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China's Hack Attacks - Truth or Conspiracy Theory?

A few days ago The New York Times reported that Chinese hackers attacked their computer systems and stole the passwords of some of their staff members. According to The New York Times, the timing of the attacks suggests that the purpose of such attacks was related to the investigation by the newspaper of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's and his family's wealth.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that it fell victim to cyber-attacks originating from China. The evidence gathered by the newspaper allegedly shows that the China-coverage was the target of the infiltration.

However, as CNN reports, the security experts hired by the newspaper could not find proves that files concerning Wen and his family were accessed.

On February 1st, Twitter announced in a blog post that an attack on its system was detected and that "the attackers may have had access to limited user information – usernames, email addresses, session tokens and encrypted/salted versions of passwords – for approximately 250,000 users."

Twitter did not mention China directly, but by referring to the attacks on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal it clearly suggested that there might be a connection, implying that China could be behind it.

But is China really to be blamed for these attacks? Is it fair to condemn a country without having irrefutable proves that its government is involved? I am neither anti- nor pro-Chinese. I think that China should be treated like any other country, and that in the media coverage of China this is not the case. 

According to the Daily Mail, "[t]here are growing fears that the Government of China officially sponsors a red army of hackers who work ceaselessly to discover not only the trade secrets of Western companies, but also discover details of critical journalists, Chinese dissidents, and delve into national defence and infrastructure systems."

Red armies of hackers, sponsored by the CCP, ceaselessly trying to discover secrets and to restrict freedom of speech even outside China - this is the threatening scenario some Western media unfold in their China-narrative. 

"Beijing spokesmen," adds the newspaper, "deny endorsing any computer hacking but companies falling victims to serious attacks repeatedly say they appear to originate in China."

I think we should always pay attention to the choice of words newspapers use. In the way the content is expressed, and in view of the context that preceded this sentence, the truthfulness of what China's official spokesmen say seems highly questionable, while the worries of Western companies are considered plausible, although the paper clearly states that they only appear to originate in China. It is not a coincidence, either, that the word "red army" is used, for it creates in the reader an association between the current - though only presumed - Chinese attacks and a war scenario. 

Let's now compare the news about Chinese hackers with an article that appeared last year on france24:

"During the French presidential election in May, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy was targeted by a sophisticated cyber attack from the US, which monitored the computers of his closest staff members, a French magazine reported this week. [...] Questioned by L’Express, US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said only that 'the US has no stronger ally when it comes to security than France'. ANSSI, the French Network and Information Security Agency, refused to comment on the story. [...]

"According to the magazine, the program used to retrieve the data closely resembles that of the Flame malware, an infamous virus dreaded by security experts. It was employed for an extensive espionage operation targeting Iran in 2010, supposedly orchestrated by the US. In May, Russia’s leading IT security authority Kapersky described the program as “the most complex and functional known to date”.

Let's compare the titles of the Huffington Post regarding the USA-France cyber-attack case on the one hand, and the one regarding the China-USA case on the other:

"U.S. Government Hacked Nicolas Sarkozy, Former France President's, Office In 2012, l'Express Claims" (see source)

"Chinese Hackers Could Face Aggressive Action From U.S. Over Cyber Attacks" (see source)

It is obvious that the tone of the two articles is very different. In the first one, it is duly stressed that the news comes from a certain newspaper and that the attack is just 'claimed' to have happened, but it has not been proved beyond doubt. In the second one, the language is obviously belligerent, words as "aggressive" and "action" are used, and the fact that it has been Chinese hackers to have carried out the attack is stated as a fact, or at least as a real possibility. 

I haven't read all articles about the two incidents, but in the ones I read it's clear that the language used is completely different. In the USA-France case, no one talks about "armies of stars and stripes hackers", or of "aggressive action" of one party against the other. The tone is more neutral and conciliatory. In the USA-China case, on the contrary, the tone is strong and  confrontational. 

When Western media portray China as the source of all evil, the reaction of many Chinese is, as one can imagine, indignant. In an article published by the Chinese newspaper Caixun a journalist expresses his resentment:


The American media as well as the American government are unable to look objectively at the development of China's economy, science and technology. They can't help thinking that all this has been achieved through "pirating". They always see China through coloured lenses, so that they make up "conspiracy theories" regarding China. What the USA ignores is that it's not at all easy to trace hackers, that one cannot rely on some superficial, simple clues in order to determine if China is behind it. As long as no definite proof is available, the government of the USA cannot bluntly admonish China, thus breaking even the most basic rules of diplomacy. The USA forgets that the Chinese side has also been victim of hacking attacks, and that the USA themselves has the world's most powerful armies and organizations of hackers [...]"

The journalists further claims that the real reason of the current China-criticism is the technological and economic advance of China, which puts the USA in the situation of defending itself, of compensating its present weakness through an aggressive stance towards China.

We should not be subservient to China, but at the same time, we should be honest in our criticism of China and draw a clear line between the fear of China's rise felt by many Westerners, and an objective, unprejudiced analysis of China. Though China does not deserve to be treated better than any other nation, it cannot, either, be depicted - as it is often the case - as a threat, because by doing so, we create this threat. I don't know if the Chinese government is responsible for the recent attacks. If it is, we shall condemn it. But let's first gather the evidence before we start blaming China. 

We cannot defame China only because we are afraid of its growth or of its size, or because we believe that a country that has economic power must subsequently long for political power. If we do this, we only reveal that we are afraid China might begin to think like us, for the equation of economic development and hegemonic aspirations is a Western invention, ingrained in our minds since the era of Enlightened Absolutism, the rise of England as an industrial superpower and the following rise of Germany, Japan and the USA. Yet it would be unfair to condemn China a priori, only because of what happened in the past. And it is unfair to vent our frustration for our economic woes by stigmatizing China. Instead of discussing how bad China is, let's start discussing what's wrong with our economic policy. But that would probably require much deeper thought and self-analysis.

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