Update: Do not miss James Fallows’ new post on the significance of the Google-China-Wikileaks revelations. Google, he concludes, comes out of this looking pretty good, its complaints of government-orchestrated harassment appearing to be confirmed.
The Wikileaks controversy isn’t going away, and the latest memos to fall under media scrutiny reveal that the US government had plenty of evidence about China’s obsession with Google, whose search engine was making them look bad. This obsession led to some very dirty tricks.
As China ratcheted up the pressure on Google to censor its Internet searches last year, the American Embassy sent a secret cable to Washington detailing why top Chinese leaders had become so obsessed with the Internet search company: they were Googling themselves.
The May 18, 2009, cable, titled “Google China Paying Price for Resisting Censorship,” quoted a well-placed source as saying that Li Changchun, a member of China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and the country’s senior propaganda official, was taken aback to discover that he could conduct Chinese-language searches on Google’s main international Web site. When Mr. Li typed his name into the search engine at google.com, he found “results critical of him.”
That cable from American diplomats was one of many made public by WikiLeaks that portray China’s leadership as nearly obsessed with the threat posed by the Internet to their grip on power — and, the reverse, by the opportunities it offered them, through hacking, to obtain secrets stored in computers of its rivals, especially the United States.
Extensive Chinese hacking operations, including one leveled at Google, are a central theme in the cables. The hacking operations began earlier and were aimed at a wider array of American government and military data than generally known, including attacks on computers of American diplomats preparing positions on a climate change treaty.
One cable, dated early this year, quoted a Chinese person with family connections to the elite as saying that Mr. Li himself directed an attack on Google’s servers in the United States, though that claim has been called into question. In an interview with The New York Times, the person cited in the cable said that Mr. Li personally led a campaign against Google’s operations in China but that to his knowledge had no role in the hacking attack.
…Precisely how these hacking attacks are coordinated is not clear. Many appear to rely on Chinese freelancers and an irregular army of “patriotic hackers” who operate with the support of civilian or military authorities, but not directly under their day-to-day control, the cables and interviews suggest.
But the cables also appear to contain some suppositions by Chinese and Americans passed along by diplomats. For example, the cable dated earlier this year referring to the hacking attack on Google said: “A well-placed contact claims that the Chinese government coordinated the recent intrusions of Google systems. According to our contact, the closely held operations were directed at the Politburo Standing Committee level.”
…[T]he cables provide a patchwork of detail about cyberattacks that State Department and embassy officials believe originated in China with either the assistance or knowledge of the Chinese military.
Sorry for the long clip; be sure to read the entire article. It leaves no doubt about China’s top-down encouragement of and direct involvement in major hacking initiatives and cyber-terrorism.
Again, this should show the Chinese that the US is not determined to make China look bad. The government had this information and kept it secret. Wikileaks is an equal-opportunity whistle-blower and is leaking bombshells like this about the State Department’s dealings with everybody (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, etc.), and China is just one of many. The interesting thing is how quiet the diplomats were about what they knew and what they heard second-hand. If the US was out to demolish China’s reputation we’d have heard more about this long ago.
It raises the question of why the US went so far out of its way to keep the Chinese government’s involvement in the attacks a secret. It belies the arguments from the naysayers and idiots that Google fabricated or exaggerated the charges of cyber-terrorism because it needed an excuse to exit from China without looking defeated.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.