Tag Archives: The New York Times

Why one might think the US government sees China as threat no. 1

In recent weeks, a series of U.S. government statements, leaks, and policy changes could leave you with the impression that policymakers see China as the biggest threat to U.S. security.

My guess is that even if top officials in the Obama administration believe this, they would rather temper that impression. On the other hand, take a look, and consider what impression you would get from the last month:


Someone leaked at least part of a classified U.S. intelligence document to the Washington Post, which wrote: “The National Intelligence Estimate identifies China as the country most aggressively seeking to penetrate the computer systems of American businesses and institutions to gain access to data that could be used for economic gain.”


President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, made a thinly veiled reference to Chinese hacking—the only substantial China-related statement:

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.


The New York Times reported on a study released by the private computer security company Mandiant, asserting that the People’s Liberation Army is behind attacks on U.S. businesses, national security institutions, and critical infrastructure.

On the record, a National Security Council spokesman said: “We have repeatedly raised our concerns at the highest levels about cybertheft with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so.” That sounds reasonable, even though a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called the Mandiant allegations “irresponsible and unprofessional.”

But here’s what unnamed U.S. sources told the Times:

  • “There are huge diplomatic sensitivities here,” said one intelligence official, with frustration in his voice.
  • “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow,” one senior defense official said recently. “Today, it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.”

OK, now we have a direct Cold War comparison, framing Chinese actions as taking the place of the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union.


The White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets.” The document does not name China in the body text, but six of the seven concrete examples of theft in sidebars mention China explicitly. An attached Department of Justice list of “economic espionage and trade secret criminal cases” since 2009 includes 20 examples, 17 of which involve China.


Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein said the Mandiant report accusing the PLA of specific actions is “essentially correct.” And House Intelligence Committe Chairman Mike Rogers said the Chinese government and military are behind attacks on U.S. companies “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”


A report from the Department of Homeland Security outlined a six-month effort to target U.S. natural gas pipeline operators, and press reports such as this one from the Christian Science Monitor said the attack signatures indicate ties to Chinese attacks. The link to China comes from information newly released by the DHS. Whether the motive of an attacker would be to compromise gas pipelines, to steal technology to run them, or both, is left an open question.


After a slight lull in action, filled nonetheless with plenty of commentary, U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon gave one of the administrations most thorough recent speeches on Asia and the Pacific region. The speech has some new material and plenty of small adjustments, but the press angle was clear: “U.S. Demands China Block Cyberattacks and Agree to Rules.”

Importantly, the China section comes in contrast to kind words about “emerging powers” in India and Indonesia. Although a “constructive” relationship with China is framed as its own pillar in the administration’s Asia Pacific strategy, little is new here other than a drastically higher billing for cybersecurity concerns:

Both countries face risks when it comes to protecting personal data and communications, financial transactions, critical infrastructure, or the intellectual property and trade secrets that are so vital to innovation and economic growth.

It is in this last category that our concerns have moved to the forefront of our agenda. I am not talking about ordinary cybercrime or hacking. And, this is not solely a national security concern or a concern of the U.S. government. Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country. As the President said in the State of the Union, we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats.

From the President on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments. And it will continue to be. The United States will do all it must to protect our national networks, critical infrastructure, and our valuable public and private sector property. But, specifically with respect to the issue of cyber-enabled theft, we seek three things from the Chinese side. First, we need a recognition of the urgency and scope of this problem and the risk it poses—to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations. Second, Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities. Finally, we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace.

2013-03-12 – The reporting goes overboard?

The top U.S. intelligence official “suggested that [cyber] attacks now pose the most dangerous immediate threat to the United States, even more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks,” according to The New York Times. That official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, also said there was only a “‘remote chance’ in the next two years of a major computer attack on the United States, which he defined as an operation that ‘would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.'”

The Times assertion that Clapper suggested cyber attacks could be more of a risk than terrorism seems to be based on the fact that Clapper discussed them first, so it is to be taken with a grain of salt. The full text of his statement for the record is available online. His remarks as delivered are online too. I haven’t found a transcript of the Q&A yet, but I just watched most of it, and the direct comparison of cyber attacks to terrorist attacks does not seem to be there.

So the reporting here may be a bit much, but the 2012 statement listed terrorism and proliferation above “cyber threats,” whereas the 20032013 document puts “cyber” ahead of those two.

So, how does this all sound?

Especially if you read Clapper’s list order as indicative, these developments and statements as a whole sure could look like a concerted effort to escalate U.S. attention to one kind of threat posed by Chinese military operations. Meanwhile, the difference between stealing secrets and threatening military systems or life-supporting infrastructure is often glossed over, allowing fear of economic espionage to bleed into fear of military battle. Meanwhile, for obvious reasons, the government sources are not disclosing the U.S. military and NSA’s own cybersecurity capabilities and activities, except to announce greater efforts. Though other countries are sometimes mentioned, China is always held up as a marquee threat.

To at least some in the Chinese government, this is going to look like a move toward an aggressive and adversarial stance.

Is this the impression the Obama administration wants?

It is quite clear that the Obama administration has moved to bring greater pressure on the Chinese government over the issue of computer-enabled espionage and even sabotage. It is also clear that the issue is real, even if some elements of the story are being fudged in the press or by private contrators looking for a piece of the pie.

But it is less clear that this level of escalation is in the best interest of U.S.–China ties. As Donilon said in his speech (before emphasizing the cybersecurity demands), “Taken together, China’s leadership transition and the President’s re-election mark a new phase in U.S.-China relations—with new opportunities.” An agressive stance, however, might undermine the opportunities for renewed contact.

At worst, it could trigger a retrenchment in Chinese officials’ willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue with the U.S. leadership. At best, pressure on this issue could produce results and bring a major irritant into the open in bilateral dialogue. One potential good sign came from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, where a spokeswoman said Tuesday “Cyberspace needs rules and cooperation, not wars. China is willing to have constructive dialogue and cooperation with the global community, including the United States.”

Meanwhile, I hope the U.S. government will take into account the media amplification effects that come from their increased frankness in public in this particular direction. If more people in the U.S. start seeing China as a Cold War-like enemy, they may find themselves fulfilling their own prophesy, an outcome far worse than the loss of corporate secrets.


Nothing in this post should be taken to suggest I view cybersecurity as unimportant or as an argument that all sides in the Chinese government are innocent. Indeed, military and critical infrastructure security are absolutely critical to national security, and not just in the United States. Minimizing the theft of corporate secrets is a reasonable economic interest of the United States, and even more so an interest of the corporations. I support scrutiny of this issue and increased efforts by government and private sector organizations. But piggy-backing fear of the unknown in cyber threats and fear of the unknown in the field of a potential “China threat” presents a risk of simplification and harmful cascades. China is not the only element of the cybersecurity issue, and cybersecurity is not the only element of the U.S. relationship with China.

What it means when we say NYT is 'blocked in China'

Shanghaiist has just posted a fairly snarky story claiming, as it summarizes well in the headline, that “The New York Times might or might not be blocked in China (but probably isn’t).” I think they’re off the mark.

The writer’s claim that it seems to work fine for Shanghaiist staff most of the time is a weak explanation of what’s going on, conflicts with my experience and those of many on Twitter, and results in an uninformative and dismissive post on a usually great site. [UPDATE 19:23 — The writer, James Griffiths, rightfully points out in this Twitter thread that he refers to greatfirewallofchina.org as well as Shanghaiist staff. I still question the value of that data when it is quickly refuted by experience, but noted for the record.]

(Those interested in question of why it might be blocked probably already know. If not, check Twitter or the site itself for the top China story.)

Blocking a site is not a national-level switch. The filtering can be done at various points of transit for the information, either at the local ISP level or at other nodes up to and including the point of transit across the Chinese border. But on my connection in Beijing, the site doesn’t load. All direct evidence I’m offering is from a Unicom household connection in Dongcheng, Beijing.

A block can be achieved by deleting or interfering with a DNS listing. DNS is the directory the network uses to translate a URL into a numerical address of the format that the internet uses. That doesn’t seem to be happening from my connection, but I have a setting that attempts to skip over the local DNS servers and instead retrieves information from Google. So, some may be blocked this way.

A block can be achieved by terminating the connection when a chosen keyword passes through the connection. The name of the leader featured today by the NYT does not seem to be blocked, because his English Wikipedia page is loading just fine (from here). His Chinese name, on the other hand, might be blocked, because I get a “connection reset” error.

The “connection reset” error usually indicates a machine somewhere along the path of the connection has detected an unwanted transmission. Using the protocols that run the internet, this intermediary can then send an error message to both the sending server (say Wikipedia or a newspaper) and to the receiver (my little laptop) saying, “Hey, something’s wrong here! Let’s reset!” The result is that you don’t get your content.

The “connection reset” error is what I’m getting for NYT. This means that somewhere in my transmission chain, it’s most likely that there is a keyword filter being triggered. For practical purposes, this means that even non-related stories on that site are inaccessible. This could be because the newspaper itself is a keyword. It could be triggered by a combination of keywords. It could be because the Chinese leader’s name is part of the code of the English page. Or it could be something else entirely.

It makes no sense to say something is “blocked in China” at an early stage. Instead, we can say it is blocked (or better yet “inaccessible”) from a given connection. And without my VPN (indeed, without the one of two VPNs I use that still works), the NYT is at this point blocked on my connection.

I’m not sure what the people at greatfirewallofchina.org are doing. Shanghaiist notes that they report the site still accessible. But the crowdsourced censorship monitor Herdict finds that a lot more reports of NYT being inaccessible from China are coming in. It would be unfortunate if people got the impression that the Times was crying wolf, when in actuality the picture is more complicated than either the Times or Shanghaiist let on.

[UPDATE 19.45 (last before signing off for the evening)

A few things of note have been pointed out to me.

  • The Times claims to have actually tested where they were inaccessible and found 31 cities experienced a trouble: “By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Web sites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested.”
  • It’s been pointed out a few times that the specific argument that traffic due to a report of censorship overwhelming the servers just doesn’t hold water. Aside from the fact that the paper handles things like the World Series just fine, the content is still OK via VPN, which would not help if the server was down.
  • https://en.greatfire.org/ is another site like Herdict, apparently focused on China only.
  • OK, it’s Halloween weekend, and it’s time to go!]

Further reading (I used to write about this a lot):

Three great paragraphs on the internet and Chinese 'revolution'

This from Guobin Yang of Barnard College, Columbia University, in The New York Times:

Protest is also increasingly common on the Internet. I recently counted 60 major cases of online activism, ranging from extensive blogging to heavily trafficked forums to petitions, in 2009 and 2010 alone. Yet these protests are reformist, not revolutionary. They are usually local, centering on corrupt government officials and specific injustices against Chinese citizens, and the participants in different movements do not connect with one another, because the government forbids broad-based coalitions for large-scale social movements.

Because of those political limits, protesters express modest and concrete goals rather than demand total change. And the plural nature of Chinese society means that citizens have sometimes conflicting interests, making it difficult to form any overarching oppositional ideology. In other words, the government allows a certain level of local unrest as long as it knows it can keep that activism from spreading.

And while the Internet has revolutionary potential, here too Chinese leaders have a firm grasp of the situation: they understand the power of the Internet much better than their Middle Eastern counterparts, and they regularly restrict access to the Web when they sense that unrest is gaining momentum.

Great column, but this segment just nails what I keep trying to tell people in response to questions about a Middle East/North Africa contagion.

A Literary Note: Benjamin Hale, Alexandra Kleeman, and LEAP

It’s been a good few months for my more literary friends. Most recently, an old friend Ben Hale (website, blog) has published his first novel and received very good reviews, including in the New York Times Book Review. I was lucky enough to read The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore in proofs, and that copy is still floating around in Beijing. I’ll let the reviewers give their un-biased view of the thing, but I thought it was fantastic. If you tend to follow the advice of The New Yorker on literary matters, you might find yourself reading it as part of their “book club” this month. Enjoy.

As if to taunt me with the potential glory of literary merit, another good friend from Boulder, Colorado, has published a debut short story in The Paris Review, one that has received favorable rumblings in the literary blogosphere.

Alexandra Kleeman is known to me as a source of originality in insight and wit, and her story gives us some of that depth. I’m with everyone else who patiently awaits her next offerings.

Finally, though it’s not fiction, I recently received a great piece of mail from Beijing via California: the new issue of LEAP 艺术界, a new English–Chinese bilingual magazine on the Chinese art world that has several friends working on it. Among them are Philana Woo (advertising) and Angie Baecker (contributing editor). Angie was the brains behind a co-written article she and I did previewing the Beijing art scene during the olympics, and her insights have only grown. The magazine also has a new website.

My magazine package also included a very cool branded Moleskine notebook, which I will be using to bring order to the chaos of my life in the near future.

Some time I’ll show these kids how great it can be to do more boring serious publishing.