World and Nation

Cyberspying fears help fuel China’s drive to curb internet

BEIJING —Deep inside a Chinese military engineering institute in September 2008, a researcher took a break from his duties and decided — against official policy — to check his private e-mail messages. Among the new arrivals was an electronic holiday greeting card that purported to be from a state defense office.

The researcher clicked on the card to open it. Within minutes, secretly implanted computer code enabled an unnamed foreign intelligence agency to tap into the databases of the institute in the city of Luoyang in central China and spirit away top-secret information on Chinese submarines.

So reported The Global Times, a Communist Party-backed newspaper with a nationalist bent, in a little-noticed December article. The paper described the episode as “a major security breach” and quoted one government official who complained that such attacks were “ubiquitous” in China.

The information could not be independently confirmed, and such leaks in the Chinese news media often serve the propaganda or lobbying goals of government officials.

Nonetheless, the story is one sign that while much of the rest of the world frets about Chinese cyberspying abroad, China is increasingly alarmed about the threat that the Internet poses to its security and political stability.

In the view of both political analysts and technology experts in China and in the United States, China’s attempts to tighten its grip on Internet use are driven in part by the conviction that the West — and particularly the United States — is wielding communications innovations from malware to Twitter to weaken it militarily and to stir dissent internally.

“The United States has already done it, many times,” said Song Xiaojun, one of the authors of “Unhappy China,” a 2009 book advocating a muscular Chinese foreign policy which the government’s propaganda department is said to promote. He cited the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia as examples. “It is not really regime change, directly,” he said. “It is more like they use the Internet to sow chaos.”

State media have vented those concerns more vociferously since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month criticized China for censorship and called for an investigation of Google’s claim that its databases had been the target of a sophisticated attack from China.