Charges that China has been spying on Western computer networks have set back that country’s efforts to build trust in its intentions, experts say.
On August 26, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that secret spyware had been discovered on computers of the country’s chancellery, foreign ministry, and other government offices. German security officials traced the theft of data to hackers based in China.
“German officials believe the hackers were being directed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and that the programs were redirected via computers in South Korea to disguise their origin,” Der Spiegel said. The magazine also cited fears that German companies had been targeted for industrial espionage.
Reports of similar problems in other Western nations quickly followed.
On September 3, the London-based Financial Times reported that the “Chinese military hacked into a Pentagon computer network in June,” prompting a shutdown in part of a system serving U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu firmly denied responsibility, calling the charge “totally groundless” and part of a campaign of “wild accusations against China,” according to China’s official Xinhua news service.
On September 5, Britain’s daily newspaper The Guardian reported a series of cyber-attacks on computers of the country’s Foreign Office and other government departments. Again, the PLA was suspected of being behind the intrusions.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Adam Segal—senior fellow for China studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations—called the cyber-attacks on U.S. networks a part of China’s strategy for countering U.S. military superiority.
“When the Chinese look at U.S. strengths and they think about a potential conflict, especially across the Taiwan Straits, they think that one of the great sources of U.S. strength is information dominance and networking,” Segal said.
“There are plenty of Chinese military defense analysts who have written that the United States is too dependent on computers, networks, surveillance, and all these other things. And so I think it sends a message to the United States that if there is a conflict in the Straits, things are not going to go as smoothly as the Pentagon hopes.”
Though China has been trying to respond to criticisms of its lack of transparency in military spending and intentions, Segal said, it still has to overcome doubts raised by the hacking reports, its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test earlier in the year, product safety issues, and the global impact of Chinese pollution.
“These all stress the negative side of the Chinese regime,” said Segal, “the secrecy and the unwillingness to be more open with the international community.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington, said that reports of Chinese hacking are still too sketchy to conclude that the intrusions were known or directed by senior levels of China’s government.
China’s ASAT test, which used a missile to destroy an aging satellite and created thousands of pieces of hazardous “space junk,” raised far more serious concerns about China’s intentions and ability to disrupt Western communications, Lewis said.
“A lot of people were shocked and appalled by the ASAT. I think a smaller universe of people are shocked and appalled by hacking.”
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.