Chinese netizens and state press reacted this week with ridicule, scorn and a good dose of disbelief to charges by U.S. Department of Justice officials that five members of the Chinese military hacked into U.S. companies and stole trade secrets. In the shadow of revelations by Edward Snowden of widespread National Security Agency spying on foreign governments and companies, China appeared in no mood to humor U.S. accusations of international cyber-security attacks.
“This is just too ridiculous,” wrote one poster on Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like microblog service. “After the Snowden affair has come out, could it be that the U.S. still isn’t clear on which country is the biggest perpetrator of Internet spying?”
In presenting the accusations Monday, DOJ officials named five members of the People’s Liberation Army’s infamous Unit 61398 that it claims hacked U.S. companies including United States Steel and SolarWorld. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stressed the claim that espionage activities were not for national security ends, but were allegedly carried out in order to economically benefit domestic Chinese firms, a crime referred to as “economic espionage.”
U.S. officials claim their intelligence forces engage in espionage for legitimate security purposes, but not to provide a commercial advantage to American companies. That distinction -- cyber espionage carried out for national security as opposed to economic benefit -- remains the main shield U.S. officials use to deflect accusations of hypocrisy. But that line of defense has been increasingly difficult to maintain given recent revelations that NSA hackers broke into both Petrobras, Brazil’s largest oil company, and Huawei, a Chinese telecom firm that has largely been stonewalled in American markets because of cyber-security fears.
“America really is the biggest crook and bandit in the world,” wrote one Weibo user. “I’ve seen shamelessness, but I’ve never seen anything quite this shameless before. Unbelievable!”
Chinese officials responded to yesterday’s announcement by pulling out of a recently formed U.S.-China cyber-security cooperation group. In the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, mention of the flare-up was relegated to the middle pages, but online media ran extensive recaps of the Snowden affair. Officials from China’s Internet Information Center also released statistics on cyber-attacks against China originating in the U.S.
According to numbers released by the center, in the last two months China has been the victim of 2,077 trojan and botnet attacks originating in the U.S., affecting 1.18 million computers in China. The center didn't specify if the attacks were backed by the U.S. government or if they could have been perpetuated by individuals residing in the U.S.
China Daily, the nation's state-run English-language newspaper, claimed that "China is a solid defender of cyber security."
"After the Prism program leaked by Edward Snowden, the United States was accused by the whole world. However, it has never made retrospection, instead, it accuses others," the publication noted.
But U.S. officials and some commentators said the charges by the DOJ represent a firm stance against what they describe as the illegitimate use of cyber espionage to gain an advantage for companies in competitive markets. In response to revelations last September that the NSA hacked Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras (and the email of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff), U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the U.S. collected such information “for early warning of financial crises” and to understand “economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets."
On Monday the FBI took a name-and-shame approach, publicizing the names and photographs of the five accused men via Wanted Posters. But in some corners of the Chinese Internet, that approach seemed to backfire, with Chinese people proudly reposting the Wanted Posters with a different descriptor: “national heroes.”