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  • China's Pursuit of Cyberpower
  • Adam Segal (bio)

China is one of the most active cyberspace players in the Asia-Pacific, developing and deploying cyber capacities in pursuit of its economic, political, and strategic objectives. Chinese computer network operations are conducted to strengthen the competitiveness of China's economy, accelerate the modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), weaken opponents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), resist international pressure and foreign ideas, and offset U.S. dominance in conventional military capabilities.1 Beijing is also aggressively supporting the indigenous innovation of emerging technologies that will give it new capabilities in cyberspace, especially 5G, artificial intelligence, and quantum information systems.

Although Western governments often dismiss comments from Chinese foreign ministry officials declaring China the world's biggest victim in cyberspace as distractions and diversions, Chinese officials do in fact see their cybersecurity as weak relative to the degree of threat and the capabilities they perceive from potential adversaries, the United States in particular.2 As the July 2019 defense white paper puts it, "Cybersecurity remains a global challenge and poses a severe threat to China."3 Perhaps the clearest evidence that the leadership sees China's situation as precarious is the speed with which it has addressed what it sees as two major sources of weakness: an underdeveloped cybersecurity regulatory framework and widespread dependence on foreign technology in critical networks. Over the last five years, China has rapidly developed new cybersecurity institutions, laws, guidelines, and standards and has moved to replace foreign suppliers with domestic counterparts. [End Page 60]

Both Chinese capabilities and vulnerabilities are likely to increase in the next five years. This combination of strengths and weaknesses means that China is primarily a cyberespionage threat to the Asia-Pacific. While the potential for Beijing to use more disruptive or destructive cyberattacks against an adversary in a regional conflict is high, especially against command-and-control systems, CCP leaders are likely cognizant that China is vulnerable to similar attacks.

This essay introduces the range of Chinese cyberoperations and the organizational structure that supports and conducts them. It also highlights significant weaknesses in Chinese cyberdefenses, such as an underdeveloped cybersecurity industry and lack of investment and expertise. The essay concludes that the combination of the Chinese economy becoming more reliant on information and communications technologies and the PLA becoming more dependent on digital systems has resulted in Chinese leaders becoming more sensitive to China's vulnerability to cyberattacks.

China's Cyberattacks

The vast majority of computer attacks originating from China have targeted private-sector companies in an effort to steal intellectual property, trade secrets, and other information that could help China become more economically competitive. President Xi Jinping set a goal for China to become a "world-leading" science and technology power by 2049, and the country has significantly ramped up spending on research and development; expanded enrollment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic disciplines at universities; and pushed specialized industrial strategies in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum research, and next-generation communication technologies.

China has also, however, directed cyber industrial espionage at high-technology and advanced manufacturing companies in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia.4 Hackers have reportedly targeted the negotiation strategies and financial information of firms in the energy, banking, law, and pharmaceutical sectors. In an operation known as Cloud [End Page 61] Hopper, Chinese hackers, allegedly from the Ministry of State Security, breached at least a dozen cloud providers over several years, which allowed them access to data from hundreds of companies.5 The damage this theft inflicted on the victims' economies, or, conversely, how much it helped China's economy, is unknown. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimated in November 2015, however, that all cyber-enabled economic espionage, not just Chinese activity, costs the U.S. economy $400 billion per year.6

State-supported hackers also use cyberattacks to steal military secrets to accelerate the PLA's modernization and gather political information on agencies, institutions, and individuals that might have an impact on Beijing's foreign policy or threaten domestic stability. While Andrea and Marco Gilli have argued that the complexity of modern weapon systems makes it...


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pp. 60-66
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