China’s Cyberattacks — At What Cost?
A ChinaFile Conversation
James Fallows: Here are some initial reactions on the latest hacking news.
- We call this the “latest” news because I don’t think anyone, in China or outside, is actually surprised. In my own experience in China, which is limited compared with many of yours, I’ve seen the omnipresence and intrusiveness of surveillance change. Back in the mid-1980s, there were still significant remnants of the Mao-totalitarian surveillance state. Few enough foreigners that you were always noticed; fairly ham-handed hotel and telephone bugging systems; even the excitement of sometimes being tailed. Then over the past decade, it seemed to me as if the system was generally too busy and decentralized to pay attention, unless you were doing something particularly attention-worthy. The big question about China in the late Hu Jintao and early Xi Jinping years is whether the overall liberalization of the past thirty-five years has gone into reverse—or is merely in a temporary slowdown. It’s the same question raised by this episode.
- Many people outside China marvel at the suaveness and far-seeing strategy of its diplomatic and “soft-power” efforts. I more often marvel at the reverse. The treatment of the New York Times is a classic example. Arguably no handful of foreigners has more influence on how China is seen around the world than the NYT’s China team. And if not just them, then also the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, CNN, the commanding heights of the Western news system. A really suave Chinese system would engulf these people with love-bombing, a charm offensive, whatever you want to call it. But on the contrary, the more influential the foreign news source, the more likely they are to be reminded of the harshest aspects of the mixture of control and chaos in the Chinese state.
- It’s a reminder of a darker reality for foreigners in these news organizations. They (we) may be annoyed, watched-over, and so on. But the people truly in jeopardy are the Chinese citizens who cooperate and provide information. In the particular case of Wen Jiabao, it appears that the formidable David Barboza was working strictly from official Chinese documents. More power to him. But the general moral complications of asymmetric risks remain, and are important.
- General Theory Part 1: Every government, everywhere, is strongly tempted to go after leakers when some difficult/embarrassing story comes out. There are no “special Chinese characteristics” about that impulse.
- General Theory Part 2: This effort usually backfires on the particular regime that attempts it.
- Corollary 2A: When an entire regime relies on an information-control strategy, it is getting on the wrong side of a variety of modern fundamental forces. If China were a small country (like Cuba), or if it could still be feasibly cut off from foreign contact and information flow (like North Korea), or if information flow therein still relied on samizdat or even fax (like the end-stage Soviet Union), a strategy of maintaining legitimacy by not letting people know might work. Obviously none of those situations prevails in China.
- General Theory Part 3: I hope that everyone participating in this exchange, or reading this exchange, practices good “password hygiene.” In particular, if you use Gmail please turn on its “two-step verification” system. It is a slight nuisance, but it makes it significantly harder for anyone to take over your account remotely. If you don’t use Gmail, try to find a system that allows similar two-step protection. (Though it’s not clear whether that would have helped in these attacks.)
- General Theory Part 4: China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson yesterday came within an inch of saying that foreign criticism of these hacking attacks “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” I still have hope that we’ll hear that phrase, perhaps in a Global Times editorial these next few days. Here is what Hong Lei of the Foreign Ministry actually said: "To arbitrarily assert and to conclude without hard evidence that China participated in such hacking attacks is totally irresponsible. China is also a victim of hacking attacks. Chinese laws clearly forbid hacking attacks, and we hope relevant parties takes a responsible attitude on this issue."
- General Theory Part 5: Go back to point 3.
Over to you, fellow panelists.
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