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Politics & Security

China Has a Cyber Army, But Why Bother Subverting Democracy?

Governments in liberal democratic countries claim the Chinese want to undermine their institutions. China denies this. What evidence is being offered?

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FBI headquarters building is seen in Washington, US, December 7, 2018. (©REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo)

The allegations leveled against China by the FBI are extremely serious. 

The agency claims that Chinese agents have been undermining America's "sovereignty in cyberspace." 

Furthermore, according to the FBI, Chinese hackers have gleaned valuable information from American companies. They have also put pressure on political dissidents in America and abroad.

It is not only the United States that alleges sinister activity by China.

The Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Oliver Dowden, took the highly usual step of publicly blaming China for "malicious" cyberattacks.

Mr Dowden was speaking in the House of Commons in London, following meetings with senior politicians in Tokyo and Seoul. 

The Deputy Prime Minister claimed that the electoral commission - which holds the personal details of British voters - has been targeted by the Chinese.

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Meanwhile, Australia's Foreign Minister, Penny Wong warned that "the persistent targeting of democratic institutions and processes has implications for democratic and open societies like Australia. This behavior is unacceptable and must stop."

And New Zealand's government alleged that there had been a Chinese state-sponsored attack on its parliament in 2021.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. At the third Summit for Democracy in Seoul, March 18, 2024. (©REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool)

Awaiting Proof

So what are we to make of these claims? Do they amount to solid proof that China is intent on sabotaging the institutions of democratic countries?

And what are the implications for Japan, where many companies have been the victims of cyber attacks, including Yamaha, Seiko, Casio, the pharmaceutical firm Eisai, and even the port of Nagoya?

I believe we should be cautious about bundling all such incidents together and placing all the blame upon the government of China.

I am sure that the Chinese government does carry out espionage operations but I doubt that its primary intention at the moment is to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy. China's focus is on enhancing its technological know-how and making friends with countries in the so-called Global South, especially in the Middle East and Africa.

Ambiguous Allegations

Let's consider the timing of the stories about hacking that have appeared in the press. 

It was significant that the campaign was spearheaded by the British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, just days after he had attended the Summit for Democracy in South Korea.

Mr Dowden met President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul and the two leaders agreed to cooperate closely to defend democracy. "Britain places great importance on strengthening ties with Korea, a nation sharing the values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law," said Mr Dowden.

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He then flew on to Tokyo for a meeting with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hayashi Yoshimasa. They discussed cyber security and agreed to continue collaboration with a goal to "further deepen the robust bilateral relationship."

This makes sense, as both Japan and the UK are vulnerable to serious cyberattacks that could threaten national security and critical infrastructure, according to Japan's National Security Strategy.

The Japanese government said there was "a high probability" that the space agency JAXA was subject to a cyber attack in 2023. However, it says no sensitive information on rockets or satellites was compromised.

Fake images and disinformation about Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have been spread on social media. But at least some of them were created by a Japanese person who went on to apologize for his "joke" on Nippon Television Network.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. In Canberra, March 20, 2024. (©Mick Tsikas/AAP/via REUTERS)

Is There More?

The press reports in the past week or so have not mentioned any recent serious security breaches. Nor indeed is there much proof that the actions of Chinese hackers are bringing any benefit to the Chinese Communist Party.

Take, for example, Oliver Dowden's claim that the British Electoral Commission was hacked. This relates to an incident in October 2022. There is nothing to suggest that anything very secret or sensitive was leaked. Indeed, a large part of the British electoral register is available to anyone who pays to see it, such as businesses or charities.

Furthemore, I noticed that Mr Dowden's comments were not backed up by any evidence from the UK's National Cyber Security Centre. Neither did Britain's Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, offer any more specific information linking China to the murky world of cybercrime. 

China's Denial

The response from the Chinese Embassy in London was blunt. A statement said: "The so-called cyberattacks by China against the UK are completely malicious slanders. We strongly oppose such accusations. China has always fought all forms of cyberattacks according to law. China does not encourage support or condone cyberattacks."

The Chinese Embassy in America added that China was also a victim of cyberattacks and that the "US itself is the origin and the biggest perpetrator."

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It could be that the Chinese response is just bluster. But what good would it do the Chinese government to mess with elections in other countries?

To fix the outcome of an election in the UK or Japan would surely be a near-impossible task. 

It's not as though pro-Beijing politicians are waiting in the wings to take over from Rishi Sunak or Fumio Kishida, who are both still willing to engage with China on many levels.

And it's worth remembering that the goal of President Joe Biden is to stabilize relations with China, not ratchet up the tension.

British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden in an interview with Reuters, in Seoul. March 19, 2024. (©REUTERS/Kim Daewoung)

Right-wing Frustration

Some right wing Members of Parliament in the UK have reacted with dismay to what they see as their government's weak response to China. Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, seen as a future Conservative party leadership contender, said: "This feeble response will only embolden China to continue its aggression towards the UK."

Nevertheless, the Chargé d'Affaires of the Chinese Embassy in London was summoned to the Foreign Office on March 27. This strikes me as a fairly robust response. 

I can understand why countries that value their democratic systems are wary of China. But I'm not persuaded that the Chinese are currently directing their cyber warfare weapons at the West or Japan. It sounds more like a propaganda battle to me - part of an ongoing war of ideas in which politicians, the press, and diplomats are on the front line.  

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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays.

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