Conducting Cyber Warfare on the U.S. Is Not a Priority for China

In a country that houses nearly a quarter of humanity, minding the home front overwhelmingly dominates Beijing's time


Two items are worth highlighting that, upon quick glance, don't seem to have an obvious connection. But I actually think they should be contemplated in tandem for reasons I'll elaborate below.

First is the op-ed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal from Richard Clarke -- former White House cyber-security czar who has served under several administrations. (And in the interest of disclosure, Clarke currently runs Good Harbor, a security risk consultancy.) The piece sounds the alarm on China's cyber assault on America:

In 2009, this newspaper reported that the control systems for the U.S. electric power grid had been hacked and secret openings created so that the attacker could get back in with ease. Far from denying the story, President Obama publicly stated that "cyber intruders have probed our electrical grid."

There is no money to steal on the electrical grid, nor is there any intelligence value that would justify cyber espionage: The only point to penetrating the grid's controls is to counter American military superiority by threatening to damage the underpinning of the U.S. economy. Chinese military strategists have written about how in this way a nation like China could gain an equal footing with the militarily superior United States.

What would we do if we discovered that Chinese explosives had been laid throughout our national electrical system? The public would demand a government response. If, however, the explosive is a digital bomb that could do even more damage, our response is apparently muted--especially from our government.

The Chinese are lobbing "digital bombs" at our power infrastructure, apparently. The first thing that came to mind was Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard, in which the basic plot involved a disgruntled former Pentagon cyber genius that conducted an electronic "firesale," knocking out power systems and wreaking general havoc in our digitally connected world. Except in the film, the attack on the electricity grid was merely a diversion to obscure the real intent of executing a high-tech heist of Americans' financial data. The Chinese, on the other hand, aren't after the money but rather are focused on undermining "American military superiority," according to the piece.

I don't want to belittle the cyber-security issue by drawing Bruce Willis, Timothy Oliphant and Maggie Q into it. It is clearly serious, as evidenced by an uptick in reports of hacking incidents and Gmail troubles in China, among myriad other issues. The fact that Chinese cyber and corporate espionage presents a thorny security issue for both the U.S. government and private citizens is uncontroversial. Let me qualify too that cyber security is far outside my realm of expertise, and I have no pretensions of fully grasping the true extent and severity of this threat from China or elsewhere. And I take the examples of Chinese-backed breaches via the "Aurora" attacks cited in the piece at face value (others more knowledgeable can surely comment on the specifics of what's possible and far-fetched by the Chinese).

With these qualifications, I still nonetheless felt the piece to be rather breathless, portraying a unified Chinese strategic mindset that is bent on dominating cyberspace and damaging U.S. interests where it counts.

And this is where I think some context is in order regarding what preoccupies China for the most part. I want to draw your attention to this excellent piece on China's "stability preservation" system from Caijing magazine (original Chinese here), translated by Duihua:

The Central Hub

Ever since the idea of "preserving social stability" was put forth, there has been a steady expansion of the relevant government agencies concerned with this work. This can be clearly seen in the history of the vertical system of politico-legal committees.

The Politico-Legal Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (hereafter, CPLC) is a functional department through which the Central Committee leads and manages law-enforcement work. Its primary tasks are to preserve social stability and guide, coordinate, supervise, and inspect the work of public security, the procuratorate, the courts, judicial administration organs, and state security. Committees are established at the central, provincial, prefectural, and county levels, but generally they do not exist at the grassroots township level or within [other] institutions...

...In summary, at the central level the CPLC is the leading organization for stability preservation, with supreme authority given to the Central Leadership Small Group for Stability Preservation. Through attached bodies such as the Central Comprehensive Management Committee, it exerts unified management over law-enforcement organs such as public security, the courts, the procuratorates, and state security...

Security companies set out clear and detailed fees for intercepting, detaining, and transporting petitioners on behalf of local governments: 200 to 400 yuan per person for stability control and 200 to 400 yuan per person for restraining measures. Fees for transport vary according to the method of transport, the number of individuals to be transported, and the distance involved.

And if interception is unsuccessful and the petitioner manages to register [a complaint] with the relevant authorities, local governments need to pursue a third path: "payoffs."

When a petitioner registers a petition with higher-level agencies, the petitioning office will establish a file record that can be tallied. According to public records, in 2009 Hebei had the most petitioners go to Beijing of any province (15,700 petitions), followed by Henan (5,700) and Liaoning. But since 2009, the relevant authorities changed their rules and no longer report [statistics for] ordinary petitioning. Instead, they report figures for "abnormal petitioning" and deliver national rankings to provincial party committees and governments.

These rankings are closely connected to assessment of local government performance, but their impact on political evaluations can be taken care of if the right payments are made.

There is plenty more, and I'd encourage reading the entire piece. But the central point in juxtaposing the two pieces is to note that when Chinese leaders wake up in the morning, concocting digital bombs and conducting cyber warfare on the U.S. is nowhere near the top of priorities (it might not even be on the list of priorities). Dealing with disgruntled farmers setting off real, homemade bombs in cities or ensuring the byzantine "stability preservation" machine operates smoothly is the order of the day.

In a country that houses nearly a quarter of humanity, minding the home front overwhelmingly dominates Beijing's preoccupation, despite China's rapidly ballooning external demands. Internal security is paramount, and the recent defense budget showed the domestic security apparatuses, including the paramilitary force People's Armed Police, actually received more money than the PLA.

Given current unrest, such spending on domestic security would seem justified from Beijing's perspective. Yes, China has developed sophisticated cyber technologies and has almost certainly used them on the U.S. and others. But how much more is China spending on monitoring and limiting the Internet activities of its own citizens vs. undermining U.S. superiority? Little more context and a little less hyperbole is in order.

Well, I am going to have watch Die Hard 4 again.

Image: Reuters/Ho New.