Monday, February 25, 2013

Weibos, Web Sites, and Search Engines Censor Reports of Hacking and Spying

On February 21, 2013, the state-sponsored Global Times published an English article entitled "Regular Cyber Attacks From US: China." Some excerpts:
In a report released Monday, Mandiant pointed its fingers at a Chinese military unit named People's Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 61398, saying the Shanghai-based outfit had systematically stolen confidential data from at least 141 organizations across 20 industries.
The report has driven media to Datong Road in Shanghai where the military unit is located, but pictures and videos taken by the press were required to be deleted by officers in military uniform.
The name plate indicating the nearby clinic of PLA Unit 61398 was removed Wednesday.
The Mandiant report the Global Times referred to had been the subject of a February 18 New York Times report entitled "Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S."

This screenshot, taken on February 20, shows that users of Baidu's PostBar (贴吧 Tieba) searching for Unit 61398 (61398部队) were told "Apologies, in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, this Bar cannot be opened at this time." (抱歉,根据相关法律法规和政策,本吧暂不开放。)
These screenshots show that on February 19 Sina Weibo began censoring searches for Unit 61398 (61398部队).

These screenshots show that the following morning Sina Weibo temporarily stopped censoring searches for that time, but resumed censorship a few hours later.

These screenshots show that Tencent Weibo also began censoring searches for Unit 61398 (61398部队) on the morning of February 20.

Past Censorship

This is not the first time web sites in China have censored information relating to reports of espionage or hacking. On August 24, 2011 the Washington Post reported that a China Central Television documentary entitled "The Cyber Storm Has Arrived!" [网络风暴来了] showed a military computer program on which an unseen user selected a "target" — in this case, a website based in Alabama — and hit a button labeled "attack." According to the Post:
[E]xperts were struck by what appeared to be the first and most public indication from an official Chinese source that it has the ability and the intention to hit adversaries, even when their computer servers are based in other countries.
The video was originally posted on July 7, 2011 here -

These screenshots show that on August 24, 2011 the video was deleted and replaced with the message "Error Page - This page does not exist anymore." (该页面不存在。)
On September 1, 2011, the state owned Global Times published an editorial by Shan Renping (单仁平) entitled "Lifting the Lid on Espionage Cases." (让间谍罪去神秘化) Some excerpts:
In a secretly uploaded YouTube video, Major General Jin Yinan, professor at the PLA University of National Defense, spoke out about several of China's recent spying cases, arousing media attention. The cases mentioned by Jin went either unmentioned by Chinese media or were reported differently to Jin's version. But these cases were not secrets in whatever way.
China should be more transparent about espionage cases. Details of the cases should be secret, but if somebody, especially an official, sells state secrets to foreign countries, China should make their names known to the public.
Countries should keep certain secrets, but the security measures they adopt should be tougher and the confidential areas should be narrower. The problem China faces now is the country's definition of secrecy is too broad.
The video Shan referred to was of a lecture given by Major General Jin Yinan (金一南) in which he indicated that China's government concealed a string of spy cases over the past decade. In the video, deleted from Chinese video website but available on Youtube, Jin named eight senior Communist Party, government and military officials who allegedly sold state secrets to foreign countries, but said some of them had instead been convicted on corruption charges, as a way to minimize embarrassment. The list included:
  • Kang Rixin (康日新), the former head of China’s nuclear power program, who was sentenced to life in prison late last year for corruption, 
  • Li Bin (李滨), China’s former ambassador to South Korea. Officials will only confirm that Mr Li is no longer in the post, but Jin claimed he was in prison. Jin said: “That is a huge scandal. Li Bin [could] only be sentenced to seven, eight years, he could not be given a longer term. Why? To save face.”
  • Tong Daning (佟达宁), an official from China’s social security fund, who was executed in 2006 after being convicted of spying for Taiwan.
  • Xu Junping (徐俊平), who defected to the United States in 2000. He said that Colonel Xu had not disclosed technical secrets, but had relayed to the Americans his knowledge of the military leaders’ personalities, attitudes and habits gleaned from many years of accompanying senior military leaders on trips abroad.
The Global Times' editorial did not mention any of these cases.

These screenshots were taken on September 1, 2011, and show that every search engine in China was censoring results for "Jin Yinan spy" (金一南 间谍). The only exception being, which is owned and operated by the People's Daily (which is also the publisher of the Global Times) - that search engine returned over 400 results.