Tea Leaf Nation

Net, Interrupted

Net, Interrupted

When the Internet in the world’s largest country largely stops functioning, does it make a sound?

On or around 3:20 p.m. on Jan. 21, most Chinese websites became inaccessible –"about two-thirds," one technology expert with anti-virus company Qihoo 360 told state-run China National Radio. According to tech news portal Tencent Technology, during the service interruption, which lasted for almost six hours, many of China’s most popular websites, including Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, as well as top search engine Baidu and social media giant Tencent, began redirecting to an IP address (the numerical label of a networked computer) owned by U.S.-based Dynamic Internet Technology (DIT). In a Jan. 22 press conference, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the incident showed China was "a victim of hacking," but named no aggressor. The massive service interruption, coupled with the lack of a full official explanation, left many Chinese wondering whom to blame.

China’s state-run media quickly insinuated that foreign interference was involved. The official China News Online stated that a "preliminary investigation" determined an "online attack" had taken place, while Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, cited an expert who said a "hacker attack" was a "very probable" explanation. An unnamed expert quoted by reliable Communist Party cheerleader Global Times speculated that the prolonged hiccup resulted from a deliberate assault: "We cannot eliminate the possibility that real hackers used this IP address," the expert said, "as a springboard for their attack." The article, which carried the Chinese title "Chinese Internet Experiences Mysterious Attack: IP Involved Directs to Censorship Circumvention Software Company," repeatedly mentioned DIT and the fact that it produces Freegate, a software program that allows users to bypass China’s enormous censorship apparatus, known colloquially as the "Great Firewall." (DIT founder Bill Xia said in a telephone conversation with Foreign Policy that his company was not responsible for the outage.)

Readers, by and large, had a different theory. Comments on platforms including news aggregator Netease and Sina Weibo evinced a sense that the protracted glitch was in fact an (accidental) inside job. "I think you messed up while tweaking the Great Firewall," an anonymous Netease commenter wrote, "and you’re using hackers as a scapegoat." "You weren’t careful when you were moving a rock and you dropped it on your own foot," a Weibo user named Wang Rui joked, as if speaking directly to China’s authorities."Then you said someone else threw it." One anonymous Weibo user asked, somewhat more obliquely, "Was the Matrix upgrading again?"

That’s not to say Chinese state media didn’t hit a nerve. Cybersecurity is not just an American anxiety, after all: Former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in June 2013 that the United States had tried hacking "hundreds" of targets in China, including universities and government officials. The vulnerabilities of Chinese cyberspace are clearly real, even if this particular wound may have come from friendly fire.

"China’s online spaces are easy pickings for other people," wrote one Weibo user, concluding, "We should improve Internet security defenses." Root name servers, which form the backbone of the Web, "are all abroad," lamented another, noting China’s lack of critical Internet infrastructure. "The minute we anger" U.S. President Obama, "he could send us right back to the Stone Age."

Wholesale loss of the Internet was a frightening prospect for Chinese netizens, but regaining normal service did not dispel dissatisfaction with the status quo. After the Web recovered, one Weibo user wrote sarcastically, "A lot of websites remain inaccessible to me, like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter," sites currently banned in China. "How can I fix this?"