Chinese nationalist groups launch cyber attacks – often against the will of the government

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Britain’s national security agency MI5 warned in April that British universities participating in military research are being targeted by cyber attacks by foreign states. More recently, news emerged of a cyber attack on the UK Ministry of Defense, exposing the personal data of 270,000 members of the armed forces. China is the main suspect behind these attacks.

China is often depicted as a monolithic entity, entirely at the whim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, the reality is more complex. Many Chinese cyber attacks and other forms of digital interference are carried out by Chinese nationalist groups.

Some of these groups are funded and directed by the CCP. For example, the 50 Cent Army (五毛党) is a group that posts pro-CCP messages on social media. The name comes from reports that the CCP pays recruits 0.5 yuan ($0.69) per post.

But many of these groups operate independently. There have even been cases of Chinese nationalist groups waging online war against the wishes of the CCP.

The fact that cyber attacks are being launched independently of the CCP and against its directives indicates that the Chinese nationalist movement is escaping the government’s social control. This could become a headache for Chinese President Xi Jinping as cyber attacks increase.

The Chinese nationalist movement is very sensitive to what it considers insults to the Chinese nation. This is due to the careful construction of Chinese nationalism through narratives such as the “century of humiliation,” a period from roughly 1839 to 1949 in which China was exploited and victimized by foreign imperialist powers.

Chinese nationalists are now cracking down on what they see as renewed attempts by foreign powers to humiliate China again. They take action through “online wars” against those they believe pose a threat to Chinese interests.

In 2016, Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen, an anti-Beijing candidate, as president. During and after the election, a group of predominantly young, female cybernationalists known as the Little Pinks (小粉紅) waged a “meme war” against Taiwan.

This involved thousands of Little Pinks posting a flood of pro-Beijing memes on President Tsai’s social media profiles and numerous Taiwanese news outlets. The memes highlighted China’s claim that Taiwan is a Chinese province and not an independent nation-state.

Some cybernationalist groups have gone a step further by engaging in hacktivism. This involves cyber-attacking institutions and organizations in pursuit of the nationalist agenda.

In 2008, an informal group of hacktivists, the Red Hacker Alliance (中国红客联盟), attempted a denial-of-service attack on the American media company CNN. The attack was in response to CNN’s reporting on anti-Beijing protests in Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1950. It caused the company’s website to be unavailable for a short time in some parts of Asia.

In another example, a group called the Honker Union (紅客) launched cyber attacks against the Philippines in 2014. Following the attempted arrest of Chinese fishermen in a disputed area of ​​the South China Sea, the Honker Union hacked the website of the University of the Philippines. Hackers posted pro-China slogans and a map showing China’s territorial claims on the university’s homepage.

The CCP’s social control

The CCP relies on nationalist sentiments to legitimize its regime and presents itself as the vanguard of the Chinese nation. But this reliance on nationalism has given the Chinese nationalist movement considerable influence. It should not be assumed that the CCP is contradicting its nationalist credentials by restricting nationalist activity too severely.

As a result, cybernationalists have escaped the CCP’s societal control, such as its ability to direct the Chinese nationalist movement through propaganda. In doing so, cybernationalists undermine the authority of the CCP and occasionally contradict its foreign policy.

In 2020, the CCP called for restraint among nationalist groups following foreign criticism of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. However, cyber-nationalists continued to wage an anti-foreign smear campaign on social media. Even the Communist Youth League, a nationalist organization with formal ties to the CCP, participated, against CCP instructions.

As part of this campaign, hacktivists also launched cyber attacks, such as hijacking the Twitter account of the Chinese embassy in Paris. The hacktivists posted a photo of the US as the personification of death visiting Hong Kong.

The embassy quickly removed the image and apologized to France and the US. But the incident speaks to a CCP struggling to control cyber nationalists who evade its societal control and are willing to hijack state propaganda infrastructure to pursue their goals.

There have also been hacktivist cyber attacks targeting the Chinese state, usually coinciding with periods of discontent with the CCP. In 2014, a group briefly took control of a television network in the eastern city of Wenzhou and broadcast nationalist and anti-CCP messages. This cyber attack was carried out in protest against the detention of Wang Bingzhang, a nationalist activist and political dissident.

Another group hacked a police database in Shanghai in 2022 and leaked 23 terabytes of personal information the state had collected on Chinese people as part of its mass domestic surveillance program. The information was later made available for sale on online forums by an anonymous hacker named “ChinaDan”.

In the West, we assume that Chinese cyber attacks reflect a malicious Chinese state. The reality is more complex. As cyber nationalists continue to take matters into their own hands, the increasing number of cyber attacks also reflects a major domestic problem for the CCP – one that shows the limits of its societal control.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Lewis Eves does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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