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China Denies Cyberattack Accusations, And Says It Too Is A Victim Of Hacking


Yesterday, the U.S. came out and publicly accused China of hacking at least 30,000 Microsoft Exchange email accounts. NATO and several other U.S. allies also condemned China-linked cyberattacks. China has denied these allegations. And it's hit back today with an accusation of its own. With us is NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, what is China saying?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, unsurprisingly, it said all these accusations are baseless, that they're political smears. And then today, Beijing turned the tables. It said it was the victim of global cybercrime. Here's what a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying, in reality, the U.S. is the leader in cyberattacks. The U.S. CIA's hacking unit has been conducting attacks over the last 11 years on Chinese aviation firms, technology companies, oil sector companies and other critical industries. And he cites a report released by a previously unheard of Chinese security firm called 360 that was published last year. Now, I've read this report. And it cites a 2017 criminal case in the U.S. in which a former CIA employee was accused of leaking CIA documents. It's a case that's well-covered in U.S. media at the time. And this Chinese report offers no evidence of whether the CIA is connected to cyberattacks in China or whether these attacks even happened.

But China's accusations today are notable because they are calibrated to be reciprocal, as in they perfectly mirror a separate action also taken yesterday by the U.S. Justice Department. It charged four Chinese nationals with working for China's Ministry of State Security to hack U.S. universities, technology companies and government agencies. And the ministry of state security is this massive but shadowy agency here that's sort of like China's CIA.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, did the Chinese foreign ministry say anything more about what it alleges to be U.S. hacking?

FENG: No. But the important thing to take away is whether or not these allegations flying around from both sides are true, what we can take away from this week's events is that cybersecurity is now another rift between the U.S. and China. These two countries have, already, many things they do not agree on. They had a trade war. There are still sanctions from both sides on Chinese technology companies and on U.S. officials. They're at opposing ends of human rights standards. And now you can add cybersecurity to that list.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, Emily, thinking back, I mean, is cybersecurity really a new issue between the U.S. and China because I remember during the Obama administration, wasn't this a big deal as well?

FENG: You're right. It was a huge point of contention because by the mid-2000s, U.S. companies in particular were furious. They said Chinese hackers were stealing their intellectual property and then copying their products in China. So then-President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sat down. And in 2015, they said they hammered out an agreement which they claimed would stop attacks. They vowed to prosecute any signs of cybercrime that started within their borders. And as governments, they would never sponsor cyberattacks. But then U.S. officials say, yeah, Chinese decreased attacks.

But they didn't stop them entirely. And by 2018, that agreement was basically done for because China kept continuing. So now we're back at this issue of cybersecurity. And this time around, the U.S. has been gathering its allies. You mentioned NATO, Japan, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand. They all simultaneously issued statements yesterday condemning China. And that makes China feel like it's being internationally bullied. That could pressure China into escalating further with the U.S..

MARTÍNEZ: That's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks a lot.

FENG: Thanks, A.


Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.