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Economics and Tech Giants in Sino-American Relations

Thinking of China and Chinese history, certain things come immediately to mind. The Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign under Mao Zedong aimed at rapidly industrializing the country’s agrarian economy is an event most have heard of. Many of us have also heard of the Great Fire Wall, a legislative tool used by the Chinese government to censor Internet content. The Great Cannon, however, is not so well known.

While state-engineered cyber barriers such as the Great Fire Wall act as a would-be defense mechanism keeping censored content out, Beijing, it seems has adopted its own version of the Bush Doctrine, making broad use of anticipatory self-defense. [1] In March 2015, this tool of cyber warfare became the subject of international attention, suspected of engineering a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on American coding website, GitHub. [2] Known for its hosting of content allowing users to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship connected to the Great Fire Wall, GitHub, on March 26, 2015, began to experience an overwhelming amount of online traffic causing the website to, at times, shut down. [3] While the onslaught of activity was too much to handle for the San Francisco-based coding platform, it was an amount perfectly sustainable for China’s most popular search engine, Baidu. [3] Peking’s Cyberspace Administration did not respond to comments and questions on the event, despite security experts’ insistence that the attack, redirecting Baidu users to GitHub, was designed and carried out by the Chinese government. [4] Specifically, the attack redirected Baidu users to GitHub’s pages linked to websites banned by the Great Fire Wall. [5] One of these was the Chinese language version of the New York Times.

Acting in essence as a “middle man” the attack turned Internet users of Baidu into pawns. [6] Similar to clicking the “like” button on Facebook, millions of Baidu users were unknowingly redirected to GitHub, paralyzing the site over several days. [7] While one of the largest DDoS attacks in recent history, this immobilization of an online platform was certainly not the first example of weaponization of the Internet by the Chinese government. Attacks on American healthcare databases, financial institutions, and Internet companies have recently been the subject of significant national security concern.

Given that such targets as GitHub provide Internet users with methods of circumventing Chinese censorship efforts, a tactical mechanism such as the Great Cannon, seems to be, for the moment, serving continued efforts by Beijing to limit what Chinese web users are able to access. It has however been suggested by the Canadian and American researchers that discovered and affectionately named this new tactic, that it may very well evolve into a tool of online surveillance. [8]

However this new mechanism is to be viewed, the balkanization of the web clearly presents pressing concerns for global Internet integrity and freedom. The newly added level of complexity that this superpower rivalry presents is the power wielded outside of the realm of sovereign governments. Internet giants exercise an immense influence in the era of cyber warfare, and with them comes their own deluge of politics and rivalries both internal and external. Google and Apple in the West, faced off against Baidu and Tencent, their counterparts in the East, is itself a battle of the titans, within the greater rivalry between Beijing and Washington. If this multifaceted conflict were able to be contained to state on state advances, emerging norms in international law might be able to corral some of the more nefarious acts and results. This added private sector component, however, fuels the conflagration.

It is clear that the U.S. must act from both a policy and diplomacy standpoint. Beijing seems to have no qualms with the Internet becoming a universe of information tightly regulated by government incentives. If the U.S. seeks to move toward a new frontier of vast information sharing online, under the direction of free international cyber governance, this rivalry must be quelled. However the development of this issue progresses, it is clear that Internet giants like Google and Baidu will play an integral role. From the Chinese side, the private sector doesn’t distinguish significantly from the governmental realm. Beijing clarifies, that the likes of Tencent and Baidu will play by their rules or not at all. The U.S. must then ask itself, what sacrifices and conciliatory gestures it is willing to go forward with.

An equitable distribution of global governance roles seems a good place to start. Apart from the economic utility incentives inextricably connected to the cozy relations that sovereign governments maintain with Internet giants, broader economic cooperation would likely facilitate things. President Obama’s exclusion of China from a pioneering global trade endeavor likely did not strike Beijing as overly diplomatic. [9] Apart from the obvious reality that the Chinese cannot be excluded from economic relations, particularly in their own geopolitical sphere of influence, the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) is an undertaking that lacks in areas beyond diplomacy as far as Sino-American relations are concerned. [10] China has in the recent past, established a myriad of its own trade bloc relationships, the economics of which are directly linked with the operations of Internet giants like Baidu and Tencent. [11] This ongoing overlapping of trade blocs and Internet sovereignty love triangles will only pave the way for more DDoS attacks, amongst other national security concerns both cyber and economic. Conciliatory gestures from both sides are long overdue, as even the emerging influence of international law will likely not be able to contain the pervasive waves of cyber attacks and nefarious Internet activity, state-sponsored and private. Clearly, it’s time to talk; tech CEOs, heads of state, and citizens.

[1] Roger Creemers, Disarming the Great Cannon, Foreign Pol’y, (Apr. 10, 2015), http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/10/great-cannon-china-internet-cyber-attack-baidu/

[2] James Sanders, Chinese Government Linked to Largest DDoS Attack in GitHub History, TechRepublic, (Apr. 3, 2015), http://www.techrepublic.com/article/chinese-government-linked-to-largest-ddos-attack-in-github-history/

[3] Id.

[4] Supra. Note 1.

[5] Stewart Baker, The GitHub Attack and Internet Self-Defense, The Wash. Post, (Aug. 19, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/08/19/the-github-attack-and-internet-self-defense/

[6] Supra, Note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Supra, Note 1.

[9] Felipe Caro, Leaving China out of the TPP is a Terrible Mistake, Fortune, (Oct. 6, 2015), http://fortune.com/2015/10/06/leaving-china-out-trans-pacific-partnership-terrible-mistake/

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

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