Chinese cyberspies? Sheer lies and heinous fabrications!

Alright, I confess I made up the “heinous fabrications” bit. But the “sheer lies” sound bite comes straight from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has clearly worked hard to make sure that its representatives around the world are working from the same talking points.

China has found itself accused of a lot of hacking recently. A March 28 New York Timesarticle covered the dreaded “GhostNet”; innocent computers ruthlessly compelled to do the bidding of alleged shadowy overlords in Beijing (which bidding was, apparently, to screw with Tibetan exile organizations). More recently, a story in the Wall Street Journalreported on attempts to hack into the systems controlling America’s power grid, some of which apparently originated from China and Russia.

The Chinese government had chances to rebut both stories. Here is a Beijing-based Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman responding to a “GhostNet” question in a regular media Q&A the day after John Markoff’s story broke in the Times:

“I have noted before that the Chinese Government has always taken cyber-safety very seriously. We resolutely oppose any crime including hacking that destroys the internet or computer network, which is stipulated in relevant Chinese laws and regulations. The current problem is, some people overseas are indulged in fabricating the sheer lies of the so-called cyber-spies in China. What I have seen is a ghost of “Cold War” and a virus of “the China Threat” mentality. The China Threat virus on those haunted by the Cold War ghost strikes from time to time. Their attempt to defame China will get nowhere.”

And here is Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington DC responding to the electric grid issue in the Journal (responding in writing, I would guess):

[The Chinese government] “resolutely oppose[s] any crime, including hacking, that destroys the Internet or computer network” and has laws barring the practice. China was ready to cooperate with other countries to counter such attacks, he said, and added that “some people overseas with Cold War mentality are indulged in fabricating the sheer lies of the so-called cyberspies in China.”

Well, that’s message discipline for you. And it would be admirable discipline indeed, were the talking points not the usual throwback language that always sounds better coming off of a red-ink woodcut with a picture of Mao in a sunburst than off of the pages of, say, theWall Street Journal. The only thing reminiscent of the Cold War here are those quotes.

Of course the Chinese government, like all governments with access to electricity, is probably involved in computer-espionage and computer-warfare programs. But it obviously has to deny any involvement in polite company. That’s a given, and no-one can blame them. There are even some good bits and pieces in both responses above: “Always taken cyber-safety very seriously”, “oppose [activities] that destroy the Internet”, and “ready to cooperate with other countries”. Unfortunately, the usual, overly scandalized language wrapped around those bits and pieces does nothing to help. It makes the spokespeople sound, to abuse Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, like they are protesting too much. The good stuff gets lost.

If I was rewriting their talking points, I would take a classic broadening approach where you turn the accusation everyone’s problem. You can see the beginnings of this in the embassy spokesman’s quote. I might suggest something like this, which takes the good bits from both responses and loses the righteous anger:

“The Chinese government takes Internet security very seriously, and is opposed to any activities, including hacking, that make the Internet less secure or less useful. Internet security is a concern for everyone who uses a computer. As you know, internet use has been growing rapidly in China. This year we passed 300 million users, and now have more people online than any other country. The Internet has been a great contributor to growth and innovation in China, so no one takes these issues more seriously than we do.”

If you wanted to be extra-saucy, you could build a bit on the embassy spokesman’s cooperation statement and say,

“We stand ready to cooperate with the governments of other Internet using nations to find ways to improve global Internet security for all users.”

Less quotable, perhaps (short of a threat to kill the questioner’s pets, what wouldn’t be?), but also much less of that how dare you? tone that comes off so defensively. As we say in PR, you can’t control the questions you get asked, but you can always control the answer you give. Why not take the opportunity to say something positive instead of just reeling off an angry denunciation of the charges?

And if you read the responses above carefully, denunciations is what they are. There is no outright denial in either of them. I doubt that’s a legal maneuver (after all, what are you going to do, sue them?) so much as a chosen rhetorical technique: Attack the credibility of the charge rather than denying it. If so, it’s shrewd on a certain level. Denials always look terrible in print. “I never stole those panties!” has “cover pull quote” written all over it. That’s why we always tell spokespeople not to “repeat the negative” in a question. But there are many things that could better replace an outright denial than straw men fabricating sheer lies.

See also:

James Fallows: What should we make of this Chinese cyber-spy story?

Schneier on Security: US power grid hacked, everyone panic! Welcome perspective:

Honestly, I am much more worried about random errors and undirected worms in the computers running our infrastructure than I am about the Chinese military. I am much more worried about criminal hackers than I am about government hackers.

Nart Villeneuve of the Internet Censorship Explorer on the hype-factor in the article.

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