Writing in 1995, before anyone in the West thought all that much about war online, Major General Wang Pufeng (the former Director of the Strategy Department at the China’s Academy of Military Sciences) observed, “Our sights must not be fixed on the firepower war of the industrial age. … Rather they must be trained on the information warfare of the information age.”
“In the final analysis,” General Pufeng added, “information warfare is conducted by people.” And China has a lot of people. For over a decade, China has been building its cyber militia.
In 1990, China’s domestic computer hardware industry was worth less than $1 billion. In 2000, it was worth almost $23 billion. This development reflected in part a government decision to become a global leader in the computer industry. In 1995, there were about 40,000 Internet users in China. By 2003, there were over 59 million. In 1995, there were about 170,000 miles of fiber-optic cable in China for telecommunications. In 2000, there were about three-quarters of a million miles of the stuff.
The growth of the Chinese private investment, infrastructure, and the nation’s online presence was matched by the rapid expansion of university education, particularly in the computer sciences. Building a cyber-citizenry was perhaps the government’s greatest achievement. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, computer science and engineering programs grew at a steady but modest pace. In 1999, the government established policies to ramp up university level degrees for “mass education” to feed the country’s demand for a technically trained workforce. By 2006, 23 million students enrolled in higher education institutions, more students than any other country in the world. China was doing more than training high-tech workers, though. It was creating the makings of a cyber-militia.
In 2006, the government-sponsored Red Hacker Alliance appeared with over 300,000 members. This army is available for patriotic cyber-action as well as duties on the homeland. The Ministry of Public Safety and the State Secrecy Bureau have cyber-security units at all levels of government, totaling in the hundreds of thousands (including college students who perform online law enforcement part-time in exchange for computer and Internet access).
Beijing’s cyber-service includes more than a just a citizen militia. The Chinese have undertaken a sustained effort to develop information warfare capabilities to achieve “electromagnetic dominance” over the United States and other cyber competitors. The signs that this is happening are numerous and troubling. Security experts believe that in 2005, the Chinese government orchestrated a sophisticated cyber-espionage effort known as Titan Rain, which downloaded information from hundreds of unclassified defense and civilian networks. China’s cyber stealing dwarfs Wikileaks many times over.
U.S. government information systems are attacked every day. Some of these intrusions have been extremely serious, compromising security and costing many millions of dollars. A few years ago, penetration of computer networks at the U.S. National Defense University proved so pervasive that the university was forced to take the entire computer network offline and install new information system defenses.
Beijing has aggressively used its cyber forces to muscle its way around the Internet at home as well as abroad. China bans many popular Western Web sites (such as Facebook) and conducts extensive Internet monitoring and filtering. According to the OpenNet Initiative, “a consistent feature of the Chinese Internet has been the lack of transparency, which has long been a hallmark of the government’s management and suppression of information.”
The U.S. has been slow to confront China’s cyber bullying. Indeed, in the run up to the state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, U.S. officials also proclaimed their intent to pursue talks with the Chinese military to build trust and confidence on the most sensitive issues, including cyber threats. According to the International Business Times, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he was confident that both sides “are on the road to fulfilling the mandate that our two Presidents have given to us: to strengthen the military-to-military relationships that they both consider an underdeveloped part of the overall U.S.-China relationship.” The last thing the U.S. has shown is serious cyber-security leadership regarding the China threat.