Making friends and influencing people, China-style

For the second day in a row, the South China Morning Post gives extensive front-page coverage to aging Mainland state banking bosses who should be retiring but aren’t. All riveting stuff, of course, and needless to say we can’t wait to read the next five instalments in the coming week.

Sadly, the continuity-in-banking story seems to have reduced the amount of space available for other China news, like the unveiling of People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398, which has been hacking the hell out of corporate and government America these last few years.

If the New York Times wasn’t scratched off Beijing’s Christmas-card list after the expose of Premier Wen Jiabao’s family’s fortunes, it certainly will be after this. (Some more here and here.) There are two winners here: Internet security company Mandiant gets tons of glowing, free publicity, while the US government gets a nice stick with which to beat Beijing.

Chinese nationalists believe the US is out to surround their country. The ‘Mary Ma’ column in today’s Standard seems to buy into this, endorsing the theory that the US is letting Japan devalue its currency in return for Tokyo’s help in creating a ‘corridor for the Americans to re-establish a foothold [in Asia]’. If Washington is trying to surround China, it is not with weaponry so much as with mistrust. It is pretty easy to do, as Beijing – or its apparently uncontrollable militant elements in and around the PLA – is doing at least half the work.

Ten years ago, most East Asian countries largely felt at ease with a rising China. Not so now. Beijing demands ownership of Philippine and Vietnamese waters and bullies a weak client state into undermining an ASEAN meeting, while its frigates lock their fire-control radar onto Japanese ships. The cumulative effect is the China Threat, and an East Asia in which Beijing squanders its goodwill and ends up friendless, even potentially surrounded by enemies of its own making.

The Mandiant report confirms what most people already assumed, but in considerable detail (the company pretty much hacked the hackers). No doubt Western security agencies do plenty of hacking of their own, but letting hundreds of kids loose scattering malware around government and commercial sites, including energy and telecoms networks, and stealing whatever they can find, is something else. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks suggests a sort of naivety or even hubris (you wonder if some of them got a kick out of being caught).

With what are still massively inferior armed forces, Chinese security officials, well-schooled in the principles of asymmetric warfare, probably feel entitled to level the playing field through on-line economic sabotage. But in terms of national reputation, it must be counterproductive. Anyone who wants evidence that China will not be co-opted into the established global order now has some more. Anyone who wants evidence that China simply cannot be trusted now has some more (regardless of whether these and other acts of aggression are authorized by the top levels in Beijing or are the work of rogue nationalistic/PLA elements).

More than ever, the US – in whose mouth, of course, butter never melts – can convincingly tell East Asian countries in particular that the lawless land of Bo Xilai will continue its insular and aloof middle-kingdom exceptionalism, treating the world as it treats its own, on the amoral conviction that might is right.

Or, as China’s nationalists would put it, China will forge its own place and modus operandi in the world, and not submit to the shackles represented by hypocritical Western values and the failed, so-called rules-based systems of the last century.

As well as congratulating the fluent English-speaking, Harry Potter-loving geeks of Unit 61398 at 208 Datong Rd for their peculiar achievements, we declare the weekend open with a tribute – dedicated to the nostalgists out there – to an earlier and much-loved generation of hackers: Whatever happened to phone phreaking?

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10 Responses to Making friends and influencing people, China-style

  1. expat says:

    ‘…regardless of whether these and acts of aggression are authorized by the top levels in Beijing or the work of rogue nationalistic or PLA elements…’

    What’s the mandarin for ‘Gen. Jack D. Ripper’?

  2. Bela Boddingtons says:

    Nice colour piece.

    Sometimes I think you talk too long with those old Far Eastern Economic Review hacks at the FCC? Didn’t they set up a web site? Is it still going?

    That and the Economist and Jonathan Fenby. Old China Hands, filling the tankards at the FCC, ogling at the Filipinas, a copy of THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY in their pocket but reading TAI PAN on the the quiet at home.

    And absolutely no clue as to what is going on.

    Not you of course!

  3. Maugrim says:

    Some good points made. Chinese burying trains to hide stolen technology? A Chinese government that is economical with the truth, A history of Japanese invasion on Chinese soil and a more recent history of failed US involvement in Asia all add up up to create an intersting mix. Other way, the Chinese are turning sympathy into suspicion.

  4. Real Tax Payer says:

    Another serious comment :

    I find it strange how first China, then the USA, then China , then USA are characterized as the “bad guy” depending on the particular flavor of the day’s news

    Now it’s nasty evil China hacking into the USA. A couple of weeks ago it was the nasty hypocritical USA black listing half the civilized world’s banks for money laundering a few billion Iran $ when in fact all those dollars were being spent buying equipment from US suppliers to build Iran’s nuclear program ( but a not even a tut tut from the State Dept for those USA suppliers, even though their equipment can be seen in Iran even on Youtube, not to mention google images)

    I guess next it will a another US spy plane hovering over China’s coast, or a drone flying over BJ. Then it will be back to China’s workers putting US workers out of jobs, even though,many of those Chinese workers are employed ( at least indirectly) by US companies like Wallmart and Apple

    So the hypocrisy and mud-flinging goes on.

    I don’t like any of it. But I’m happy to have some very nice and decent friends in both US and China (and in the FCC bar, where – BTW @ Bela – “The Honorable Schoolboy” is verboten and has been for years)

  5. Bela Boddingtons says:


    Good’s one of the worst books Cornwell/Le Carré ever wrote. But the characters are true. And why read about it when you can look around and talk to them?

    The FCC is a place of festering failures and Old China Ignoramuses. I felt the cobwebs of Kipling tickling my cheeks every time I went near. Much better to step out and observe a few natives – but you have to leave your gin bottle, cleft sticks and pith helmet behind.

  6. Old Timer says:

    I resigned from the FCC years ago…got tired of paying a monthly subscription to a club whose bars were mainly populated by dullards and boors. Every time I walked into the place, my heart sank.

  7. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ B. Boddingtons

    Actually, although I’m not a member of the FCC I think the bar and food are both excellent. As for the company – I only go there when invited.

    Also I think The Honorable Schoolboy is one of Le Carre’s best

  8. Real Tax Payer says:

    In late-breaking weekend news, now even flies must queue to go into toilets in China:

    “At the most, only three flies will be allowed per square metre in stand-alone public toilets. Only one fly will be allowed in public toilets built within other facilities, according to the new draft hygiene standards”

    I thought the HKID number thing the other day was the ultimate never-never land, but evidently I was wrong and China has outdone HK yet again

    PS: If you want a good laugh and you subscribe to the SCMP on line, check out Alex Lo’s column today on the use of the f-word in Legco and especially read the comments. Some are hilarious .

  9. Joe Blow says:

    One can see Allan Semen walk in and out of the FCC rather frequently.

    “Tell me who your friends are…..”

  10. Mongkok Mzungu says:

    For all the high-profile targets, these hackers are amateurs and if indeed affiliated, make the Chinese PLA a laughing stock. Finding or forcing a door into a target system is something any half-baked hacker can do. The art is to do so unnoticed, keep the door open as long as possible, and then close it again silently without alarm bells going off. They failed miserably on all of those counts. As long as the ‘best’ they can do are digital pranks like that, and fiddle a bit with radar systems near a largely symbolic piece of rock in the sea, which is not even worth the diplomatic fall-out, let alone actual warfare, the Chinese ‘aggression’ does not keep me up. When they have developed some real projectable capabilities, perhaps in another 15-20 years, let’s revisit.

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