China’s Cybersnoops Scour the World

While world publicity has mainly focused on the intrusion of the Chinese into the email system of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year, the fact is that Chinese hackers have been crawling all over the computer systems of a growing number of countries. The latest example is their recent foray into the web servers of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

The Indian incursion is being treated as the Internet equivalent of a terrorist attack on a national institution, threatening the security of India’s diplomatic and military communications. Although Chinese embassy officials in Delhi reacted angrily to news of the event as an “irresponsible fabrication,” the incident fits an emerging pattern of planned Chinese penetration of government websites and subsequent denial of responsibility.

In May 2007, for instance, it came to light that the Chinese had hacked into the computers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office and three of her ministries. In June came the announcement by US officials that they had hacked into Gates’ email system. In September the British government disclosed that a hacking unit traceable to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had hit the networks of the Foreign Office and other key departments in London.

Although Beijing has vehemently objected to each of the allegations as malicious propaganda, the scale and nature of data stolen in these operations leaves little doubt about Chinese state involvement. The argument that the hackers, whose IP addresses go back to mainland China, are loose cannons working on their own simply to demonstrate their destructive technical skills does not square with the reality that Beijing has never prosecuted any of this burgeoning tribe.

It is ironic that in a so-called communist country where unionizing is banned for the working class, there exist hackers’ “unions” and “Red alliances” that pool Chinese software programmers willing to work for so-called patriotic causes. From 1998 to 2002, “Red hackers” broke into thousands of websites and paralyzed computer systems in the US, Indonesia, Taiwan and Japan.

The Honker Union, based in mainland China, attained legendary status as a national asset during the 2001 spy plane standoff with the US. Its members went on a hacking spree and defaced the home pages of several American government websites and were answered through a tit-for-tat by American hacking professionals.

Following that high-profile cyber battle, the Honker Union mobilized anti-Japanese protests and petitions online in 2003. In 2005, hacking squads attacked dozens of public and private websites in Japan in what the Washington Post described as “the heaviest assault ever perpetrated on the nation's computer systems from overseas.” Domestic public opinion about the Honkers was overwhelmingly positive and even led to the coronation of celebrity hackers who gave interviews to media outlets and flaunted their exploits.

Instead of arresting the cyber criminals who are in contravention of the norms of international diplomacy, both Chinese society and state have hailed them as national heroes. Chinese Public Relations scholar Xu Wu has written that hacking for the sake of the motherland is a “natural extension from China’s century-long nationalist movement.” State-run research institutes and media houses glorify them as implementers of the Maoist doctrine of “harming if you do harm to me.” In such a permissive environment hacking has become a growth industry.

The free rein afforded to hackers contrasts sharply with the tight control the state attempts to exercise on Internet search engines and politically objectionable websites. Authoritarian China fears technologies that allow its citizens access to subversive information on democracy, human rights, religious freedoms and self-determination struggles, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. The agreement in 2004 between the Chinese government and Google to omit contentious news stories from search results in China illustrates the determination with which Beijing polices cyberspace.

In March, as the Tibetan tumult cascaded, China swiftly blocked Google News and YouTube for a week in an attempt at damage control. Internet censorship by the Chinese government on the issues of Tibet or the Falun Gong spiritual movement is the obverse of the long rope given to hackers to incite anti-Japanese riots or to steal state secrets from targeted countries. This contradictory situation suggests that New Economy-enabling technology is a double-edged sword for China’s regime.

If the Internet can be China’s best friend as well as its worst enemy, crafty state management of it becomes an imperative. Beijing’s policy is to continue developing its cyberwar abilities as part of its military modernization drive while acting as a vigilant gatekeeper against websites that can fuel dissent and unrest among its people.

Legal experts say that effectively outlawing cyber crime is difficult due to the nature of the Internet. Even if there were an international convention regulating cyberspace, norm-offending states like China cannot be expected to adhere to rules of the book.

The only option for victim states like India is to publicize each incident of Chinese hacking into its domains and to raise international attention of this patently aggressive behavior.

The more China’s hacking strategy is exposed before the world, the greater will be the urgency to improve internet network security. India’s global leadership in software programming gives it a distinct advantage in developing foolproof defenses against infiltration by Chinese hackers. As to the counteroffensive option, Indian hackers are known to have waged mini-cyber wars against Pakistani websites in the past. They will need to organise better against the much more formidable challenge posed by the Chinese.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York.