Hacking the Times: China’s reach, and its rules, push beyond its borders

January 31, 2013

(EPA/Justin Lane)

The hackers would start digging into the New York Times' systems at about 8 a.m., Beijing time, and persist for about the length of a standard work day, according to the newspaper's account of its months-long battle with China-based cyber assaults. The attacks began Oct. 25, the day that the Times published an expose of the enormous wealth that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's family had quietly accumulated, and were thought to be "consistent with other attacks believed to have been perpetrated by the Chinese military."

The Chinese government has not been directly implicated and formally denies its involvement. But the Times' investigation and outside analysts seem to strongly suspect that China may be responsible for this and similar attacks on other Western journalists as well as defense contractors and technology companies. Bloomberg News, which published a similar story last year, also reported China-based attacks.

In trying to deduce the unknowable – is the Chinese government behind the China-based hacking at the New York Times? – the New Yorker's Evan Osnos remembers an earlier clash between the Times and Chinese authorities. In 2004, police in Beijing detained a researcher with the newspaper's bureau there, accusing him of stealing state secrets. The investigators said they had proof: a photocopy of the researcher's notes. To this day, it's not clear how they got the photocopy, although the Times itself publicly raised the possibility that police had "entered" their offices "without permission."

In 2004, as now, just as shocking as the Chinese government's possible breach of a Western news organization was that same government's apparent willingness to let the world see what it had done. At some point, you presume that governments do a certain amount of spying abroad. But attacks on the New York Times appear to have been so aggressive as to have made their detection quite likely, and so sophisticated that whoever launched them surely understood that risk. If that campaign were indeed orchestrated by the Chinese government, it would be a remarkable demonstration of China's willingness to create its own rules of engagement in cyberspace.

What would those rules of engagement be? In many ways, they're the same rules that apply within China to Chinese citizens. Only now, with the apparent reach and strength of Chinese hacking, they may also apply to some of us who are outside of China, whether we want them to or not.

That first and foremost rule is that the preservation of the Communist Party and of single-party rule trumps everything else, including the inviolability of the Western media and any embarrassment Beijing suffers for appearing to violate it anyway. The party leadership has emphasized for years that top-level corruption is among the greatest threats to its popular legitimacy and thus its rule. The Times' report on the Wen family's wealth certainly gave the appearance of corruption in the highest ranks, which presumably explains why Chinese authorities may have thought that blocking the Times' site and pointedly holding back visas for two of its reporters would be worth the risks.

To be clear, China is still better with Western reporters – and with the Times – than it was, for example, immediately after the 1989 crackdown near Tiananmen Square. As The Washington Post's William Wan points out, the relationship between Beijing and the Times went dark for years. Perhaps this is because Chinese authorities thought the stakes were higher after the Tiananmen incident or perhaps because, as the country's international standing has risen, they seem to have accepted the Western media's presence as necessary.

There are some parallels here with how Chinese censors handle controversial subjects on the country's increasingly popular and noisy social media. Users are allowed a greater degree of freedom than they've ever had to discuss their country and its ills, in part because the growing middle class demands it. But they are watched closely by monitors and know what they will be censored if they cross any red lines. Spreading negative information about top party officials, just as for the Western media, is the reddest line of all.

China's possible response to the New York Times story, if indeed the government was behind it, would be an extreme exception to the government's normally more permissive treatment of Western journalists. But such high-profile exceptions are also a hallmark of Beijing's carrot-and-stick approach to speech within China. Most online critics have nothing more to fear than having their latest post deleted, or at most their account. But provocateurs such as artist Ai Weiwei, for whom social media is just one component of a larger campaign of thumbing his nose at the party, have faced harsher consequences, including detention and house arrest in Ai's case.

Maybe these parallels are just a coincidence. But it's striking that China would seem to use such similar tactics – establish red lines, punish those who cross them, maybe make an example of someone – with foreigners as well as its own citizens. Cyber security experts like to talk about how hacking has a tendency to erase borders. When it comes to publishing embarrassing secrets about the Communist Party, it seems to matter less and less which side of the Chinese border you sit on.

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Olga Khazan | January 31, 2013