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How Should the US Respond to China's Cyber Attacks?

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the National Intelligence Council is working on a new National Intelligence Estimate that will point the finger at the Chinese government for a multi-year campaign of cyberattacks against American networks. The estimate, according to the wire service, will call for more effective action against Beijing.

The news comes on the heels of a series of revelations that Chinese hackers have been reading e-mails of New York Times reporters as well as attacking the computer systems of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Reports also suggest the Chinese have hacked Twitter and the Department of Energy.

Hackers in China—associated with government instrumentalities, ministries, state enterprises, the Communist Party, and shadowy associations—have been probing, infecting, stealing from, and disrupting networks around the world in what looks like the largest effort of its kind. Beijing officials, pointing to Chinese government laws against cyber crimes, have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and senior administration officials have talked with their Chinese counterparts about rampant hacking, but attacks from China nonetheless reportedly spiked in the middle of last year. The apparent failure of dialogue has not stopped the administration from continuing its dialogue with Beijing. Said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, “We have repeatedly raised our concerns with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so.”

Unfortunately, talking even more with China’s leaders is not going to convince them to stop their highly provocative cyber activities. Why not? This is not just a dollars-and-cents—or, more precisely, yuan-and-fen—decision to obtain valuable intellectual property for nothing. The hacking of the Times, for instance, suggests the Communist Party sees its cyber intrusions as an issue of first importance. The paper, in a front-page article on January 31st, noted that Chinese military hackers were interested only in the Times’s reporting last October of the wealth of the family of Premier Wen Jiabao.

The paper’s October article, which stated that Wen’s family members had accumulated at least $2.7 billion in assets, suggested corruption, and corruption always brings down Chinese dynasties. “Grandpa Wen,” as he likes to be called, had been the compassionate face of communism. He was the leader who wept at the scenes of natural disasters, who visited the downtrodden, who called for democracy. Now, however, the Chinese people know, because of the Times’s reporting, that he had undoubtedly abused his official position and was no better than other rapacious Beijing leaders.

But I doubt this was just about Premier Wen. Given that China so fiercely attacked the Times for disclosing the extent of the Wen family’s accumulation of wealth, it’s a good bet that the other leaders wanted to prevent disclosures about themselves. The decision to launch a cyber attack on the Times, therefore, may very well have been a collective decision to circle the wagons.

In the wake of the latest hacking news, China’s political leaders only look more desperate. They have morphed from a threat to their own people to a threat to free institutions and free societies. The unprecedented attack on Western media is part of a campaign to intimidate reporters and affect political discourse in America and elsewhere. The West, and democratic countries everywhere, cannot allow the Chinese to succeed.

Hillary Clinton, before stepping down as secretary of state, worried about what could happen when the US responded to Chinese cyber campaigns. “Obviously this can become a very unwelcome and even dangerous tit-for-tat that could be a crescendo of consequences, here at home and around the world, that no one wants to see happen,” she said. Clinton is right, of course, but Chinese leaders leave us no choice but to defend ourselves. That’s why the administration is about to issue guidelines and policies about the use of the nation’s cyberweapons.

For years, Washington delayed taking action against Chinese cyber activities apparently because policymakers thought that if they did, the efforts would undercut attempts to develop cooperative relations with Beijing. Successive administrations harbored the hope that we could talk to the Communist Party and come to some accommodation. These hopes were never realistic and have not changed Chinese behavior, except perhaps to make it worse by suggesting we were not serious. 

China’s leaders, on the other hand, are serious, and they believe they are entitled to deference. Because they are communists, they feel superior on account of self-pronounced historical destiny. Because of recent economic success, they are arrogant. Because of today’s problems, they are insecure. The result is that they now crave control of not only their nation but ours as well. 

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