standardisation of platforms, modularity of mission packages, recognising technology trends or creating control compatibility and interoperability. So currently the Navy finds itself with non interactive systems segregated into unique and specific platform “stove pipes” with little or no compatibility with major manned combatants.

In the absence of a mechanism that first, makes a prognostication of the direction that unmanned naval warfare is likely to take and then formulates plans and coordinates the future of unmanned systems; the Indian Navy is quite likely to miss a tranformatory moment in the course of maritime warfare. We began with a hypothetical maritime scenario when the Commander of Task Force 911 was placed on the horns of an operational dilemma through loss of control of his unmanned forces, the situation was more a planner’s lesson that unmanned forces are not intended to replace manned combatants but to integrate and enhance capability. In order to do so a case was made in support of the unmanned combat platform at sea and a tempered operational vision was developed for standardising unmanned platforms. This led to the macro definition of mission requirements in all three dimensions and then zeroed in on the essential mission packages. While emphasising the need for an integrated approach what should not be lost sight of is the perils of viewing the unmanned system as an economical weapon that could avert risks to the man behind the machine, rather the intention is not to replace but combine. In our historical review of the Battle of Poyang we saw how well directed unmanned fire ships delivered victory to an inferior force; the question before us is clear do we choose the Zhu Yuanzhang model and catch the transformatory moment or not.

End Notes 

[i] Dreyer Edward L, The Poyang Campaign, 1363. The Chinese Ways of Warfare edited by Frank A Keirman and John K Fairbank. Harvard University Press 1974. pgs 202-242.

[ii] Allied Naval Manoeuvring Instructions. NATO Publication 1957, Pg 8-3

The January Storm


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Mao launched his ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ on 16 May 1966. It unleashed furious and complex internal armed struggles driven essentially by a struggle for power between Mao’s status quoists and Liu Shaoqi’s impulse to reform. Recognising the catastrophic failures of Mao’s economic policies, his deep seated paranoia towards change and his very brittle interpretation of what conformed to Marxism and more dangerously what did not; Liu set about staging a coup d’état through manipulation of the internal mechanism of State power. Mao used more direct methods. He urged “bombard the headquarters and overthrow those in authority taking the capitalist road” and charged, in a mass of contradictions that “things can be Left in form but Right in essence”. Government and the State machinery, Liu’s instruments were thrown into paralysis and a bloody inner cleansing of opposing leadership began. The revolution combined “elements of a witch hunt, a crusade, an inquisition and cutthroat palace politics” (William A Joseph, Politics in China: An Introduction. 2014). A destructive decade on unprecedented scale was the outcome.

In January 1967, a year after the Cultural Revolution had taken root another seismic event occurred. Mao’s estranged wife Jiang Qing along with three cronies who included Wang Hongwen a second vice chairman of the Party, Zhang Chunqiao head of the Shanghai revolutionary Committee and Yao Wenyuan a party mass media manipulator formed what infamously came to be known as the “Gang of Four”. It was under Wang’s leadership as the head of the Maoist faction that he seized power from the ‘capitalists’ in Shanghai; to Mao, this was his ‘January Storm’. It became the archetypal model for the Cultural Revolution in the other provinces.

More critically to the Gang of Four, Mao’s favours at a time of his failing health gave them access to the levers of power over the remains of the purged Liu. In the event the power struggle ended with a dying Mao, supreme after a heap of Liu’s cadres had been overthrown. While the Gang consolidated their sway through their slogan “suspect all, overthrow all” (Chi Hsin, The Case of the Gang of Four, Cosmos Books, Hong Kong 1978, Pgs 1-50). They mobilized over half a million Red Guards to besiege state organs, usurped control of Government and stifled all opposition. In the mean time large scale poverty, external security anxieties and growing disenchantment of the long suffering people forced the Party to opt for a government of stability that could end the anarchy let loose by the power struggle. The key was, support and unconditional backing of the Peoples Liberation Army, which was denied the Gang.

Marshal Ye Jianying (Marshal of the PLA), Deng Xiaoping, Hua Guofeng and reform economists Chen Yun and Li Xianian formed the core of the next party leadership which in the interest of stability included four serving Marshals and seven Generals, they animated the party and challenged the Gang. Within a month of Mao’s death on 09 September 1976 this latter group led a successful coup d’état. The Cultural Revolution came to formal closure in October 1976 with the downfall of the Gang. Four features of the unsettled decade are significant to our study. Firstly, power politics that pervaded Mao’s brittle authoritarian rule. Second, the continuing distress and disenchantment of the people who had suffered famine, displacement and death on the scale of millions during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” now being subjected to a thinly veiled power tussle in the garb of a Cultural Revolution. Third, mass hysteria that the revolution generated aroused sentiments akin to religious worship of Mao; while creating power centres such as the Red Guard that surpassed law and even challenged the PLA. Lastly, violence that sought destruction of “Old Thought”.

In this period Chinese Government poster titled, Destroy the old world; build a new world , a Red Guard of heroic proportions places his boot on a statue of Buddha, a  Crucifix and traditional books and crushes them with a sledge hammer. Image source:

In this period Chinese Government poster titled “Destroy the Old World; Build a New World,” a Red Guard of heroic proportions places his boot on a statue of Buddha, a crucifix and traditional books, and crushes them with a sledge hammer.

More than half a century after the ‘January Storm’ China has seen two decades of dazzling economic growth. This too during a period of general global economic slowdown, strife in West Asia, the rise of radical Islam, an inward looking EU and a frenetic Russia intent upon rising from the debris of empire. China’s growth story has been accompanied by ambitions of global leadership. This has in turn has spurred an unparalleled military growth. But the real alarm is, China seeks to dominate international institutions and rewrite the rule books without bringing about a change of her own morphology. China’s claims on the South and East China Sea; handling of internal dissent; proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases in point.

When Xi Jinping took over reigns of general secretaryship of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November 2012 he also took over the top offices of the Party and the Military when he had the Central Committee of the CPC anoint him as the President of the PRC as well as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) making him, informally, the ‘Paramount Leader’. Announcing deepening reforms his declared opening move was to crackdown on state corruption at all levels. His first target was the political grouping (coincidentally also called the Gang of Four!) of Zhou Yongkang (former security chief), Xu Caihou (former Vice Chairman CMC), Bo Xilai a “princeling” and former Chongqing party chief seen as a threat to Xi’s power base, and Ling Jihua former advisor and confidant of the erstwhile Premier Hu Jintao. Whether the blitz was on account of political anxieties or indeed corruption-related offenses is not entirely clear, but they were rising stars in the CPC firmament and were deposed. Their followers, however, remain on edge. In the meantime economic growth has slowed down (<7%) while sustained illegal capital flight out off China has strained China’s financial system; globalisation and the arrival of the middle class (petty bourgeoisie) have raised unreal material expectations; there is restiveness amongst minorities particularly in the South West where radical Islamic influence is strong and mass incidents of social unrest caused by large scale migrations from the rural to urban regions is on a steep upward slope. All the while a brooding military finds itself shorn of its traditional CMC Chair and without a seat in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The aggregate of these seemingly unrelated episodes leaves a question mark on whether the State apparatus can reconcile the nation’s aspirations with growing internal stresses peaceably or will reconciliation take the form of another “January Storm?”

Tocqueville, in 1858 suggested the most critical moment for authoritarian governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform. Mao lived the axiom; the question is how will Xi receive this truism?