China's cybersecurity fears sound very familiar

In China, fears of U.S. mirror American fears of China

I’ve been traveling in China lately, and I came across a fascinating article that tells us a lot about Chinese perceptions of cybersecurity issues — and something about the human psyche as well.

China has been the focal point of many U.S. cyber fears. We are concerned about our vulnerability to attacks — not only on government databases but also on our electrical grid and financial system — and many articles have highlighted the threat from China. Many Americans also fear that the government’s use of software created in China and other nations creates a risk that programmers could embed code that allows foreign intrusions into U.S. military databases.

In that context, the article I came across in the English-language China Daily was an eye-opener. The title was “China at the mercy of global hackers.”

Early in the article, a Chinese academic expert on cyber warfare said: “In a worst-case scenario, a security breach could result in the breakdown of the energy supply and collapse of the financial system, not to mention a collapse of the national defense capability.… The capability to defend China’s information and cybersecurity is extremely weak, and many of its online applications remain vulnerable to assault.”

The article further reported that a think tank report had “warned the country’s ‘cyber sovereignty’ had been put in jeopardy by the domination of foreign investment in the local Internet industry.” The think tank report cited Microsoft’s decision to disable its MSN instant messaging service in five countries for political reasons as evidence that “alien involvement” in China’s Internet services “could put the nation’s security at serious risk.”

Finally, the report states, President Barack Obama’s efforts to “find back doors into the digital fortresses of potential enemies” could pose a risk.

In other words, it sounds like China is afraid of the United States in about the same way the United States is afraid of China.

Some might chalk the article up to a fiendish disinformation effort, trying to lull us into a false sense of security. I find that view implausible. Instead, I chalk it up to a human tendency — first noted by the distinguished Harvard political scientist Sidney Verba — to engage in power denial, the human perception that we are weak, while our enemies are 9 feet tall.

During that same trip to Asia, I listened to Chinese people tell me they are afraid that if they put too much pressure on North Korea, the government will fall, precipitating a South Korean takeover of the north that would put a U.S. ally on the Chinese border. Meanwhile, South Koreans have told me that if North Korea collapses, they are afraid China will take over North Korea, putting it on the South Korean border.

China might look like a threat to our cybersecurity, and we feel unprepared. But they feel the same way about us.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve


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