Why do the Chinese Hack? Fear

China Binary

The Chinese government is scared of the Internet.  They are scared of the foreign ideas that it brings into China; they are scared of how it enables the Chinese people to spread knowledge about government corruption; and they are especially scared of how it was used during the “color revolutions” and the “Arab Spring.”  For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Internet is a clear threat to its legitimacy, its monopoly on power, and its survival.

The leadership fears the United States and its allies use the Internet as a strategic weapon. This is compounded by fears of other existential threats such as a potential failing economy and foreign intervention in Chinese sovereignty and territoriality issues.  Paradoxically, the solution to these other threats is the rapid development of the Internet and Internet technologies.  How the Chinese leadership is addresses these competing aspects — controlling the Internet, while also expanding its development and use — is having a major impact on the United States.

To ensure its survival, the CCP has decided that it must control the Internet it has, while building the Internet that it wants, and cyber espionage (hacking) is the most effective tool for achieving both.  Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out the importance of the Internet to China’s survival during an Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group meeting when he stated, “No Internet safety means no national security. No informatization means no modernization.” Through this Leading Group, President Xi is personally directing the future of the Internet in China, creating comprehensive cyber strategies that address internal and external threats.

The strategy for controlling the Internet within China is best described using the words of the China Internet Conference: “mutual building of a favorable environment.”  While China’s ability to filter content using the Great Firewall is the most overt aspect of this strategy, the Chinese also employ a wide range of influence measures to coerce their population to act in favorable ways.  Proper online behavior is encouraged with education and propaganda, although some efforts, like this song, may not exactly hit the mark.  This soft approach is surprisingly effective at encouraging the Chinese people to self-censor, but is also reinforced by harassment and arrests for activities contrary to the government and its policies, supportive of mass organization, or promoting the spread of rumors.  The search for Chinese dissenters does not just affect Chinese citizens.  To track down and arrest dissidents, Chinese hacking targets include U.S. email providers, journalists, and NGOs. As the use of their “Great Cannon” is showing, they have no reservations about launching prolonged denial of service attacks on major U.S. websites to limit their citizens’ access to unacceptable content. The Chinese government fears dissent, and will hack any entity they think supports or enables the undermining of the Communist Party.

The “favorable environment” strategy enforces internal security, but the CCP must also ensure development and prosperity to maintain its legitimacy.  The United States experiences recessions and depressions without the risk of political collapse, but for China an economic slowdown would be disastrous to the ruling elites.  To help keep the economy moving forward, the CCP released an Internet (informatization) development strategy in 2006 that emphasizes “indigenous development” and looks to replace foreign technology with Chinese products.  The move to indigenous Internet technologies ensures that foreign technologies cannot be used to threaten Chinese security, but more importantly, it generates a new industry to provide employment and generate revenue.  On the surface, this is entirely consistent with legitimate capitalism and competition, but as U.S. industries have learned, “indigenous development” is not truly indigenous (see this book for details).  The hackers are from China, but the intellectual property, trade secrets, and research clearly originate from the United States and foreign companies that have had their computer networks exploited by the Chinese government, despite countless U.S. protestations.

The extensive economic espionage used to drive internal development also serves a secondary purpose of modernizing the Chinese military.  The Chinese fear a repeat of their “Century of Humiliation,” when Chinese territory and sovereignty was torn apart by foreign intervention.  In the modern era, China fears U.S. intervention in its “internal” affairs such as Taiwan, the Senkaku islands, and the various islands and rocks in the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is addressing this fear through a modernization strategy that directly counters the technological advantage of the U.S. military. The PLA is modernizing its weapon systems to compete with the United States, while at the same time developing cyber, electronic warfare, and space weapons to counter the U.S. military’s asymmetric advantages in those areas. The persistent hacking of the U.S. defense industry and Defense Department gives the PLA the critical data it needs to achieve its goals, and puts the ability of the United States to respond to a regional crisis at risk.

What does this mean for the United States?  The widespread hacking that concerns the United States is not merely an attempt by China to gain economic advantage; to the Chinese government, it is essential to survival.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and the CCP has determined that cyber security and development strategies, enabled by hacking, are the only way forward.  The United States may protest China’s cyber activities and encourage them to take another path, but unless Chinese fears can be alleviated, or be replaced by an even greater fear, the Chinese have no reason to change a strategy that seems to be working in their favor.  The Chinese hack because they need to, and with no room for compromise, the United States can expect extensive hacking to continue, and probably increase, in the foreseeable future.


Enrique Oti is an officer in the United States Air Force and a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution.  He can be followed on Twitter at @Enrique_Oti.  The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: jeff_golden (adapted by WOTR)