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Don’t buy West’s hypocrisy over Chinese cyber-spying

A Chinese cyber-attack has left the British and US governments raging. Thomas Foster explains why this is hypocritical—and how cyber-warfare is a ruling class tool
Issue 2899
Both the West and China use cyber-espionage

Both the West and China use cyber-espionage (Picture: Flickr/ Focal Foto)

The United States and British governments accused China of being behind a years-long cyber-attack campaign against politicians, journalists and businesses last week. Chinese cyber-espionage group APT-31 carried out the campaign, targeting critics of China with sophisticated hacks of work accounts, personal emails, online storage and telephone call records to steal information.

In response, the US and Britain sanctioned a handful of individuals and a company described as a front for the Chinese ministry of state security. The reality is that the attacks—and threat of them—are one group of elites trying to use its influence to bribe another group at the top. Cyber-attacks aren’t an attack on us all.

But, they can spill over to see elites competing over real things, like economic domination and military power. China is a class ridden society—and attacks and represses its own people. It spies on workers, tries to stop their organisation and crushes trade unions for the millions in its factories.

The Chinese state has also locked up to one million Uyghurs Muslims in internment camps and suppresses Uyghur culture and national self-determination claims. But there is hypocrisy in the US and British government’s grandstanding over cyber-warfare. Rulers in Britain and the US have their own empire of hacking, which they extensively use for their own interests. 

When imperialist rivals compete against each other, they use whatever means they can to gain an advantage. British officials said the Chinese government is responsible for gaining access to information on millions of British voters by hacking the Electoral Commission. Chinese surveillance doesn’t influence and tamper with Western elections.

The US and Britain always rush to call out Chinese cyber-warfare that threatens their own power. But both have been carrying out cyber-attack campaigns against China and a whole array of countries.

Last year, the US National Security Agency (NSA) carried out a number of cyber-attacks against Chinese telecommunications company Huawei Technologies to monitor and steal critical data. 

In 2022 the US hacked a government-funded Chinese university, Northwestern Polytechnical University, which conducts military research. After infiltrating the university’s network, NSA infiltrated wider telecommunications infrastructure to steal Chinese user data. The US and Britain don’t contain their cyber-espionage to China—they also carry out cyber-attacks on their allies.

In 2014 the British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) hacked into Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom between 2010 and 2013. GCHQ hacked the company to steal data from mobile devices and carry out cyber-attacks, in a cyber-warfare campaign titled “Operation Socialist”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Britain’s yearly National Cyber Force report admits that the government carries out an array of cyber-warfare all the time, from “influencing behavior” to “gathering data on hostile actors”. And it’s likely that the US and Britain will use the latest revelations as an excuse to ramp up their own attacks even further.


Racism against China

There is a racist undercurrent to some of the language used in the United States and Europe when discussing China’s economic growth. The rhetoric at times falls into the trope of “Yellow Peril”. “Yellow Peril” is a form of racism that depicts “barbaric” Asian countries as an existential threat to Western “civilisation”. 

Throughout history, racists have depicted Asian countries as “uncivilised”, “unclean”, or “filthy”, to look at  just a few examples. Elements of these disgusting tropes remain today. In 2019 US state department director of policy planning Kiron Skinner described the US’s competition with the Soviet Union as “a fight within the Western family” but China as “a really different civilisation”.

Zhang Xiaoming, a professor at Peking university, writes that US and European ruling classes often describe China “either as an uncivilised outsider or as a less-civilised insider”. He adds that the racist “clash of civilisations” trope leads Chinese people to be seen as the “other”.


Imperialists locked into global competition       

China threatens the United States’ domination of global capitalism. In response, the US and other Western countries are ramping up their rhetoric, sanctions and economic policies against Chinese state capitalism. The growth of China’s economic power has meant that Western ruling classes see it as a threat to its own

After the news of the latest cyber-attack campaign, prime minister Rishi Sunak said that China is “the greatest state-based threat to our economic security”. In recent years, the ruling classes of the US and other Western countries have taken a harder line against China.

The reason why is found in the structural features of global capitalism. While the US remains the world’s most powerful country, its relative power has been declining since the turn of the 21st century. 

In this time China has massively expanded its economic production. Chinese state capitalism transformed half a billion peasants into industrial workers—transforming the economy into the world’s second largest.

The US’s ruling class first saw China as just a place for cheap labour. But now China’s economic power means it is the US’s biggest challenge in a system of global competition and imperialist rivalry.

As its economic power has grown, China’s ruling class has become more assertive in fighting for its economic and political interests. Its Belt and Road Initiative—which commits over £800 billion to hundreds of infrastructure projects—is threatening US influence in the Global South.

But despite the increasing imperialist rivalry between US and Chinese ruling classes, there remains a mutual economic dependency. The support of US bosses is vital for China remaining a key base for global production. 

And China is vulnerable around technology, depending on Western production of semiconductors and other microchips. And the US still depends on China’s low-cost production base, taking advantage of Chinese manufacturing.

The globalisation of capital has led to supply chains crossing borders and spanning the world. The result is the contradiction of both China’s and the US’s economy being reliant on each other while also competing against each other. But ruling classes can’t escape the logic of competition internally. As long as China rivals the US economically, it will be treated as a threat.

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