Is There a There, There for the Chinese Military?

Following this item last night on the latest Chinese-hacking reports, readers discuss a fundamental question about Chinese "policy." That question is how we balance the contradictory, but simultaneously true, realities of coordination and chaos in interpreting actions of the Chinese state. Some things the Chinese government does are very carefully planned and controlled. Many others arise from confusion, insubordination, laissez-faire, mistake, and plain old Brownian motion. This tension applies to many things in life but, to me, is especially dramatic in China. For a reminder,* compare recent news about focused Chinese-military spying efforts with this feature from the People's Daily:

Thumbnail image for SoldierBeauty.png

One reader who has experience in American politics and in China policy writes in response to my mention that the U.S. military is no slouch when it comes to cyber-war capabilities (cf STUXNET):

Of course we are very capable in the cyber area, and do apply our tools to collect against more traditional intelligence targets.

However what the Beijing is doing, brazen intrusions into corporations, media, legal offices, etc is far beyond the scope of our activities.  The Chinese State is involved in outright systematic theft of our IP, technology, M & A plans, and so forth.  And yes historically this has always been part of industrialization process, think of America vis-a-vis the UK during the late 18th early 19th century but that was spontaneous, this is top down state led and on a totally different scale.

What I like about this note is the reminder that many troublesome aspects of China now -- environmental ruin, dangerous factories, government bribery, and intellectual-property theft -- have their counterparts in the rapid-development phases of America, England, and many other countries. But the difference in scale, speed, and degree in China's case put it in a different category. (Plus, the other stuff was then; this is now.)

Another reader stresses the opposite reality:

Is the Chinese military a monolithic perfectly formed hierarchically controlled entity?

My last stroll by the base on Xixi Rd. in Hangzhou was the usual blasting in and out by neon-camo paint job-pimped out Range Rovers of the top brass.  Army personnel blasting around in camo pimpmobiles probably do lots of stuff the ruling faction doesn't know or like.  I suppose there are are multiple factions involved with hacking.  China could have a few Jack D. Ripper types.

Or, more than a few.  I kinda think the hacking could be all sorts of stuff that's only slightly understood.

And what I like about this note is the reminder that even the PLA is full of several million Chinese people many of whom are pursuing their own dreams and schemes. Both perspectives are true, which makes the PLA hard enough for people in China to figure out, let alone outsiders.

If you've been wondering what our friends at Next Media Animation, in Taiwan, would make of the situation, here is your answer:

* I go into many other examples in my book. For instance: before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese Foreign Ministry successfully lobbied for the creation of an "authorized protest zone," where people could air their grievances before the world press. This would show China's mature openness. But the whole scheme backfired, since the security ministries turned down requests for "authorized" protests and arrested many people who applied. You could read this as a super-cynical scheme to locate dissidents all the more easily. But I think the more likely explanation is simple disagreement, chaos, and internal bureaucratic struggle.

** Any Chinese readers or others confused by the headline can check here.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Global

From This Author

Just In