China, Its Hackers, and the American Media

What the Chinese hacking story tells us about the Sino-American relationship.

ChinesePLA.jpgSoldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) run through the Tiantan Park (the Temple of Heaven) during the week-long Chinese New Year holiday in Beijing February 12, 2013.(Petar Kujundzic/Reuters)

The New York Times' revelation that Unit 61398 of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) systematically hacked into U.S. computer networks has emerged as the latest salvo in the increasingly contentious Sino-American rivalry. While the story presented fresh evidence of Chinese hacking -- in stunning detail -- the aftermath presents more questions than answers.

Who, exactly, authorized the attacks carried out by Unit 61398?

On the surface, this question seems fatuous and unnecessary -- the Chinese political system, like the American one, places the military under civilian leadership. However, the PLA has consistently operated with great autonomy, and there are occasionally rumors that China's political leaders don't always know what the military is doing. James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert on Chinese cyber-security, put it this way: "The first time some parts of the Chinese government probably encountered this story was through reading The New York Times." Could Unit 61398 have been reporting to military, rather than political, superiors? 

There is reason to be skeptical of such a scenario. The Chinese government has explicitly sought increased capability as a cyberspace power, and the hacking is consistent with this larger strategic goal. So while it is unlikely that President Xi Jinping himself authorized specific targets, it would be a major stretch to suggest that the PLA is disobeying the wishes of the civilian government by conducting these attacks.

Is China the only country that conducts cyber attacks? Why does it do it?

According to Lewis, there are five countries which stand out as having significant cyber-espionage capability: China, Russia, France, Israel, and the U.S. Capability, of course, does not mean intent, and it would be a mistake to judge all cyber attacks as equivalent. The United States, after all, famously conducted a series of attacks aimed at disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, an operation described in great and vivid detail by the New York Times' David Sanger. To say that China is the only country to launch cyber attacks against another is plainly inaccurate.

However, Adam Segal, the Maurice B. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that the scale and scope of cyber conflict is greatest in China. "There's a sense of competitive metabolism there," he said, "and China has resources that the other countries lack." In terms of Beijing's relationship with the United States, cyber is an area in which China -- whose conventional military strength remains far inferior to that of the U.S. -- can gain an asymmetrical advantage over its strategic rival. Though the country continues to invest in its armed forces, China remains hemmed in by American military power in the Pacific and a string of U.S.-allied countries on its periphery, giving Beijing a strong incentive to seek any advantage it can get.

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Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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