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US-China Tensions Grow Amid Google Attacks, Internet Censorship

January 25, 2010

China retaliated on Monday against U.S. criticisms over its Internet censorship and its alleged involvement in a cyberattack against Google Inc.

China’s rebuke comes nearly two weeks after Google threatened to shut down its Chinese Google.cn search site in response to a sophisticated cyberattack on its systems from within China that involved the hacking of e-mail accounts of human rights activists critical of China.

Washington backed Google, and urged Beijing to investigate the attack, but China denied any involvement and instead accused the U.S. government of using the Internet for its own objectives. 

Google announced on Jan. 12 that it would pull out of China unless Beijing relaxes its Internet censorship rules, but China’s government says its online restrictions are lawful.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Internet censorship.  The remarks drew a strong rebuke from Beijing.

On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry said that Clinton’s speech had damaged bilateral relations, while Chinese state media accused the U.S. of imposing “information imperialism” on China.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology also spoke out about the matter on Monday, saying the nation’s anti-hacking policy is transparent.

“Any accusation that the Chinese government participated in cyberattacks, either in an explicit or indirect way, is groundless and aims to discredit China,” the official Xinhua News Agency quoted an unidentified ministry spokesman as saying.

The growing tensions between Washington and Beijing could make it difficult to back down quietly and tackle other issues such as trade, currency, human rights and weapons sales to Taiwan.

“This year, we’re seeing problems over trade, the Dalai Lama, and U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan coming to the surface,” Jin Canrong, an international relations expert at Renmin University, told Reuters.

“The politicization and ideological turn of the Google case could make it more difficult to work together. The basic need for cooperation, economically and diplomatically, hasn’t changed, but each of these issues could disrupt cooperation from day to day.”

David Wolf, president of Wolf Group Asia, an advisory firm covering Chinese media and telecommunications, agreed.

“The more this case takes on high-level political import for the Chinese government, the more likely it is to stick to its guns,” Wolf told Reuters.

“The Chinese government can’t be seen as backing down on such a fundamental issue.”

The escalation could also complicate efforts between Google and China to reach a compromise that serves the interests of both sides.

Nevertheless, Google says it is hopeful it can persuade Beijing to loosen Internet restrictions so the search giant can remain in operation there. However, China has shown little indication it would compromise on the matter.

“Increasingly, the line emerging from the Chinese government is harder and less open to compromise,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Chinese political analyst based in Beijing, in an interview with the Associated Press.

“Hillary Clinton’s speech was seen by many officials here as the United States’ laying down a marker and put matters in a more confrontational mode.”

On Monday, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper accused the U.S. government of hypocrisy, saying it strictly controlled the Internet at home while urging other countries to create an “Internet freedom utopia.”

“In reality, this ‘Internet freedom’ that it is marketing everywhere is nothing but a diplomatic strategy, and only an illusion of freedom,” the newspaper said.

Xinhua also cited China’s State Council as criticizing what it called U.S. interference in China’s domestic affairs.

China’s government considers Internet control a vital matter of state security.  Beijing promotes Internet use for commerce, but heavily censors Web content it considers pornographic, disruptive or politically subversive.  As a result, many foreign news and social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, and YouTube are blocked in China.

Google said it had discovered a complex cyberattack that had attempted to steal its software code and hack into the g-mail accounts of human rights activists critical of China’s government.

The company was able to trace the attacks to hackers in China, but hasn’t directly linked them to the Chinese government.

Zhou Yonglin, deputy chief of operations of China’s National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team, questioned why Google had not lodged an official complaint about the attack to his agency.

“We have been hoping that Google will contact us so that we could have details on this issue and provide them help if necessary,” Yonglin said during an interview with Xinhua posted on the team’s Web site.

Zhou said his team had logged attacks on 262,000 Chinese computers last year, more than 16 percent of which came from computers within the United States.

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