OpenStreetMap.org is a project that creates and distributes free geographic data to the world. Major corporations like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, etc. utilize the services of OpenStreetMap (OSM). It is a free and editable map of the world built up by volunteer users from around the world. Naturally, the editable nature of the map has led to some users propagating the strategic territorial interests of their own countries in the form of OSM edits, demarcating any disputed or non-disputed territory in favour of their own particular country.
One such particular volunteer user is a Chinese user who goes by the online identity of “NM$L”. This particular user has a recorded history of over 1,350 edits on the OpenStreetMap (OSM), many of which are located around contentious areas like the LAC with India and the South China Sea, areas where China has a major strategic interest. In his bio for his OSM profile, NM$L describes himself as, “𝑆𝑎𝑓𝑒𝑔𝑢𝑎𝑟𝑑𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑛𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛𝑎𝑙 𝑠𝑜𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑒𝑖𝑔𝑛𝑡𝑦, 𝑢𝑛𝑖𝑡𝑦 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑟𝑖𝑡𝑜𝑟𝑖𝑎𝑙 𝑖𝑛𝑡𝑒𝑔𝑟𝑖𝑡𝑦 𝑖𝑠 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑐𝑜𝑚𝑚𝑜𝑛 𝑜𝑏𝑙𝑖𝑔𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑜𝑓 𝑎𝑙𝑙 𝐶ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑒 𝑝𝑒𝑜𝑝𝑙𝑒, 𝑖𝑛𝑐𝑙𝑢𝑑𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑐𝑜𝑚𝑝𝑎𝑡𝑟𝑖𝑜𝑡𝑠 𝑖𝑛 𝐻𝑜𝑛𝑔 𝐾𝑜𝑛𝑔, 𝑀𝑎𝑐𝑎𝑜 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑇𝑎𝑖𝑤𝑎𝑛.” This bio leaves little doubt as to NM$L’s extremely pro-China ideology. For additional confirmation, it is to be noted that “NMSL” is a Chinese meme/slang, from where the user derives its username from.
The user NM$L routinely performs edits that are directly in favor of China’s strategic interests. NM$L has edited OSM to include changes in disputed South China Sea territories like the Spratly Islands, which do not form a part of China’s possible territorial claims and instead fall under the Philippines’s economic zone according to a landmark 2016 international arbitration. NM$L has also performed dozens of edits along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and also the McMahon line in Arunachal Pradesh. NM$L has gone as far as to try and depict the Siachen Glacier as disputed on OSM.
Long after China’s reported intrusion into Indian territory nearby the Pangong Tso lake region last year, NM$L edited the OSM depicting the Pangong Tso region. Altering OpenStreetMap in this manner in order to advance a particular country’s national, strategic and territorial interests i.e. enforcing territorial claims via maps is called “cartographic warfare” or “cartographic propaganda”.
According to the Director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, M. Taylor Fravel, “In the ’50s and ’60s, China and India were engaged in this and would publish competing maps to bolster the strength of their claims to territory. What we are seeing now in open source I would characterize as the latest manifestation of the ways in which states have sought to advance their claims through maps and mapmaking.”
In a direct exchange with the OSM user NM$L in reference to a particular incident, NM$L told the news outfit that he gets his information on how to edit OSM from a Chinese State News media aggregator website called kunlunce.com. In other words, the user NM$L gets his information from the from the Chinese State media which is run by the Chinese Communist regime, on the basis of which he edits the open-source map. Therefore, it is no surprise that NM$L edits in extremely pro-China information related to disputed regions in the South China Sea and along the LAC and the McMohan line.
NM$L is only one single dedicated user, highly motivated by Chinese state media propaganda, who has managed to edit the OSM at least over 1350 times. If there are multitudes of users like NM$L (and there probably are), it would be easy for the Communist regime of China to impose their territorial ideology upon open-source maps as they are freely editable. Therefore, it is necessary to shine a light on such users, who are in all probability not acting nefariously but are still heavily influenced by propaganda from the Chinese regime in order to perform false pro-China edits on open-source maps.