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Espionage

Inside the Mind of a Chinese Hacker

In May, the U.S. announced the indictment of five Chinese hackers for breaking into the computers of U.S. companies. The men went by code names like UglyGorilla and KandyGoo. A recent report revealed that the hackers, who worked for Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army, were on the job from 8 am to 6 pm and had two hours scheduled for lunch.

Other than these small details, we know very little about Chinese hackers or what motivates them. What brings people to the front lines of cyber war between the United States and China? Are they driven by patriotism—or is it just a day job? Real life may not provide satisfying answers, but we can turn to literature. Mai Jia’s novel Decoded, which was published in English in March, 2014, describes the inner life of the Chinese code breaker Rong Jinzhen.

Mai’s novel is about post-World War II cryptography, not contemporary cyberbattles, but it illustrates how this kind of top-secret work can destroy an individual. Decoded is an alarming tale about a reluctant code breaker whose genius is shattered by his service to the nation.

Mai spent more than a dozen years in the People’s Liberation Army, spending time among cryptographers in a secret location. (Mai Jia is a pen name; he was born in 1964 as Jiang Benhu.) Not long after Decoded was first published in 2002, according to a story on the People’s Daily website, Mai’s publisher received a phone call from a government confidentiality committee. The message was clear: Stop publishing this book, stop publicizing it, and remove the existing books from the shelves.

Mai fought back. Decoded, or “Jie Mi” in Chinese, was the result of over a decade of hard work. Mai went to Beijing to make his case. He said, “I didn’t leak anything, I was just paying a tribute to nameless heroes.” According to Mai, the resulting investigation also found Decoded wasn’t the work of a Chinese Edward Snowden. Mai argued that he wrote about the spirit of a profession and the fate of a special person. Not only did authorities allow the book, Mai went on to be a best-selling author in China and to win top literary prizes there.

Decoded tells the story of Rong Jinzhen, an orphan with bad hygiene, terrible manners, and an aversion to speaking out loud. He is also a genius. As a child, with no formal training in mathematics, he teaches himself multiplication.

Rong comes from a distinguished family line, but his mother dies in childbirth and he ends up being taken in by family members who work at a prestigious institution known only as N University. Rong studies mathematics there and is nurtured by Professor Liseiwicz, a brilliant, Jewish-Polish visiting scholar. Rong so impresses his teacher that at the age of 16 he no longer has to attend class.

Along comes a mysterious figure named Zheng, who in 1956 descends upon N University looking for a new recruit. Nobody knows exactly who Zheng is or where he works. Zheng is looking for someone with an “independent mindset.” Once he learns of Rong’s talents, he won’t take no for an answer.

Rong doesn’t want to leave. His surrogate father, Young Lillie, tries unsuccessfully to convince Rong of the glory of his mission:

“You are going to be working for the nation—you should be happy … When you leave this house, you are in your country. If you have no country you can have no home. Go on. They are waiting for you.”

Having no other choice, Rong goes to work at the mysterious Unit 701. He is not sure whether the unit is organized by the military or the local government. All he knows about his work is that “secrecy is at its very core. It is ever-present, like a note of music humming through the air.”

Rong was recruited for his independent thinking, but he quickly clashes with his new environment. He wiles away time playing chess, reading novels, and interpreting people’s dreams. He enrages a deputy division chief, who finds it “profoundly disgusting” that “something as individualistic as a dream could be allowed to go unchecked.”

Rong’s mission is to crack the code of enemy nations, in particular that of Country X, which may be a veiled reference to the United States. Rong proves that he is a great cryptographer, in large part thanks to his creativity and unconventional thinking. Zheng, the man who recruited Rong, compares decrypting ciphers to finding a secret buried in a mountain. Most people would climb the mountain, get to the top, and then start searching for the secret. Rong, however, would “go and climb a completely different mountain and then when he got to the top, he would fire up a searchlight and start looking for that mountain’s secret using a telescope.” Unlike others in his field, Rong reads about the history of cryptography, trying to learn lessons from ciphers of the past.

Rong sets out to conquer PURPLE, the highest-level cipher used by X country’s military. Yet even as Rong’s decrypting skills elevate him to the status of national hero, Mai’s prose is laced with foreboding. “Genius is easily broken,” Zheng warns. Cryptographers always strive for something that will always remain “just out of their reach, always on the other side of the glass.”

Liseiwicz, his former professor, believes Rong’s intellect might not survive the pressures of his job. People develop ideas in a relaxed atmosphere. “But from the moment you first take up cryptography, you are heavily circumscribed, your actions are controlled on all sides in the interests of national security.”

On the surface, Decoded is about an individual who sacrifices himself for Chinese national security. What could be more patriotic than that? A slightly closer reading, however, reveals a different message. Mai suggests at the self-destructiveness, and perhaps ultimate futility, of this kind of sacrifice. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Rong’s story does not end well. The once brilliant man ultimately bears no resemblance to his former self: “His eyes were wide open, globular, filled with some unknown terror, and yet there was no glimmer of light in them.”

Mai raises the question: Was it even worth it? Liseiwicz describes code-breaking as a cycle of madness, and it’s unclear if anyone wins. Cryptography requires a “devilish intelligence,” Lisewicz warns Rong, and “every success you achieve in this field forces other people to become more inventively evil, more fiercely cunning. Ciphers are a kind of concealed warfare, but it is pointless to win this kind of battle, because it achieves nothing.”

Chinese media have furiously responded to the U.S. indictment of its hackers, accusing America of hypocrisy and making references to Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance. Decoded deviates from the classic “us vs. them” narrative and highlights the universal frustrations of cyber war.

“[What] Snowden revealed wasn’t America’s ugliness but today’s world,” Mai told The New York Times. “It has been hijacked by technology and whether we’re talking about Country Y or Country X I’m afraid I truly believe that as long as we use these technologies what we’ll get is this shady business.”

The book also offers a cautionary tale for the Chinese government. Competing in the 21st-century economy demands creative thinkers, a fact that Beijing recognizes. Rong possesses the kind of innovative talent that China so urgently wants, and one can only imagine what he might have done for his country if he hadn’t been forced to work for Unit 701.

China found a great code breaker, but it lost a great mind.

Mai Jia’s Novel “Decoded”

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Emily Parker is a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus...
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