Beijing beefs up cyber-warfare capacity
By Willy Lam

While the furor over cyber-attacks against Google has lapsed somewhat, the Sino-American confrontation over the larger issue of Internet security and global digital warfare is expected to intensify in the near future.

This is particularly in light of the deterioration of bilateral ties due to issues ranging from the value of the renminbi to US arms sales to Taiwan. Even more significant is the fact that despite Washington's criticism of Beijing's censorship of the Internet - as well as China-originated sorties against the networks of American government agencies and multinationals - the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is devoting unprecedented resources to strengthening its already formidable cyber-warfare prowess.

Research and development in net-based combat, including cyber- espionage and counter-espionage, figure prominently in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) that is being drafted by both the central government and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). President and commander-in-chief Hu Jintao designated the expansion of electronic warfare capacity as a top priority of the defense and security forces in the coming decade. Preferential policies are also being extended to commercial computer and electronic enterprises for research and development in areas relating to information technology (IT) security.

Since the 1980s, such enterprises have been sharing resources and data with relevant units in the PLA, the para-military People's Armed Police, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS).

Two major considerations are behind the CCP leadership's ultra-ambitious expansion of digital warfare capability. The first is to narrow the gap with the United States, which is seen as having a comfortable lead in the virtual battlefield of the 21st century. Professor Fang Binxing, president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and one of China's top Net experts, noted, "The US is without question the world's foremost power in Cyber-based attacks and defense."

"The US holds absolute superiority in [combat ability relating to] conventional and outer space as well as cyber-space," said Fang, who added that Chinese capacity in this area remained "very backward".

The Chinese media have given ample coverage to the establishment last year of a cyber-command within the American military. The official Global Times quoted a PLA expert as expressing concern about some form of American cyber-imperialism. "The US will continue to guarantee its ‘freedom of action' [on the cyber-front] at the expense of other countries' sense of insecurity," said the military IT specialist.

According to Senior Colonel Dai Xu, China cannot afford to lose time in the uphill struggle to catch up with cyber-powers such as the United States and Russia. "We must raise net-based maneuvers to the strategic level," said Dai, a popular military commentator. "We should first begin with practical work such as developing hard- and software and nurturing talent." Dai envisaged the eventual setting up of a full-fledged PLA cyber-Division on par with the Second Artillery Corps, which are China’s missile forces.

The second motivation behind Beijing's no-holds-barred cyber-gambit is to safeguard China's "IT sovereignty". The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) claims that China is the world's largest victim as far as cyber-attacks are concerned. Last year, hackers emasculated 42,000 websites while 18 million computers per month were knocked out by virus blitzes. More importantly, CCP authorities are anxious to counter alleged attempts by Western governments and organizations to flood cyber-space with "bourgeois-liberal" and anti-socialist ideas.

According to State Councilor Meng Jianzhu, "The Internet has become a major vehicle through which anti-China forces are perpetrating their work of infiltration and sabotage." Meng, who is also MPS minister, added that China's foes are "magnifying their ability to disrupt [the socialist order]" through the information superhighway. The police chief underscored the urgency of establishing a 24-hour, all-dimensional "prevention and control" platform to fight net-based infiltration.

While matters relating to internal security and intelligence in China are shrouded in secrecy, the broad contours of Beijing's game plan to augment electronic warfare capacity are clear. In early 2009, party-and-state authorities significantly boosted budgets for recruiting the best Chinese graduates in areas including computers, engineering, mathematics and foreign languages.

Research units under the MSS and MPS frequently put advertisements in official and private websites seeking software engineers and specialists in IT security. For instance, the First Research Institute of the Ministry of Public Security, which has a staff of more than 1,200, recently launched a large-scale hiring campaign. Moreover, Chinese diplomatic missions in the United States and other countries have, over the past year, taken advantage of the recession in the West to recruit hundreds of Chinese graduates from the best computer science departments in Western universities. These IT talents are frequently offered internationally competitive salaries in addition to bright promotion prospects.

There is also evidence that agencies under public security and military intelligence are recruiting hackers as software engineers and Net-related security experts. This is despite the MIIT's statement late last month that China will actively participate in global efforts to combat threats to cyber-security. The ministry spokesman indicated "China is willing to cooperate with other countries in cracking down on hackers".

Last year, Beijing revised a law that makes hacking a crime, with punishments of up to seven years in jail. Yet, advertisements for accomplished and "reliable" hackers can often be found in China's recruitment websites. Moreover, there are anecdotes galore within China's IT community about "patriotic hackers" being hired by military or state security departments.

According to a recent report commissioned by the Washington-based US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China's digital warfare capacity, Chinese military and state security units have been employing from "elements of China's hacker community". The October 2009 report cited a number of "cases of apparent collaboration between more elite individual hackers and the PRC's [People's Republic of China] civilian security services" [1].

Apart from forming symbiotic relations with the research and development wings of state-run enterprises, PLA and state-security departments are seeking the help of private IT firms. On a tour of telecommunications enterprises in eastern Anhui province in late 2009, state councilor Meng called on the country's several tens of thousands of cyber-cops to boost cooperation with companies in the electronics and IT fields.

"We should make good use of the fruits of [domestic] IT-related research and development so as to provide our prevention-and-control system with strong technological support," Meng told senior police cadres traveling with him. It is also significant that while touring Shanghai last month, President Hu asked IT specialists in state-owned and private firms to "attain breakthroughs in core technologies" in this strategic sector. "We must win a prominent place in global telecommunications through acquiring technologies that are based on domestic [Chinese] research and development," Hu said.

Another unique feature of China's cyber-tactics is the large number of "princelings" - the kin of senior cadres - who are involved in the sensitive area of net-related security. For example, Dr Jiang Mianheng, vice president of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences and the eldest son of former president Jiang Zemin, has for more than a decade been a key figure in shaping strategies for safeguarding the country's IT sovereignty.

Despite reports about political differences between Hu and Jiang, Jiang's prominent role has apparently not been diminished. An electrical-engineering graduate from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Jiang was among senior cadres who accompanied Hu on his tour of IT plants in Shanghai. The enthusiastic participation of princelings may yet be another factor behind the fast-paced expansion of the country's skills in digital combat.

Experts cited by the official Liberation Army Daily pointed out that some 88,000 American IT personnel, including up to 5,000 electronic warfare experts, are working in units directly under or related to the Pentagon's cyber-command. Chinese IT scholars have also drawn attention to the fact that while the Barack Obama administration has cut spending on state-of-the-art weapons such as F-22 jet fighters, the budget for cyber-warfare has increased dramatically.

It is understood that China's military and state-security departments have partly used the American model when they go about beefing up the country's net-related security and warfare establishment. Given the fact that friction between the United States and China will likely continue if not worsen over issues including trade, Taiwan and Tibet, cutthroat competition along the information superhighway could add a new dimension of instability in ties between the world's sole superpower and the fast-rising quasi-superpower.

1. "US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Report on the Capability of the People's Republic of China to Conduct cyber-Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation," October, 2009.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)