China in Cyberspace

It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this war are invisible figures buried deep inside government offices, “hacking” their way into computers on enemy territory. As soon as the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, announced, on July 9, that his country should be treated as a separate state, the battle was joined.

The technology is quite new, of course, but the use of it can be touchingly old-fashioned: a picture of the PRC flag was planted by Beijing’s official hackers on the website of the Taiwanese intelligence agency, as though it were conquered territory. Then, in August alone, 72,000 cyberspace attacks were launched from mainland computers, 165 times with success. Success can be an invasion of secret websites, as in the example of the planted flag. Another form of attack—also used against US government agencies after the Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade—is to swamp websites with so much e-mail, or “e-mail bombs,” that they are overloaded and knocked out of use. On their side, the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing set up a special unit to combat enemy hackers, or, as it was officially put, “to prevent an invasion of hostile forces.”

Planting flags or slogans on the enemy’s websites is a technically more sophisticated variation of a crude tactic used for many years in the propaganda war between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China: balloons filled with propaganda material were floated across the Taiwan Strait. Perhaps things have changed now, but visitors to the ROC military base in Quemoy, just off the Chinese mainland, used to be handed colorful balloons, usually after a copious lunch, and before they knew it, they would be photographed as allies in the war with the “Communist bandits.” I once did my unsuspecting duty in that war myself, looking like a drunk at a children’s party.

The question is whether the current conflict in cyberspace should be called a civil war. Since Washington only recognizes one China, the official US position must be that it is. If one’s sympathies are with Taiwan, a democracy that would like to be recognized as a separate state, things are more complicated. It all rather depends on what one means by “China,” a question that is almost as complex as the “Jewish problem,” and has been given a new twist by the arrival of the Internet. Is China a state, a nation, a geographical area, a culture, or just a myth? Or is it perhaps an ethnic idea? Officially, the Beijing government denies this. Minorities such as Tibetans, Mongols, and Uighurs are citizens of China. However, they do not think of themselves as Chinese, whereas thousands of citizens of Britain …

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