XI'AN, China -- While often portrayed as a major international cyber-security villain, the Chinese state is also facing its own grave online security problems. Despite having one of the most restricted internets in the world, it has generally struggled to develop coherent or effective policy responses to these threats. Recent developments suggest China may be attempting to modernize and legitimize its cyber-security apparatus. This represents a significant opportunity for foreign governments to revisit their perceptions of the country's cyber intentions and engage with Beijing on a major transnational security and intelligence issue.
To do so, it is first necessary to dispel the widely held belief that dominates most discussions of China's cyber-security landscape -- namely, that Chinese hackers function as state-sponsored "armies" to carry out Beijing's online objectives. In reality, Chinese hacker networks tend to be disparate and uncoordinated, and though notably nationalist, they generally operate without ideological basis or political intent. While the Chinese government and military are clearly engaged in offensive cyber activities, the evidence strongly suggests that the majority of cyber-attacks originating in China are from independent hackers or hacker cells. Indeed, government sites themselves are routinely attacked.
Beijing's emerging policy response can be parsed from several recent announcements. This week saw calls in the state media for improved cyber-security institutions and management from the government. The comments, originally published in the People's Liberation Army Daily, called for greater horizontal integration on cyber-security policies among China's notoriously factional ministries. News also broke that Chinese telecom giant Huawei will open a research center in the United Kingdom in the hopes of promoting cyber-security information- and technology-sharing. These developments follow on from the opening in July of the PLA's first dedicated, technologically cutting-edge cyber-security center in the remote Western province of Gansu.