Unclear Boundary Between Academic and Military Research

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A man walks past a building alleged by Mandiant as the home of Chinese military-led hacking group ATP1 in Shanghai's northern suburb of Gaoqiao, Feb. 19, 2013.
A man walks past a building alleged by Mandiant as the home of Chinese military-led hacking group ATP1 in Shanghai's northern suburb of Gaoqiao, Feb. 19, 2013.

Amid heightened international tensions over allegations of China-based cyber-espionage, recent reports show that the line between military intelligence operations and academic research is often blurred in China, analysts said on Tuesday.

According to several academic papers in the public domain, faculty members at Shanghai Jiaotong University have conducted research on cyber security along with the People’s Liberation Army unit linked to hacking attacks on U.S. corporate networks in a report last month, Reuters reported.

While there is no evidence to suggest any Shanghai Jiaotong academics named as co-authors on papers alongside Unit 61398 actually engaged in military operations, the reports suggest that the dividing line between certain Chinese universities and the PLA is much hazier than it might be in some countries, analysts said.

An employee who answered the phone at the Jiaotong University on Monday declined to comment on the report.

"Please will you call our public relations department," the employee said.

'Characteristic of China'

Charles Mok, head of the Hong Kong Internet Society, said the report had come as no surprise, however.

"What in China isn't controlled by the state?" he said. "This is a characteristic of China."

He said there was nothing improbable about a link-up between a top research institution and a military project.

"Any major country in the world is going to engage [in cyber-espionage], whether it is China or the U.S.," Mok said.

"If any country says they don't, then we shouldn't believe them."

Unclear lines

Meanwhile, Beijing-based academic Chen Yongmiao said the lines are far more clearly drawn in Western countries between academic research and intelligence operations than they are in China.

"All of China's universities are run by the Communist Party," Chen said. "It goes without saying they will be able to achieve anything they want, and also that they probably are."

He said Chinese researchers often had to fill a political brief as part of their research.

"Chinese universities aren't like Western universities," Chen said.

"They don't have the academic freedom or the independence you'd expect at a university."

"The two can't co-exist; it's ridiculous."

Unit 61398

Last month, China's defense ministry rejected claims that the PLA was behind a series of hacker attacks on U.S. corporate networks described in a February report by the security firm Mandiant.

In a 74-page report, U.S.-based security firm Mandiant said it had traced a large number of transnational cyber-attacks to IP addresses assigned to a building it said belonged to the PLA in Shanghai.

Mandiant said the building was the home of the PLA's cyber-espionage "Unit 61398," which it said had stolen data, including intellectual property, from at least 141 companies since 2006.

Beijing has said that the report lacks technical proof, and that IP addresses can be usurped by hackers.

Also in February, The New York Times newspaper accused hackers traced to China of "persistently" infiltrating its computer networks over the last four months, also sparking an angry denial from Beijing.

The paper had hired a team of computer security experts to trace the attacks and block any back doors through which they were gaining access to the system, it said.

The Chinese government has repeatedly denied any involvement in hacking activities, saying it is opposed to them.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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