Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Lash Out at U.S. Spying Indictment

Web users there think China should sue back.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Chinese web users scoffed and Beijing expressed outrage at the May 19 announcement of a U.S. indictment of five Shanghai-based army officers on charges of hacking and economic espionage. In an uncharacteristically speedy response posted to the Foreign Ministry website within 90 minutes of the US announcement, spokesman Qin Gang called the accusations "absurd" and "purely ungrounded." Qin demanded that U.S. authorities drop the case immediately and added that Beijing would be suspending its participation in Sino-U.S. talks on Internet security due to Washington’s "lack of sincerity." Although Chinese mainstream media was slow to pick up the story, China’s rowdy social media quickly jumped into the fray. Many Chinese citizens viewed the U.S. accusations as hypocritical, if not risible.

In its indictment filed May 1, the U.S. Department of Justice claims that five officers of People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398, all of whom worked out of an office building in the suburbs of Shanghai, hacked into the computers of U.S. firms Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, and Solar World, as well as the United Steelworkers Union. (U.S.-based Internet security firm Mandiant documented the alleged activities of this unit in a February, 2013 report.) It is the first criminal indictment against state actors for cyber spying against the United States. 

On the Chinese web, users largely dismissed the U.S. accusations as a case of "a thief crying ‘stop the thief!’" and wondered whether China shouldn’t pursue charges of its own against U.S. officials for government-sponsored cyber spying. "So this means China can just charge U.S. military officers in the same way," wrote one user on the Weibo microblogging platform. Another called the accusations "ridiculous; the United States has the whole world in its fist, but it’s not okay for others to want to listen in on what you’re doing."  

Many also wondered aloud whether Beijing shouldn’t charge the U.S. National Security Agency for spying on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. (Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reported by the New York Times on March 22 revealed that the NSA had broken into Huawei’s networks and monitored communications of its top executives.) China "should prosecute all the agents of U.S. intelligence agencies for using hacking methods to monitor and steal many Chinese secrets, seriously harming Chinese security and economic development," one web user wrote in response to the Foreign Ministry’s statement. 

Sami Saydjari, a former Pentagon cyber expert and founder of the Wisconsin Rapids-based consultancy Cyber Defense Agency, told Foreign Policy that the case was a response to Chinese demands that the United States produce proof to back up its allegations of Chinese economic espionage. "This step documents and exposes the attacks and sets the stage to make this an international conversation," he said. Saydjari added that "other diplomatic efforts have failed to dissuade the Chinese from their aggressive cyber espionage program against the United States."  

In announcing the case, both Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin were careful to describe the accusations as relating to economic espionage. The wording appeared to be an attempt to deflect critics who see the charges as hypocritical in light of recent revelations about the extensive global reach of U.S. government spying. "While the men and women of our American businesses spent their business days innovating, creating, and developing strategies to compete in the global marketplace — these members of unit 61398 spent their business days in Shanghai stealing the fruits of our labor," Carlin said

Chinese web users appeared unmoved by or unaware of this distinction. Spying was the key phrase, and it didn’t seem to matter if it the material concerned was economic or political. Wrote one: "Everyone is spying. Whoever doesn’t do it must be a fool. It all comes down to who can do it better and who can leave no trace of evidence." On Supercamp, a bulletin board discussion site for military affairs, one user remarked that U.S. knowledge about the details of the case showed that it "had once again infiltrated China’s Internet." 

To coincide with the announcement of the case, the FBI posted wanted alerts for the five accused, complete with photos. It seemed unlikely that any of the officers will actually be brought to trial in the United States. But the notices are raising their online profiles. Next to a list of their names posted to Weibo, one user responded with a thumbs-up icon and one word: "heroes." Another wrote the men should get bonuses and "class three merits," a Chinese military honor.

Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o