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Cyber-Espionage and China’s Dream of National 'Return'

Sustained efforts to seek out foreign knowledge is not traditionally China’s cup of tea, as it were.  The only precedent for such outreach in the generally extraordinarily insular Middle Kingdom’s long history can be found in China’s reaction to the arrival of Buddhism from India -- in connection with which at least 56 expeditions were sent from China before the 10th century to acquire knowledge from the fountainhead of such sacred wisdom.  In an era when this journey required struggling over some of the worlds most inhospitable deserts and the planet’s highest mountains, or alternatively working one’s way in perilous hops around the coastline of Southeast Asia, Chinese scholars and monks traveled eagerly abroad to acquire Buddhist learning for China in the form of sacred sutras that were subsequently translated into Chinese.

In the modern era, China has once again embraced the acquisition of foreign learning, eagerly “going to get the sutras” of modernity -- and the power that such knowledge has been seen to impart since the Qing’s painful encounter with Western imperialism -- by seeking out foreign technology.  Whether this has occurred through the dispatch of Chinese students to foreign universities, quasi-capitalist trade and business relationships characterized by vehement Chinese insistence upon technology-transfer provisions, the acquisition and reverse engineering of foreign arms and military technology, or rampant intellectual property theft and cyber-espionage, the deliberate and systematic acquisition of technology has been a central plank of modern China’s encounter with the non-Chinese world in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

So this is the historical context in which the most recent revelations about PRC cyber-espionage must be seen: this is no mere passing phase, but merely one manifestation of a powerful continuing theme.  There is much more  at issue than merely Chinese entrepreneurs’ aggregated desire to nick industrial secrets in a rapidly growing “Wild West” economy still lamentably unconstrained by the rule of law.  The continuum of acquisition, from legitimate means to outright theft, is a deep part of Chinese strategic policy, and has been for generations.  It is inextricably bound up with modern China’s obsession not merely with national “rise” but with a notion of “restoration” or “return” to first-rank power and status that is inherently competitive and zero-sum in its conceptual underpinnings.  Acquiring the technological “sutras” of modern power is felt to be a precondition for China’s great dream of return, and the Middle Kingdom is not picky or squeamish about its methods.  Cyber-espionage is merely the latest variation on this well-established theme.

How well is this working?  All the evidence so far points to a massive, sustained, and pretty sophisticated Chinese cyber effort to steal technology, trade and industrial secrets, and other intellectual property, and to penetrate information systems across Western high-technology sectors and in the government.  As far as can be ascertained by publicly available sources, moreover -- and despite recent efforts by PRC propagandists to respond to such reports by depicting China as being the real cyber-victim -- this flow largely goes in only one direction.  (The PRC regime is really only “victimized” by electronic information flows in the sense that it takes umbrage at the difficulty of controlling the political content of Internet-facilitated communication to and by its citizens, which is a very different issue.)  In this sense, one might perhaps say that the PRC is “winning” the cyber-espionage competition.

While its strategic policy of cyber-facilitated theft has clearly helped give the PRC considerable benefits and has contributed to China’s “return,” however, it is not necessarily the case that simply being the better cutpurse is “winning” in the deepest sense.  The continuing fixation of Chinese leaders upon technology acquisition and the largely one-way nature of the information flow, in fact, suggest both that the PRC still considers itself to be “behind” the West.  (Moreover, we implicitly agree.  After all, Western governments don’t seem to regard stealing intellectual property from China to be all that important to our national strategy.  This may perhaps have something to do with still not being all that impressed by it.)

So while the West seems clearly to have been suffering massive information losses to Chinese cyber-espionage, the very lopsidedness of modern technological cyber theft may thus signal that Beijing does not yet feel that it has succeeded in acquiring the “sutras” of technological modernity it has so long sought from the West.  In the bigger picture, therefore, while the embeddedness of PRC cyber-espionage in the great project of “return” may reveal a very problematic strategic intent of zero-sum competition and Sinocentric primacy, the fact that China apparently still feels the need for such theft suggests a continuing undercurrent of insecurity and weakness.  Technology acquisition is designed to change weakness into strength, of course, but the feverish pace of ongoing cyber-theft is certainly a signal that China feels it isn’t there yet, and that we are still looked upon as creators and privileged holders of the sacred knowledge, as it were, that Beijing covets.

Nor, I think, is it guaranteed that China will be able to use and benefit to the fullest possible extent from what it steals.  During the Cold War, for instance, the Soviets stole a fair amount of Western technology, but with certain important exceptions, they weren’t able to exploit it too well -- especially in their broader economy and in ways that augmented their national strength across the spectrum.  Modern China is probably much better positioned to do this than the Soviets were, but there are still no guarantees.

There is an old saying in English about how giving someone a fish allows him to eat for a day, but teaching him how to fish allows him to feed himself forever.  This may provide some insight here.  Stealing what another system has learned and developed is an important shortcut, but it is not quite the same thing as being able to make progress on one’s own -- which is a more important test of sophistication and advanced modernity.  To the extent that it still has to subsist on technological scraps it steals from the tables of more advanced states, China clearly has not yet succeeded in its great project of a national “return” to greatness.

And this evokes to the great 19th and early 20th century Chinese debates over whether China actually can really be said to possess the “sutras” of modernity just by acquiring particular technical skills, and while still clinging to older forms of centralized and authoritarian socio-cultural organization.  It may be that in some deep way, sustainable technological and economic modernity requires the adoption of a truly modern socio-economic “operating system” as well: that is, a vibrant, open, and pluralistic way of organizing society so that one can become a source of innovation and brilliance in the world rather than merely a borrower of other’s ideas.

This could end up being a big challenge for the Communist Party oligarchy in Beijing, for it may be that authoritarian rule is incompatible with true modernity, and with China’s ultimate success in achieving national greatness.