The story of the "red hackers" in China is the recounting of massive attacks on foreign governments’ websites between 1998 and 2002. The targets include the websites of the U.S. Air force, U.S. Navy, NATO institutions, the Japanese government, the Indonesian government, and Taiwan. According to Mr. Min Dahong, the Director of the Network and Data Media Research Center in the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, thousands of websites were broken into, and in some cases, computer systems were paralyzed. Damage caused by the hackers’ attacks is estimated to amount to millions of dollars.
While many criticized the red hackers’ actions, 84% of Chinese Internet users, as well as some of the Chinese official newspapers, applauded them. One article, published on March 2, 2005, in the Chinese Youth Daily, one of the most influential Chinese newspapers directly controlled by the Central Youth League, said that, "…the Red Hacker’s Alliance was only using advanced technology to express their loyalty to their country on their own initiative and expressing their sense of belonging to a nation—on this note, any mockery to them is shallow." The article went on to say, "Who knows, one of them may become a national hero making a great contribution to our country and people in the years to come! After all, in order to become a national hero, the basic requirement is to love this nation with passion."
This report helps us trace the history of the Chinese Internet generation and their understanding of nationalism.
The Red Hackers
Hackers don’t have a good reputation nowadays. They invade other people’s computer systems without permission, interfere with other people’s work, steal data, cause damage, and commit criminal acts. Nevertheless, in the Chinese language, hackers are grouped into different categories: "hei-ke" literally means, "black guest," and "hong-ke" literally means "red guest." The red hackers proposed "honker" for their "authentic" English translation of "hong-ke."
The fact that they put "red" in front of "hackers" reflects that these Chinese teenagers label themselves as faithful nationalists and engage in politically motivated hacking attacks against foreign entities in the name of protecting the national interest of China. Unlike ordinary hackers who do not want to publicize their actions for fear of reprisal, the red hackers are eager to show off their victories against "foreign enemies."
While they enjoy cheers from their peers in China, they do not like to be called "black guests." Since the Communist Party worships the color red and uses red flags to represent the Party as well as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chinese nationalist hackers coined the term "red hackers" to label themselves as revolutionaries instead of law-violating criminals.
The Chinese red hackers first made their name in the Chinese media in August 1998 by launching Internet attacks against Indonesian websites. During the three years between 1998 and 2001, the red hackers made six massive attacks: twice against Japan, twice against the United States, once against Indonesia, and once against Taiwan.
The Chinese red hackers have their own organizations and websites, such as the Hacker Union of China (www.cnhonker.com), the China Eagle Union (www.chinaeagle.org), and the Red Hacker’s Alliance (www.redhacker.org). The Hacker Union of China (HUC) was founded on December 31, 2000, and is the largest and earliest hacker group in China. It had 80,000 registered members at its peak, and reportedly has 20,000 members after regrouping in April 2005. These hacker organizations conduct Internet security business, but they are more famous for their hacking attacks than for business activities. According to the Xinhua News Agency, strong support from some Chinese organizations in North America made it possible to form the Red Hacker’s Alliance, an alliance for red hacker organizations. The Hacker Union of China is the largest organization in the Red Hacker’s Alliance.
The Red Hacker’s Alliance reported that 65% of the registered members were college students. The head of the Alliance (nicknamed Lion) is only 21 years old. About 100 million people are wired to the Internet in China. More than half are male and under the age of 25. It appears that these young and educated Chinese Internet users readily embrace the approach of using the power of the Internet to express extreme nationalism.
All six of the Internet attacks were triggered by some political events. The red hackers claimed that they were only reacting and their only purpose was to "defend the national interests." On the website of the "Chinese hacker emergency meeting center" formed during one of the attacks, it was stated, "We firmly support the position of the Chinese government and Communist Party of China. We will not leave behind any trace of evidence. The public security department can rest assured that we only use the images which will represent the entire Chinese people to replace the NATO military home page."
The Promotion of Nationalism in China
Chinese students have been at the forefront of new ideas. In April 1989, university students in Beijing, after some meeting and debating on campus, marched on Beijing’s streets to demand freedom and democracy. This year in April, tens of thousands of angry Chinese, many of them young university students, again marched on the streets in several major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenzhen. However, this time the students had a very different purpose from that of 16 years ago.
Back in 1989, the student movement in Beijing was triggered by the death of Hu Yaobang, the then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a symbol of reforming Party politics before the Party elders forced him to resign. The students received wide support from Beijing citizens as well as Party reformers, but were labeled by the Party Central Committee as intending to cause "disorder and riots." The standoff between the Beijing students and the CCP lasted for about a month, and ended with the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre, which shocked the world’s people who saw the bloodshed on television.
The marches this year were against Japan, to protest its text book revision that distorted the history of the Japanese invasion of China, and to protest its seeking a permanent position in the U.N. Security Council. The Communist government did not use brutal force to crack down on the protesters. Instead, the government was behind the organized marches, an accusation backed by many march observers and participants. Later, seeing protesters voicing complaints about the Chinese government in their marches and fearing that a wider spread of the anti-Japan protest could turn into an anti-government protest, the Communist authorities ordered a ban on any marches that were not "pre-authorized." According to Voice of America (VOA) reports, in the last week of April the authorities started to detain and arrest those who continued to call for more protests.
Between the 1989 and 2005 events is a big contrast that can hardly be missed. The freedom-loving and democracy-seeking Beijing students who bravely faced the approaching People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks in 1989 have been replaced by an Internet generation who are willing and eager to act as pawns in the Party’s anti-Japanese "struggle." This might be shocking to those who placed their hopes on the Internet for changing China to a free country. The change, however, has been going on for years. Public sentiment did not change overnight in China. The promotion and rise of this Chinese nationalism followed the needs of the CCP.
The pro-America era of the 80s came to an end following the June 4th Massacre. In a full decade before that, the nation was eagerly learning from the United States, truly on its way toward a modern nation through opening up and reform. After the Cultural Revolution, the reform-minded Party leaders, represented by Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang, felt in debt to the people, because they knew that in its 30 years in power the Communist Party had let China fall into one social and economic disaster after another. The prosperous and good living that the Communists promised to the Chinese was never realized. After the Third Session of the Eleventh General Assembly of the Party in 1979, Deng and his reform-minded comrades decided to abandon the Soviet system and started to adapt the American ways of management. To keep up with the process of "modernization," the whole nation was eager to learn English and read translated American books for ideas. Textbooks and tapes for teaching English were in high demand. Many young people tuned in to the VOA to learn authentic oral English. In the late 80s, the technological and language driven learning led people to be open minded toward democracy and liberty, especially in the universities and among intellectuals. The pro-democracy forces struggled with the Communist ideologists and autocrats. Sadly, they lost in the early summer of 1989.
In the era after the Tiananmen Massacre, despite the diplomatic and economic sanctions enforced by the Western democratic countries, China did not fully revert to its Soviet tradition. Deng Xiaoping knew clearly that the Soviet way was a dead end. He was determined to further reform the economy without compromising the Party’s rule. When faced with resistance inside the Party, Deng traveled in 1992, despite his ailing health condition, to Shenzhen and Guangzhou to call on the people for furthering the economic reform. The quick collapse of the Communist regimes in East Europe and in Russia in the early 90s shocked the CCP and it had to find something to hang on to. Nationalism was naturally picked up by the Party to reinforce its legitimacy.
The nationalism promoted by the CCP had a name—"revolutionary patriotism" or "patriotism" for short. It is astutely designed to interweave different concepts together. For example, "love the Party and love the country" is often used as a single phrase in Chinese education and in state propaganda; it bundles the Communist Party and China together. The Communist-style nationalism has been blended into the Party rhetoric, educational textbooks, and even into the everyday language. For a second example, the Party uses "new China" to refer to Chinese history after 1949, when the Communist Party took power; and it refers to contemporary history before 1949 as "old China." In the textbooks, "old China" is marked with failure, foreign invasion, and humiliation. The students who study history from the point of view of the Party naturally accumulate hate and anger toward foreign "imperial power." In contrast, "new China" is marked with success and pride. Chairman Mao’s famous speech made in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, "the Chinese people have now stood up," is used to mark the separation between the "old" and "new" China. The usage of "new China" and "old China" has become part of the Chinese language among Mainlanders, and it reinforces the fairytale each time people use these terms.
Chinese nationalism has two key components: hate and pride. People are reminded never to forget the humiliation and suffering brought by foreign imperialism to the Chinese people in "old China." This is the component of hate. People are also told that, "Only the Communist Party can save China." The improved living standards and economic development in two decades of reform are constantly used to prove "the greatness, the glory, and the correctness" of the Chinese Communist Party, while ignoring the various atrocities that the Party has brought upon the nation in the past one half century. The Party maintains that China under Communist leadership will become the greatest country in the world. The phrase that "the 21st century is China’s century" creates euphoria in the younger generation. This is the component of pride and ignorance.
When Deng Xiaoping was still alive, he told China to keep a low profile and not get into trouble with strong powers. Seeing the collapse of the Communist Bloc in East Europe and Russia, he left four strategic instructions for the Chinese Communists to survive. First one was, "Don’t argue any more," meaning the Communist theory had lost completely so better not to talk about it. Second, "It’s a dead end if (you) do not reform," admitting that the socialist practice had been a complete failure. Third, "Development is the absolute truth," meaning the past ideological struggles were anything but useful. His fourth strategy was the most famous and yet laughably ridiculous, "Cross the river by feeling for stones along the river-bed." Deng Xiaoping, by saying China had to feel its way, recognized the total failure of Communism, but he did not admit it nor did he want to accept Western democracy.
Jiang Zemin was picked to be the Party leader in 1989, but he did not get full control until the mid-90s when Deng Xiaoping became seriously ill. In order to gain support from the army generals, Jiang changed course on foreign policy and increased military spending. Deng’s foreign policy was "bu-chu-tou," meaning "Do not take leadership positions in international affairs in order to avoid becoming a target." Deng’s ambition was for China to become a truly developed country, and to do so it needed to avoid colliding with strong powers such as United States. During the first Gulf War in the early 90s when Deng was still advising the Party about foreign affairs, China did not show any strong opinions. However, after Deng became very ill and later died in 1996, Jiang Zemin took China on a more confrontational path.
In 1996 right before the Taiwan presidential election, the PLA launched long-range missiles just off the Taiwan seashore in an attempt to threaten Taiwan. During the Kosovo War in the spring of 1999, Jiang ordered the Chinese military to cooperate with the Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Chinese agents in Belgrade helped Serbs in intelligence gathering and tested Chinese devices for electronic warfare. When that led to the NATO missile bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in April 1999, Jiang seized the opportunity to incite anti-America sentiment in China. University students were bused to the American Embassy in Beijing to throw rocks and eggs into the Embassy. Although this way of revenge appeared unwise in international affairs, it was an effective political move for Jiang Zemin. The more people are angry with Americans, the less likely they will be to demand freedom and democracy. That event occurred almost exactly 10 years after the pro-democracy student movement in Beijing. It marked the success of the Chinese Communist Party in turning the Chinese students from pro-democracy to anti-America. The rising influence of Chinese nationalism became very clear from that time on.
The Right to Know: the Failure of the Internet in China
Even though the Internet is a great tool for spreading free ideas and for getting people informed, the Communist government has blocked the Chinese Internet of those functions. As recently reported by CNN, the Chinese government has the final word on what falls under the Chinese cyber-curtain. Internet users in China are routinely blocked from websites featuring politically taboo topics such as Taiwan independence, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The government has numerous state agencies policing the Internet, with help from the private sector. Major Chinese search engines filter content by keyword and remove taboo search results, blog providers remove politically sensitive posts, and cyber-cafes monitor Internet usage by customers. The most advanced information technology that has been eagerly sold to the Communist government by the American high-tech companies, sadly, is helping the Communist Party to manipulate the Internet and to turn the Chinese youth into anti-American extreme nationalists.
In this information age, the Chinese Internet generation is still living in the illusion created by the Communist Party. Taking the Boxer Rebellion as an example, the red hacker generation believes they and the Boxer movement are both "patriotic groups" that live in different historic times. The Communist Party has distorted history according to the Party’s need. It thus should not be a surprise if history repeats itself-when the "patriotic" red hackers turn into destructive Boxers against the "foreign enemies."
The six episodes of the Chinese hackers attacking foreign websites in the name of protecting China’s interests, documented in detail by Mr. Min Dahong on page 12, reveal the history of the rise of the Chinese red hackers along with the rise of Chinese nationalism. The questions and answers in a Xinhua online interview (see page 24), offer an opportunity to look at the mindset of the lost Chinese Internet youth who have turned themselves into Internet terrorists for the sake of "patriotism."
Leon Chao is a commentator on Sino-U.S. relations.