A recent U.S. government report repeated what Internet security experts have been saying for a long time; China is using the Internet for espionage and more aggressive actions to silence those who criticize or embarrass the Chinese government. An example of that occurred last year, when Chinese hackers, apparently with government encouragement, attacked and shut down online ticket sales for a local film festival showing a film the Chinese government objected to. The film in question, The 10 Conditions of Love, was made by, and about, Uighurs (a Turkic Moslem minority in northwest China.) The director of the film is a Uighur activist that the Chinese consider a criminal. China earlier tried to pressure the film festival organizers by having three Chinese films withdrawn. But the Australians refused to give in. Then the Chinese took off the gloves and sent in their Internet based enforcers.
There's nothing secret about these Chinese cyber thugs. Four years ago, China organized a civilian Cyber War force. It's called the "Red Hackers Alliance" (RHA) and is officially a network security organization, composed of patriotic Chinese network security experts. China does have a major problem with network security, as the average Chinese PC user is much less well equipped, in terms of protective software, and expertise, to protect their computers, than their Western counterparts. Computer viruses and worms that are a minor nuisance in the West, are often major problems in China.
The RHA has a paid staff, including university trained network security experts. Officially, the RHA provides training and advice about network security. But the RHA has also apparently absorbed the thousands of Chinese hackers who used to belong to informal hacker organizations. These groups often openly launched Cyber War attacks against foreign targets. One of the more notorious examples of this was in the Spring of 2001, when outraged Chinese hackers went after American targets in the wake of a Chinese fighter crashing, after colliding with an American P-3 patrol aircraft. American hackers fought back, and apparently there was more damage on the Chinese side. This offended the Chinese hackers a great deal, and they vowed to not fail in the future.
In the wake of the 2001 incident, the Chinese hacker organizations began to disband, even though they were the source of more serious, espionage related, hacking. The government apparently liked the talent of the Chinese hackers, but not their lack of discipline. Although the older hacker groups had liaison with the government, this was not enough to prevent "adventurism." The RHA is apparently the solution to that problem, and is yet another addition to China's growing Cyber War apparatus.
China has over 30,000 people involved in monitoring people using the Internet in China, as well as other organizations that are developing Cyber War weapons and defenses. This effort to organize Chinese hackers, for a network security effort, may be more successful than attempts to control their more playful activities. Hacking is all about spontaneity and, well, some misbehavior.
China does not want to alienate it's hacker community. Having the hackers on your side, in such an enthusiastic fashion, is rare, and a major advantage. But at the same time, ongoing government efforts to control Internet use angers many hackers. If the RHA officials lean on the hackers too much and too often, China may find that it has created a monster it has angered, and cannot control. Thus the need to turn the hackers loose on a "foreign enemy" periodically.
The U.S. report described how the Chinese are becoming more aggressive, with the Chinese government continuing to insist that it has nothing to do with any of these accusations and dismissing the growing body of evidence that indicates otherwise.