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.
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.
development in net-based combat, including cyber-
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).
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.
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".
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" .
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
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
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.
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.
Note 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.