Roughly 2,500 km from the North and South Blocks in Central Delhi as the crow flies, is the city of Kunming in Yunnan province of Southern China.
Tucked away among a line of trees and office buildings and near the Kunming general hospital is a column of five-storey buildings that, among other establishments, house the “Unit 78020” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“Unit 78020”, like multiple other units of similar identification marks, is the Military Unit Cover Designator (MUCD) for a Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (TRB). MUCD is a unique five-digit number used by the PLA to identify military units externally. The TRBs are a part of the Network Systems Department (NSD), the information and cyber warfare branch of the PLA.
The NSD reports to officials who are a part of the Strategic Support Force (SSF). The SSF is amongst the newest specialised arm of the PLA and was brought into existence in 2015 when the PLA underwent a massive changeover.
The mandate of the SSF is to fight in the realm of space, cyber, political, and electronic warfare. The TRBs that function under it carry out all activities related to cyber offence and defence.
Overall, there are at least 10 such TRBs spread across China, with each unit focusing on a set of different countries. Sources told The Sunday Guardian that each such TRB has specialised staff that are well versed in the language of the country, which they are required to focus on. For example, “Unit 78020” has people who are well versed in Hindi.
While the people leading these TRB units are transferred routinely from one unit to the other, the SSF is supervised by the 1962 born General Ju Qian Sheng, who has been leading it since 5 July 2021. He is the third SSF commander in almost six years, succeeding General Li Fengbiao and General Gao Jin, who assumed command in 2019 and 2015, respectively.
Before moving into this present position, Ju was previously the commander of the MUCD Unit 61486, a cyber-warfare unit. The said MUCD of this unit has likely been changed now.
Sources told The Sunday Guardian that the NSD is responsible for conducting the information warfare that China has developed significant expertise in, in the last few years. In fact, the NSD under General Ju Sheng has carried out multiple cyber warfare attacks that include hacking into private and public systems to steal critical information. The units have also carried out cyber assaults that have impacted public utility setups, not limited to hospitals and power transmission centres.
Apart from cyber stealing, the SSF under Ju Sheng, has been carrying out psychological warfare, primarily on Twitter. The recent incident of unseen footage of the Galwan clash that was released on Twitter by accounts that were claiming themselves to be Indian users, is also being attributed to the SSF.
The NSD works on the principle to execute the “three warfare” concept—psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. This is done with the objective to shape international public narratives, weaken the enemy’s will, shape diplomatic and political narratives, and promote China’s interests.
There are multiple units of NSD under SSF that have been carrying out similar subversive activities not just against India but also against other South Asian countries including Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Singapore, Laos, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Earlier, there were standalone units that would carry out such cyber subversive activities. One such was Unit 69010 was based out of Urumqi, Xinjiang and used to work as a separate arm of the PLA that was engaged in cyber warfare before 2015, until it was merged into NDS post the organizational restructuring of 2015.
Another Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (TRB) that focuses on India is the Chengdu-based Unit 78006. There are eight more such TRBs: Unit 65016, Unit 66407, Unit 68002, Unit 69010, Unit 72959, Unit 73610, Unit 73630, Unit 75770 apart from 78006 and 78020 that are spread across other parts of China, each handling their own set of target countries.
Sources say that General Ju Sheng has gained substantial confidence among the members of the Chinese Communist Party, especially President Xi Jinping, due to his exploits. As a result of his performance, he has now emerged as the tallest among equals when it comes to other PLA officers.
On Tuesday, US’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly warned that Beijing was making major investments in capability to sabotage US infrastructure.
According to Easterly, Chinese hackers were certain to disrupt American critical infrastructure, such as pipelines and railways, in the event of a conflict with the United States while cautioning that Americans needed to be prepared for the likelihood that Beijing’s hackers would dodge their defences and cause damage in the physical world.
“Given the formidable nature of the threat from Chinese state actors, given the size of their capability, given how much resources and effort they’re putting into it, it’s going to be very, very difficult for us to prevent disruptions from happening,” she said.
In October 2020, as India was still mourning the loss of its soldiers who lost their lives in Galwan in June 2020, a massive power outage struck Mumbai, bringing the entire city to halt. The same was later attributed to Chinese hackers. Similar incidents were reported in January, February and March 2021, targeting the power infrastructure.
While US intelligence agencies have been able to identify the location, units, assets of these SSF units, they are yet to find a fool-proof method to stop the Chinese hackers from damaging them, something which was publicly accepted by Jen Easterly.