You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Hacked in China

Hacked in China

The latest U.S. cyber strategy has struck a nerve with Xi Jinping.

Joshua D. Baughman

A foreign government's response to a U.S. strategy document rarely earns front page coverage, but in the case of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) recent reaction to the U.S. government's new cyber strategy, we should all be paying attention.

Tensions continue to escalate in the cyber domain, given the recent Chinese-backed intrusions into U.S. government computer systems, which affected dozens of critical infrastructure areas including water and power utilities, oil and gas pipelines, and transportation and communication entities. Brandon Wales, the head of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, stated in a recent interview that it's "very clear that Chinese attempts to compromise critical infrastructure are in part to pre-position themselves to be able to disrupt or destroy that critical infrastructure in the event of a conflict." As tensions continue to escalate in the cyber domain, China’s immediate and rigid counter response to the new U.S. cyber strategy gives an illuminating glimpse into the CCP’s strategic mindset and potential for future conflicts.

Shortly after the United States Department of Defense (DoD) released its unclassified 2023 Cyber Strategy Summary, China’s Ministry of National Defense made this official statement:  

As we all know, the United States is the largest "Hacker Empire", "Spying Empire" and "Secret Stealing Empire" in the world. It unscrupulously carries out large-scale, systematic and indiscriminate cyber-attacks on other countries, even its own allies. In addition, the United States is also the originator and master of cyber warfare, vigorously developing offensive cyber warfare capabilities, and developing cyber-attack weapons.

This was just the tip of the iceberg that has been China’s response to the new U.S. cyber strategy. Chinese government agencies along with military and civilian media have reacted strongly. There have been high level seminars; even a new policy released to capitalize on young technical talent. The overarching Chinese message has mirrored the wording and structure of the U.S. Cyber Strategy Summary in three key areas: defining the cyber threat; developing a cyber workforce; and preparing for war in the cyber domain. And while it is hardly unusual for China to respond to any perceived negative messaging, the combined response in this instance by the Chinese Communist Party showcases that the DoD policy document has struck at the core interests of the CCP—even hitting a nerve with Xi Jinping himself.  

Cyber Threat 

The DoD’s public 2023 Cyber Strategy is clear on the fact that China is a malicious actor in the cyber domain: “The PRC poses a broad and pervasive cyber espionage threat. It routinely conducts malicious cyber activity against the United States as well as our Allies and partners.” In their reactions, China inverts this narrative, claiming in a no-holds-barred Xinhua News article that they are actually the “biggest victim of cyber-attacks.” (The article’s title: “The ‘Hacker Empire’ with the Stain of Evil—the Origin of the United States’ Destruction of Global Network Security.”)

The article cites reports conducted by China’s National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center and by other agencies that focus on the U.S. National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. These allege that the United States has launched a global cyber-attack operation utilizing a large number of backdoors and vulnerabilities. One specific example referenced involves the Wuhan Earthquake Monitoring Center, in which a very sophisticated backdoor malware in the network was found, which an after-action report conducted by Chinese analysts claims was “consistent with the characteristics of U.S. intelligence agencies.”  

In an uncharacteristic move, using their newly created official WeChat account, China’s Ministry of State Security (China’s primary intelligence and security agency) weighed in on the DoD 2023 Cyber Strategy in an article titled, “Uncovering the Main Despicable Means of Cyberattacks and Secret Theft by U.S. Intelligence Agencies.” There, author An Ping, a regular contributor to the MSS WeChat account, likens the actions of the United States to the game of chess. For its opening move, the United States supposedly built up an “arsenal of cyber-attack weapons” to launch large-scale cyber-attacks.

An Ping claims that this first chess move has been ongoing for over a decade, with U.S. intelligence agencies employing large-scale weapons and equipment for conducting cyber operations, including both attacks and espionage activities, directed toward China, Russia, and approximately forty-five other nations and regions globally. The scope of these supposed cyber offensives encompasses critical sectors including telecommunications, scientific research, economy, energy, and military domains. In its second chess move, An Ping writes that the United States “forces technology companies to open back doors” into equipment, software, and applications in order to “monitor and steal global data.” Finally, in its last move, the United States pushes the blame on China while overhyping the threat in cyberspace, all while being the real aggressor.  

An Ping identifies U.S. Cyber Command’s “Hunt Forward” operations as a ruse to carry out cyber-attacks and to steal information. He claims that the United States is trying to portray itself as a "cyber-attack victim," inciting and coercing other countries to join the "Clean Network" program (initiated by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2020) under the banner of "maintaining network security," but which in reality is an attempt to eliminate Chinese companies from the international network market. In sharp contrast, the DoD 2023 Cyber Strategy posits that the PRC endeavors to influence the global technology landscape by disseminating potentially harmful cyber capabilities to sympathetic nations. Additionally, it argues that the PRC actively strives to expedite the proliferation of digital authoritarianism on an international scale.

Cyber Workforce

DoD’s 2023 Cyber Strategy emphasizes the need for investing in a capable cyber workforce. “Our most important cyber capability is people…. The Department will prioritize reforms to our cyber workforce and improve the retention and utilization of our cyber operator.” China’s response here is twofold: by saying that the United States has ulterior motives in making such a claim and that it is exaggerating the shortage of cyber professionals; secondly, by releasing measures on how to improve their own (Chinese) indigenous capabilities. This is the explicit argument made even in the headline of this representative article in China’s National Defense News, “The United States Exaggerates the Shortage of Cybersecurity Personnel with Ulterior Motives.” The article claims: 

From the first release of the "Cyber ​​Deterrence Strategy" by the U.S. government in 2015, to the promotion of the Cyberspace Command's upgrade to a joint combat command, to the recent introduction and implementation of the "New Cyber ​​Security Strategy," the United States has been working step by step in this field and continuously consolidating its cyber hegemony.                                                                                         

Its author furthermore argues that the United States has a sense of urgency in building a cyber offensive force due to its shortage of manufacturing personnel. Thus the United States vigorously trains and recruits relevant technical personnel in order to serve its "integrated deterrence" strategy, monopolize technology and talents, and develop offensive power. 

The CCP, as noted above, has also released their own domestic measures to help address a shortfall in China of cyber talent, and to enhance STEM education and support young talent with the release of “Several Measures on Further Strengthening the Training and Use of Young and Scientific Technology.” This policy document puts great emphasis on young scientific and technological talents “taking the lead,” as these are the most likely to make major breakthroughs in innovation. The paper’s authors write that “young scientific and technological talents shall be boldly used in major national scientific and technological tasks, key core technology research and scientific and technological research.” The proposals even specify the proportion of young leadership, the goal being to have the proportion of scientific and technological talents under forty years-old serving as project leads at a minimum of 50 percent.

Additional to these proposals is a call by Chinese authorities for an increase in efforts to support young scientific and technological talents in carrying out international exchanges and cooperation. This may be a more difficult task for China to carry out, as the United States is carefully watching over research parternships involving areas with potential for military application (dual-use technology, most famously). Even China acknowledges the issue, as evidenced by news articles with such titles as “Containment and Suppression Will Only Give Rise to the Impetus for China’s Scientific and Technological Innovation” in Xinhua News. This article expresses the growing concern in China, with its argument that “the United States has abused its state power and continued to unreasonably suppress China's technology and industrial supply chains.” Nonetheless, its author concludes with a defiant tone, stating that China will continue to follow its own path of scientific and technological innovation, striving to promote international scientific and technological innovation and cooperation with other countries.   

Preparation for War 

In no uncertain terms, the DoD 2023 Cyber Strategy states that “malicious cyber activity informs the PRC's preparations for war.” Per the DoD strategy summary, when it comes to some future armed conflict, there is a high probability the PRC will orchestrate deleterious cyber assaults targeting the U.S. homeland. Such a strategic endeavor would be geared toward impeding the mobilization of American military forces, fomenting a state of internal disarray, and redirecting both national attention and material resources. Furthermore, there’s also a likelihood that the PRC would endeavor to incapacitate pivotal networks instrumental in facilitating the Joint Force's capacity for power projection in combat situations. Thus, the United States simply must “prepare to fight and win the nation’s wars” by enhancing the cyber resilience of the Joint Force and by ensuring its ability to fight in and through contested and congested cyberspace.      

In a direct contrast, Lu Xiang, who is described as an expert on American issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Chinese state research institute and think tank), believes that the United States is simply making excuses for its increasingly “obvious aggression” in cyberspace. In an October 2023 interview he states: 

Judging from the current behavior of the United States, it is obvious that it is preparing for war and preparing for various forms of war, including cyber warfare. Knowing that it is difficult to confront China head-on, the United States is looking for a new way of "guerrilla warfare." The U.S. Department of Defense's "2023 Cyber ​​Strategy" is to pave the way for the United States to increase military spending and enhance its capabilities in this area. 

In general, Lu Xiang believes that U.S. cyber strategy reflects the truth that the United States wants to engage in cyberspace battles with China, and at three levels: ideological, intelligence, and operational. Among them, Lu argues the first, ideological level is the most important. Lu believes DoD’s 2023 Cyber Strategy document indicates that the United States views the technological conflict with China as a moral struggle, and that it associates China's technological progress with current Chinese beliefs and its political structure. This perspective, Lu argues, suggests an American intention to criticize China's societal and political setup with the aim of undermining the CCP’s political stability. 

Why the Strong Response?

While China frequently puts out a statement or gives a rebuttal to something they may disagree with in their attempt (in the words of Xi Jinping) to “tell China’s story well,” their response to the DoD 2023 Cyber Strategy Summary has been a far more significant effort. Certainly, China’s principal competitor writing about the “China cyber threat” in an official strategic document merits some official response, but the scope and level of their reactions to date indicate that something is resonating at a more fundamental level. 

One clue why resides with the leader of the CCP himself, Xi Jinping. In Xi Jinping’s eyes, China’s cyber and technological development are essential to China’s “great rejuvenation.” Echoing this sentiment, Xi has said on multiple occasions, “without cyber security, there would be no national security, and without informatization, there would be no modernization.” Barely a day after the release of the DoD 2023 Cyber Strategy Summary, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) held a seminar on studying, publicizing, and implementing Xi’s writing and speeches on achieving cyber superpower status. 

Over the course of Xi's career in the CCP, he has recognized the significance of cyber and technology—a focus that’s now embodied in a comprehensive digital strategy referred to as "Digital China" that touches all aspects of Chinese society including political, ecological, economic, cultural, and social. The first major goal of that digital grand strategy is to build China up to a “cyber superpower” [网络强国]. With such a goal considered to be of paramount importance, there’s little wonder that U.S. cyber strategy is perceived by the CCP to be a direct threat to China’s own development. And since the United States reports on China’s cyber-attacks, espionage, and theft while also working to deter, counter, and restrict bad behavior and technology that may be used for military use, the CCP views the United States as a direct barrier to their core objective of continued national development.  

With the United States clearly stating that China poses the greatest threat in the cyber domain, and China saying the exact same about the United States, tensions will likely only escalate between the two countries. This is an issue that Xi Jinping himself holds as critical to the future of his nation and its “great rejuvenation.” The DoD 2023 Cyber Strategy Summary is clear-eyed about this conflict, and thus its assessment that we must defend the nation, prepare to fight and win wars, protect the cyber domain with allies and partners, and finally, build an enduring advantage in cyberspace. Only with a robust and integrated cyber capability, strengthened by continued partnerships with our allies and partners, will the Pentagon be ready to counter the threat of China, and indeed, any malicious actor who seeks to undermine a secure and open cyberspace or to threaten the security of the United States. 

Joshua D. Baughman serves as an analyst at Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI).  His research centers on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activity in the cyber and information domain, and the PLA Rocket Force. 

Image: Members of the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, Md., June 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

AuthoritarianismChinaDemocracyEconomicsTechnologyUnited StatesU.S. Foreign Policy