On January 20th members of a Chinese message board (Di Ba) launched a massive attack on Facebook that resulted in over 100,000 comments added over eight hours to the Facebook page of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s newly elected president. Also hit were several Taiwanese Facebook pages advocating an independent Taiwan. The Di Ba member comments opposed Taiwanese independence. China considers Taiwan a renegade province of China and threatens to invade if Taiwan declares independence. Tsai Ing-wen has expressed interest in independence. China has banned its citizens from using Facebook and made it very difficult for anyone inside China to even access Facebook. There are Chinese equivalents as well as some of the largest message boards on the Internet. Di Ba is one of the largest of these with about 20 million members.
The Di Ba attack was considered a non-government effort by the Chinese but that is unlikely. The more likely culprit is the network of pro-government Internet “militias.” Since the 1990s China has been organizing and expanding a volunteer Internet Army (as it is called in China). In 2011, for example, the government “encouraged” companies to organize their Internet savvy employees into a cyber-militia and inspire these geeks to find ways to protect the firm's networks. This did not turn out exactly as expected, as many of the volunteers have become successful, but unpopular, censors. It’s now widely accepted one of the most annoying things for the new Chinese middle class is the censorship (especially on the Internet). The most annoying censorship is the online version that is carried out by paid and volunteer censors at your company or in your neighborhood. This use of “local activists” to control discussions and inform on possible troublemakers (or worse, like spies or criminals) is an old Chinese custom and one that was highly refined by the 20th century communists (first the Russians, who passed it on to their Chinese comrades). The old-school informer network suffered a lot of desertions and other damage during three decades of economic freedom. But the government has been diligent about rebuilding the informer and censor network online, where it’s easier for the busybodies to remain anonymous and safe from retribution. The on-line informers are also useful for keeping an eye on foreign businesses.
The 2011 effort was described as an Internet security measure and it involved businesses and local governments were ordered to organize local “militias” to protect their Internet access and computer security in general. In practice, many companies just told all males under 30 that they had volunteered for the “Online Red Army.” Less publicized was the training given to some of these company militias on how to carry out Internet based espionage. The understanding was that there is much less risk if this capability is only used against foreign firms in China. But these volunteer company Internet spies found they now had some power, and despite the relative anonymity of these spies, it introduced a new source of fear and intimidation into the workplace.
The Chinese military also has a growing number of formal Cyber War units, as well as military sponsored college level Cyber War courses. These Cyber War units, plus the volunteer organizations and Golden Shield bureaucrats apparently work closely with each other and have provided China with a formidable Cyber War capability. Volunteers groups like NET Force, with only a few thousand personnel, appears to be the controlling organization for all this. With the help of volunteer militias and Golden Shield, China can mobilize formidable attacks, as well as great defensive potential. No other nation has anything like it.