In an unprecedented move, a group of democratic nations led by the US, UK and EU in a joint statement on Tuesday accused the Chinese Ministry of State Security of having carried out a major cyberattack earlier this year and stealing data from at least 30,000 organizations worldwide, including governments, universities and firms in key industries. Western officials were reportedly perplexed by the attack’s brazen execution and unparalleled scale.
In an article on the attack, BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera wrote: “Western spies are still struggling to understand why Chinese behavior has changed.”
The attack raises the fear “that they [China] no longer care about being caught,” he wrote.
To fully understand China’s behavior, Beijing’s relationship with the outside world and how it has radically changed in the past few years must be appreciated.
While China was building its industrial base by skimming off Western information and expertise, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was careful to remain deferential; it needed to keep the West on its side to guarantee that foreign capital would continue to oil its investment-led economy.
The 2008 financial crisis marked a turning point. CCP leaders and Chinese intellectuals interpreted the event as proof of the inherent superiority of authoritarian, state-led capitalism, or what the party calls the “Chinese model.”
In the decade since, a paradigm shift has occurred in Beijing. China went from strength to strength, becoming the world’s second-largest economy and building a blue water navy that, on paper at least, rivals that of its archenemy, the US. Meanwhile, the West appeared to be floundering from one political and financial crisis to the next. The CCP became convinced that the West is in decline; it smelled weakness and licked its chops at the tantalizing possibilities that seemed to arise from the US’ retreat from its central role in the world.
In the minds of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and his coterie of shadowy advisers, the tables have turned and the West now needs China, not the other way around. Drowning in its own hubris, Beijing no longer cares if its covert actions are unmasked, because it believes that it can act with impunity — just as, in its view, Washington has been doing since the end of the Cold War.
If the US can sabotage a sovereign nation’s nuclear enrichment facility using a computer virus or conduct mass surveillance of Internet traffic without blushing, China believes it has every right to help itself to Western data. Xi, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, believes the US — and by extension the West — is up to its neck in cant.
Nevertheless, to many in the outside world, Beijing is engaging in bizarre, self-destructive behavior evocative of its “wolf warrior” diplomats, who within just a few months dynamited decades of hard work to craft the image of a benign China.
China’s behavior appears schizophrenic because it is exactly that: Beijing’s worldview is colored by an exaggerated sense of victimhood and an innate sense of entitlement derived from China’s imperial past. The CCP defines itself as anti-imperialist, yet revels in China’s bygone imperial glory; it fetishizes colonial victimhood, yet stakes out territorial claims based on the frontiers of an empire established by Manchus.
Despite China’s radical political and social upheaval during the past century, remarkably little has changed. A feudal clique of party princelings has inherited the Middle Kingdom mentality of their dynastic predecessors.
First with its “wolf warrior” diplomats and now with a large-scale cyberattack, Beijing has shown that it is no longer content to play second fiddle. If China cannot be respected, it will settle for being feared.
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