Tea Leaf Nation

Exclusive: Hackers Infiltrate Chinese TV Station

Messages denouncing the "Communist Party bandits" parade across Chinese televisions in Wenzhou.

freeweibo.com/Fair Use
freeweibo.com/Fair Use

This story has been updated.

Friday evening television viewers in Wenzhou, a city in eastern Zhejiang province, saw their normal programming interrupted by anti-Communist Party messages.

One message, emblazoned across the top of the screen, declared, "Damn the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces: China Central Television, Peoples’ Daily" — the first a broadcaster, the latter a newspaper, and both generally acknowledged to toe the party line — as well as "the Propaganda Department and the State Radio and Film Administration," both agencies that exercise government censorship. Another message, placed in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, called for the release of Wang Bingzhang, a pro-democracy activist who has been detained in China since 2003, and declared that "the Communist bandits are the real criminals." Yet another message read, "Friends, do not cooperate with Communist devils." The message on the image above says, "Why is Liu Xiaobo of Charter 8 in prison, Communist bandits your words are just unadorned farts, you know the people know that everything you say are just farts." Liu is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Chinese dissident; Charter 08 was a manifesto calling for constitutional reform. (Wenzhou Television could not be immediately reached for comment.)

Just before 7:30 p.m. on Friday, posts began flooding Chinese social media saying that "something weird" was happening with Wenzhou TV. Users began posting photos of the messages, which appeared superimposed over regular evening programming; after the programming cut out, only the text was left, floating over black screens. Would-be TV viewers turned to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, in confusion, asking other users what was happening to their usual evening programming. "What is going on?" asked one woman in Wenzhou. "Suddenly the channels are just gone; the screen keeps repeating this same content." The user also posted photos of a succession of anti-Party messages parading across her blank TV screen. At 9:30 p.m., about two hours after photos of the hackers’ messages began swirling online, the official Weibo account of a Wenzhou media service provider began posting instructions for how to get rid of the troubling messages. "Remove and then re-insert the smart card from your set-top box; the black text should then go away."

Censors immediately leapt to action, deleting photos of the hackers’ messages and related messages. The search term "Wenzhou TV station hacked" is currently blocked on Weibo due to "relevant regulations." Initial mainland China news reports about the hacking appeared briefly online, only to be quickly pulled. Censors also deleted a Weibo post by an editor at state-owned Xinhua News Agency’s international division, which described the hacking as a "fierce" attack.

The group whose logo appears on the hacked TV screen calls itself the Anti-Communist Party Hackers; on Twitter, they have claimed to have successfully attacked many other Communist Party websites. In an email response after the attack, the group denied responsibility, claiming instead that it was the work of "friendly forces" in the fight against the Communist Party. 

In an email interview in late June, representatives claiming to be from the Anti-Communist Party Hackers said they usually execute their attacks late at night, "because the website’s managers are off work," and that the attacks usually last "for a few hours or the entire night." They declined to comment on their background, their hacking process, or the number of people involved in their operations. In their email interview, the group also said that "so far the Communist Party has been powerless to stop us." With this new and very high-profile attack attributed to them, that may change. 

An FP employee contributed reporting.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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