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)
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
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
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
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" .
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.