If the Chinese Dragon Is So Mighty, Why Is It Trembling Inside?
Beijing’s alleged hacking of the New York Times is a sign of both the regime’s huge power – and its fear of a Chinese spring
As luck would have it, I was in Beijing when word came of China’s apparent hacking of the New York Times. The newspaper says it became the target of sustained cyber-attack immediately after it had revealed the vast fortune - estimated as “at least $2.7bn” - amassed by the family of China’s outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao. Among the dead giveaways: hostile activity on the NYT’s system dropped off during Chinese public holidays. It seems even state-sponsored hackers need a day off.
If CCTV, China’s state broadcaster - now with its own 24-hour, English-language news channel - mentioned the story at all, then I missed it. But it raises an intriguing question: was this the act of a regime that is strong or weak? It takes nerve to attack a prestige institution of the global superpower. But it also looks nervy to be so clearly rattled by one disobliging media report. So which is it? After a week immersed in conversation with Chinese scholars, foreign diplomats and NGO observers, it’s hard to disagree with the analyst who told me the answer is both: China’s rulers are simultaneously “hugely powerful and hugely insecure”.
Put the question another way. Two years ago, when the Arab spring first blossomed, there began a global guessing game as to who would be next. By rights, China should have been an obvious candidate. It’s ruled by an authoritarian government, the trappings of totalitarianism still in place. (For a first-time visitor, it can be a shock to see the retro slogans - “Long Live the Spirit of the 18th Congress!” - projected on giant, high-definition TV screens, often alongside ads for western brands. I spotted a demand for “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue” directly opposite a poster for L’Oreal Men Expert Hydrating Gel. That’s modern Beijing: a cross between 1984 and a Westfield centre.) Add in public frustration with both widening inequality and the brazen corruption typified by the Wen case, and the ingredients for a Chinese spring should be in place.
And yet the notion is barely discussed, the prospect of a serious challenge to the regime regarded as somewhere between remote and nonexistent.