News reports in June told of escalating confrontations between China and Vietnam over the sovereignty of some islands in the South China Sea, but they missed a war without gun smoke that broke out between the two countries.
The war took place in cyberspace, and the armies were hackers from both countries. The objective? To hack the websites of the opposing country.
Chinese hackers called it a “self-defense attack.” They became furious after Chinese media reported that Vietnamese hackers had broken into a Chinese website on June 2 and posted provocative messages such as “The Vietnamese people are willing to sacrifice to protect the sea, sky, and country!”
The Chinese hacker’s patriotism, already inflamed by the media’s repeated condemnation of Vietnam for “occupying China’s islands,” flared up at the Vietnamese cyber-invasion. On June 4 and 5, they fought a “holy war” of revenge.
Internet postings on Chinese sites called for patriotic netizens to join the war. “It’s OK even if you don’t know the [hacking] technology. We will provide uniform tutorials and tools,” said a web posting, along with an online conference room for people to join.
Chinese hackers claimed a landslide victory over the Vietnamese. Over 1,000 Vietnamese websites were taken down. The Honker Union of China (H.U.C.), one of the most prestigious Chinese hacker groups, announced that it had taken down Vietnam’s largest search engine for over 12 hours.
War With the U.S.
Along with demonstrating the Chinese hackers’ technical superiority over the Vietnamese, this war also demonstrated their strong patriotism.
This was not the first patriotic war the Chinese hackers have fought. From 1998 to 2001, they fought a few wars with U.S. hackers. The most famous one was the May 2001 hacker war.
On April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance airplane over the South China Sea. China claimed that the U.S. hacker organization PoizonBOx kept attacking Chinese websites after April 4.
Saying it acted to protect China, the H.U.C. organized Chinese hackers for a self-defense attack targeting the U.S. websites starting on May 1. The U.S. hackers also fought back. The war lasted for seven days until the H.U.C. announced an end to it on May 8.
Patriotism is a form of pride notoriously susceptible to slights, both real and imagined.
Chinese hackers used human-wave tactics to bring the White House website down from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on May 4. Chinese hackers estimated that during the war, three Chinese websites were shut down for each U.S. website that was shut down, a reflection of the technological superiority held by the United States in 2001.
Chinese hailed the H.U.C. and its leader LION as a hero. According to the encyclopedia of the search engine Baidu, the H.U.C. was “formed in 2000 by the legendary hacker LION.” “At its peak, it had over 80,000 members and ranked fifth in the world. Its most famous action was the Denial of Service (DoS, or DDOS for Distributed Denial of Service) attack on the White House in 2001.”
Chinese Military Involvement
Zhang Zhaozhong, director of the Military Science and Technology Education and Research Office at the National Defense University, praised these Chinese hackers in an interview with the People’s Daily: “Chinese hackers released their furor [about the U.S. hegemony] and demonstrated their strong sense of mission, responsibility, and patriotism. Their motivation should be protected and praised. …”
Not only did the military praise the hackers, but it also actively included the hackers in the overall cyberwarfare strategy. China has recognized the importance of cyberwarfare for over a decade. Many Chinese military publications repeatedly quote a RAND Corporation study as saying that strategic warfare in the industrial era was nuclear war, while in the information era it is cyberwar.
To win the cyberwar, in addition to advancing its own computing technology, China has adopted the “human-wave tactic,” which was used in the Korean War against the United States.
This war doctrine makes use of, and sacrifices, a large number of people in combat to make up for technical and military disadvantages. Applying the tactic to cyberwarfare requires building up a huge cyber-attack resource base, including military staff, hackers, private companies, and Chinese netizens. The bond among all of them? Patriotism.
The Chinese military has long viewed hackers as a critical component of its war chest. Zhang Zhaozhong argued, “Utilizing [the hackers] to the maximum extent and combining the legal and underground forces together will rapidly improve our nation’s information security level.”
Many Chinese military articles have quoted examples showing that the United States has been actively recruiting hackers into its Cyber Command and suggested China should follow suit.
And the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did so. Alan Paller, a computer specialist, testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on April 29 that China’s military in 2005 recruited Tan Dailin, a graduate student at Sichuan University, after he won an annual hacker contest.
The military put Tan through a 30-day, 16-hour-a-day workshop “where he learned to develop really high-end attacks and honed his skills.” “By December, he was found inside [Defense Department] computers, well inside DoD computers.”
CNN also reported that a hacker company, based in Zhoushan, an island near Shanghai, received funding from the Chinese military.
Nanfang Metropolitan Weekly, a Chinese publication based in Guangzhou, mentioned a junior-level hacker named “Renil.” Renil was arrested and detained for over a month for hacking some Public Security Bureau’s websites.
After being released, he took a day job to paint bridges, earning 60 yuan (US$9.37) a day. He spent his nights taking down foreign websites and was paid 1.5 yuan for each site he hacked. He made 200 yuan (US$31.23) a night. The article didn’t mention who provided the hacking funds. But who has the deep pockets and the desire to do so?Since hackers are important to the PLA’s cyberwarfare strategy, the hacker industry is allowed to exist in China. The National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team/Coordination Center of China (CNCERT/CC) estimated that the Chinese “hacker industry” had over 238 million yuan (US$36 million) in revenue in 2009. Even hacker training sites are common.