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Chinese General Secretary’s Secret Journal Challenges “Cyber War” Notions

I’m currently reading two fascinating books on modern politics and international affairs, “Prisoner of the State” and “Cyber War.” It’s a nice coincidence that I’m reading both simultaneously, since reading one informs your understanding of the other.

Prisoner of the State is a collection of secret journals kept by former General Secretary of the Communist Party Zhao Ziyang, who lost power to hardliners over his refusal to crack down in Tiananmen. He got them to various friends who published them posthumously.

His journals give a unique, firsthand glimpse into the opaque realm of China’s political leadership. It’s fascinating and surprising.

In Cyber War, author Richard Clarke and Robert Keane discuss the security of the US’ “critical infrastructure.”

Critical infrastructure includes things like electrical grids and nuclear power plants and rail, air or road transport systems. All of these connect either directly or indirectly to cyberspace (which he explains is wider than the web’s open network and includes private cyber networks, such as the (DoD) Department of Defense’s “secure” networks).

The direct connections tap into some form of network like the DoD’s networks, while others connect indirectly when people transfer files from connected to unconnected computers, via things like USB keys.

While Clarke and Keane make the valid point that Chinese companies and the Chinese government steal a lot of commercial and defense secrets from the US, they also take the likelihood of a Chinese attack almost for granted. That’s a dangerous assumption, and one which “Prisoner of the State” squarely challenges.

At page 60, under the subheading the “East is Geek,” Clarke and Keane write that most people write off the likelihood of cyber warfare with China. These analyses are based on the hugely valuable trading partnership China has with the US, and the trillions of dollars in US debt it holds.

To contradict these views, the authors of Cyber War cite some anonymous Pentagon official who, “points out that the economic meltdown in the US [late 2008 early 2010’s recession] has had a secondary effect in China that has put millions of Chinese factory workers out on the streets. The Chinese government has not shown the kind of concern that we expect in the West and is not apparently worried about any weakening of its grip on the Chinese people. The lesson the Pentagon official takes away is that China can take economic lumps and may well do so if the gains from warfare are perceived as high enough.”

First of all, how does this anonymous official know that China’s leaders are not sufficiently concerned? There’s no proof or support for this bare naked claim.

Second, reading Prisoner of the State, one sees that whoever this anonymous Pentagon official is, they’re pretty clueless about the thought processes of China’s leaders. During periods of poor harvests in the 70s, that starved millions, Ziyang talks about the concern China’s leadership had. And he discusses the significant measures they took to correct the situation.

At the time of the Tiananmen protests, and during Ziyang’s later house arrest, we see the deep-seated fear of foreign media held by China’s leaders. And their concern over domestic media is also very significant.

An April 26 editorial in a Chinese daily strongly condemned the Tiananmen protests as anti-Communist / anti-patriotic. That really insulted many of the protesters and worsened the tension; Ziyang and others were deeply upset over this as they sought to ease tensions.

Another big reason for China’s transformation from a planned economy to a market economy is the concern of Chinese leadership for the [economic] quality of life of its citizens.

(Economics measures quality of life in terms of the number of appliances that make life easier, like cars and dishwashers.)

The market economy was better able to deliver these improvements than a planned economy.

If the Chinese leaders don’t care about millions of laid off Chinese, why would they have cared about newspapers? About Tiananmen’s protests? About their economic quality of life?

These examples are just a selection from Prisoner of the State…

The Chinese leadership may be opaque.

They’re not particularly careful about human rights.

But to portray them as insensitive to the general welfare of Chinese is demonstrably nonsense.

The other point made by this Pentagon official is that the Chinese would go to war over the Spratly Islands, which have loads of oil and fish. Or they might invade Taiwan.

This official further contends that China would hold the threat of cyber war’s major disruptions over the US’ head to dissuade military intervention on behalf of Taiwan. (The US has given security guarantees to Taiwan.)

True, there are a lot of resources in the Spratlys. But this goes back to shooting themselves in the foot by hurting an economy China is deeply vested in. Risking trillions in devalued debt and lost sales makes no sense.

So what to make of China’s cyber warfare capacities? They’re extremely advanced, and China have actually been pretty open about what they’re doing.

To me, that just sounds like a paranoid country worried that others might do to it as it does to others.

By building up defenses and letting others know it has them, China’s covering its own ass. It’s like those brightly coloured fish and frogs. Those colours warn predators to leave ’em alone, lest they be poisoned by eating these frogs/fish.

With that said, I don’t know nearly as much about the Russians. Those guys are very powerful and scary. If there’s going to be cyber war on the US, it’s quite plausible the Russians would have a hand in it.

Separately, anyone know what Canada’s cyber war defenses are like?

Posted in Books.


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