Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Toronto published a report in which they said that, in the course of a ten-month resaerch, they found a large hacker network operating in China, controlling 1295 computers in 103 countries and aiming to gather information from various sites. This is the latest in a long line of reports that Chinese hackers are attacking various foreign government and corporate servers.
Partly in response to this, but I think partly also in response to Charter 2008, a pro-democracy petition that has been circulating on the Chinese Internet and unexpectedly attracted thousands of signatures, some Chinese print media have published stories alleging that most of the spying was done against, not for, China, and that dissident opinion formers on the Chinese Internet were in the pay of the Americans (this bit seems like a response to Western reports on local governments in China paying online “spin doctors”).
On 9 April, International Herald (Guoji Xianqu Daobao) published a long article entitled”Every Year, U.S. Spends Fortune Recruiting Online Spies to Counter Chinese Netizens.” A version of the same article was apparently published in the inaugural issue of the English version of Global Times, the People’s Daily’s mass-market offshot.
The article quotes Meng Xiangqing, a professor at National Defense University, as saying that Western articles on Chinese hackers is a smokescreen to hide Western online spying activities. An official at the Centre for Reporting Illegal and Malicious Internet Information (Zhongguo Hulianwang Weifa he Buliang Xinxi Jubao Zhongxin, a body under the China Internet Association set up to receive tipoffs from “the masses”) confirmed that “domestic and foreign enemy forces and anti-Chinese elements continuously carry out anti-Chinese activities and gather intelligence on the Chinese Internet.” (“The mouse is their AK-47, the CPU is their cannon,” the author of the article added.) According to the official, “on some non-mainstream forums,” where posters “reject socialist values” and which feature articles by “self-appointed so-called ‘online opinion leaders’ like He Qinglian and Guo Quan,” some participants “may have overseas backgrounds.”
For example, in March, the Chinese government revealed a “secret contract” between the U.S. Office of International Broadcasting (to which Voice of America belongs) and a Canadian company owned by the North American representative of the Tibetan government-in-exile to set up an online project with the purpose to incite, spread rumours and gather intelligence. According to an article in the pro-Peking Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao,
a North America-based Chinese online forum has conducted an investigation that revealed those people who often post on “sensitive questions” … are employed by American, Japanese and other spy agencies especially to post articles that attack the Chinese government (and) spread misinformation; their attacks target China´s political system, values, and even social morality.
Unnamed Hong Kong media (possibly the same Ta Kung Pao article) say that U.S. intelligence agencies spend millions of dollars to recruit “online traitors” (wangluo hanjian) from the rank of disappointed or simply unemployed people in China. In the end, the author asserts, it is unsuspecting common people who suffer. A woman named Longzhen, described as a simple woman with “insufficient vigilance to the outside world” living in Sichuan´s Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, thus fell victim to a Tibetan man abroad who asked her to gather military information, which she had access to through her work. By the time these people go on trial, their overseas minders disappear.
Of course, these stories, quite in the traditional line of unsuspecting Chinese being used by unscrupulous spies, accuse the U.S. of activities that are quite different from the hardcore online hacking that China is being accused of. (It is true that those accusations tend to make the questionable assumption that Chinese hackers act on the government´s behalf.) This article then tries to conflate the two issues by citing a report by Symantec, an American Internet security company, which says that out China has consistently had the largest or second-largest number of computers that become “zombies” remotely controlled from another country. This makes sense, as virus protection in China is often weak; but, obviously, these zombie computers are most likely used to generate simple commercial spam.