The Chinese government’s attitude to internet use demonstrates shocking double standards on hacking and censorship
The plundering of western technology, business and government databases by Chinese hackers is a sign of Beijing’s double standards towards the development of the internet, experts say.
According to a spokesman at the Chinese embassy in London, hacking is a crime punishable by death. But Peter Tippett, of CyberTrust, an organisation that collects global information on the activities of hacking groups, says that last year, the 80-strong X-Focus hacking group was able to hold a conference in the Chinese capital. Called X-Con, the conference discussed coordinating attacks on Japanese websites during the row between the two countries over the content of school history books in Japan. As Tippett observes: “In China, the people who hack have to get through the Great Firewall of China and all email must go through government email filters. Yet at the moment we are finding that the vast majority of computer attacks are coming from China.”
Inside China, the picture is very different. The country may have 120 million people online at the start of the year – second only to the US – but they are not allowed to see sensitive political information about events in their own country.
Indeed, misuse of the internet – disseminating information about political unrest, for example – is routinely punished by the authorities. In 2004, an Amnesty International report noted that “there has been a dramatic rise in the number of people detained or sentenced for internet-related offences, an increase of 60% as compared to the previous year’s figures”.
However, there are signs that the authorities are not having it all their own way. For example, Falun Gong, the quasi-religious meditative movement banned by the Chinese authorities, has turned to the internet to show the outside world how it has been repressed.
Feng Ma, an expert on China for the Taiwanese intellectual property law firm Osha Liang, says: “A week or two ago, Falun Gong got pictures sent out of meditators being beaten up and arrested and that has happened a lot. Although on the surface people register their internet use with the authorities, there are a lot of people who are now using proxy servers to hide what they are doing from the authorities.”
According to Ma, most illicit users in China are concerned with more mundane issues such as getting free goods and software and making money. “Intellectual property is seen as fair game, especially because western companies put their factories in China so they can get cheap labour and avoid environmental rules.”
Yet there are also growing online protests aimed at endemic corruption among state functionaries. Interestingly, the authorities in Beijing are trying to root out corruption among local party bureaucrats and this may be encouraging the online protests.
“There is a massive online debate on corruption that is ironically being government-led – and people are getting their heads cut off,” confirms Ma.
Overall, the main concern for the Chinese government is with “stabilisation”, the filtering out of keywords that allow its population to search for seditious material or for sites trying to foment organised opposition to the central government. Once again, there are signs that they might not be able to control it as fully as they would like.
“At a local and national level, they have employed tens of thousands of people to snoop on the internet and to place pro-government sentiments, but they don’t seem to be able to stop a lot of the blogging that is going on via the proxies,” says Simon Jones, director of Chinese Marketing and Communications, a media agency specialising in China.
“That does concern the government because it knows it will lose the mandate to rule if it can’t be seen to do it fairly.”
Yet the authorities in Beijing still regard the internet as an important tool in their aim to modernise the country. “The fibre-optic network is brand new and probably better than any other network in the world,” says Jones. “The Chinese government sees it as having great potential for educational and economic development so it is not going to get turned off.”
Indeed, the country’s desperate need for technological knowhow as its economy tries to become more sophisticated is behind the hacking of western technological and commercial secrets.
Arthur Yuan, a lawyer at US-based Senniger Powers, a leading intellectual property (IP) firm, explains the country’s approach to IP. “The [Chinese] population does not consider the IP of companies abroad of value. They think that as long as it is for the glorification of the government, then the taking of information is justified – and they see no reason why they should not take a shortcut if it is possible.”
Indeed, there are rumours of an exclusive club formed in Guangdong – where much of the hacking is thought to be centred – whose membership is restricted to those business people who have successfully ripped off a western company. Though probably apocryphal, the story does reflect a strand of thought inside China: that stealing a march on foreigners – and especially rich western foreigners – is not necessarily a bad thing.