Chinese nationalist groups are launching cyber attacks – often against the wishes of the government

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The United Kingdom’s national security agency, MI5, warned in April that British universities involved in military research are being targeted for cyber attacks by foreign states. Recently, there was news of a cyber attack on the UK Ministry of Defence, which exposed the personal data of 270,000 personnel in the armed force. China is the main suspect behind these attacks.

China is often presented as a monolithic entity, entirely at the whim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, the reality is more complicated. Chinese nationalist groups carry out many cyber attacks and other forms of digital interference.

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

But many of these groups operate independently. There are even cases of Chinese nationalist groups engaging in online warfare against the wishes of the CCP.

The fact that cyber attacks are being launched independently of the CCP and against its directives suggests that the Chinese nationalist movement is escaping from the government’s societal controls. This could become a headache for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, as the number of cyber attacks increases.

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 stories such as the “age of humiliation”, a period from about 1839 to 1949 in which foreign imperialist powers exploited and victimized China.

Chinese nationalists now act against renewed efforts by foreign powers to humiliate China again, in their view. They act through “online wars” against those they believe are a threat to China’s interests.

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

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

Some cyber-national groups have gone a step further by engaging in hacking. This involves targeting institutions and organizations through cyber attacks to pursue the nationalist agenda.

In 2008, an informal group of hacktivists known as the Red Hacker Alliance (中国红客宝宝) attempted a denial of service attack against the US 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 briefly unavailable in some parts of Asia.

In another example, a group known as the Honker Union (紅客) launched cyber-attacks on the Philippines in 2014. Inspired by Chinese fishermen captured in a disputed area in the South China Sea, the Honker Union hacked into the website of the University of the Philippines. Hackers posted pro-Chinese slogans and a map showing China’s territorial claims on the university’s homepage.

Societal control of the CCP

The CCP adheres to a nationalist mindset to legitimize its regime, presenting itself as the leader of the Chinese nation. But this reliance on nationalism had a significant impact on the Chinese nationalist movement. It cannot be seen that the central counterparty is contradicting its nationalist credentials by imposing too heavy a restriction on nationalist activity.

As a result, cyber-nationalists have escaped the CCP’s societal controls, such as its ability to direct the Chinese nationalist movement through propaganda. In doing so, cyber-nationalists undermine the CCP’s authority and sometimes 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 have undertaken an anti-foreigner smear campaign on social media. Even the Communist Youth League, a nationalist organization with formal ties to the CCP, participated against the direction of the CCP.

As part of this campaign, hacker attackers launched cyber attacks such as hijacking the Twitter account of the Chinese embassy in Paris. The hackers posted a picture of the United States as the personification of death visiting Hong Kong.

The embassy quickly deleted the image and apologized to France and the US. But the incident speaks to a CCP struggling to control cyber-nationalists who are evading their societal controls and willing to hijack the state’s propaganda infrastructure to pursue their goals.

There have also been activist cyber attacks on the Chinese state, which usually coincide with periods of discontent with the CCP. In 2014, one group briefly seized 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 into the Shanghai police database in 2022, leaking 23 terabytes of personal information collected by the state on Chinese citizens as part of its domestic mass surveillance program. The information was later made available for sale on online forums by an anonymous hacker known as “ChinaDan”.

In the west, we assume that China’s cyber attacks represent a malicious Chinese state. The reality is more complicated. As cyber-nationalists continue to take matters into their own hands, an increase in the number of cyber-attacks represents a major domestic problem for the CCP – one that reveals the limits of its societal controls.

This article from The Conversation is republished 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 this, and has not disclosed any relevant connections beyond their academic appointment.

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