Nov 17 2007
From Nationalism to Commercialism
The headlines in most major papers that cover Chinese hackers paint them as ethereal beings, invisible, coming from nowhere, invading, attacking, and then returning to their void. Media reports are filled with “Chinese hackers” involvement in one type of exploit or another, speculations about government affiliation, and the types of online crimes they have committed. What they fail to provide is background on just who comprises this secretive organization. Certainly, these spirits from a land as unfathomable as China must be impossible to locate, much less study.
The reality turns out to be considerably less mysterious and much more mundane. Chinese hackers are incredibly easy to find and provide more information about themselves than anyone reading the news could imagine. The problem is not a lack of information but an overabundance of it. The Red Hacker Alliance is producing thousands of internal documents just waiting to be translated and studied. No special computer skills are required and you do not need the ability to detect and track an intruder over countless Internet connections or jumps between satellites. It doesn’t require a government clearance with access to classified documents. The information has been sitting in the open since the very founding of the organization and it is this very information we will use to examine their history, structure, exploits, political agenda, and possible government affiliations.
While not an unbroken historic timeline, we will trace the birth of Chinese hackers on the Internet from a purely nationalistic organization, to their current situation that is rapidly expanding into commercialization and criminal activity. Before looking directly at the history of the Chinese Red Hacker Alliance, it is perhaps vital that we have an understanding of China’s past and how it affects its population’s current psyche in order to get greater insight into why these groups are so much more nationalistic than their Western counterparts.
Historically, China has endured numerous outside threats to its sovereignty and what it views as insults to national honor. This has perhaps produced a mindset more sensitive to actual and perceived injustices. Having the ability to protest against these humiliations, as is the case with Chinese hackers, must be a very potent source of empowerment. The majority of the alliance is comprised of males in their 20′s that hold the passions of youth. Being somewhat prohibited from protesting against their own society’s injustices, they are quick to retaliate against both major and minor offenses from outside sources. William Callahan’s work on the rise of Chinese nationalism stemming from the “Century of Humiliation” provides a very detailed look at these motivators pushing the rise of nationalism:
“Chinese nationalism is not just about celebrating the glories of Chinese civilization; it also commemorates China’s weakness. This negative image comes out most directly in the discourse of China’s Century of National Humiliation (Bainian guochi). Chinese books on the topic generally tell the tale of China going from being at the center of the world to being the Sick Man of Asia after the Opium War (1840), only to rise again with the Communist Revolution (1949). To understand how Chinese nationalism works, we need to reverse Paul Kennedy’s famous thesis about ‘the rise and fall of the great powers’ to examine the ‘fall and rise’ of China: Many of the titles of these books include the phrase ‘from humiliation to glory.’ The discourse of national humiliation shows how China’s insecurities are not just material, a matter of catching up to the West militarily and economically, but symbolic. Indeed, one of the goals of Chinese foreign policy has been to ‘cleanse National Humiliation.’”
Indeed this very sentiment was reflected to near perfection on the web site Iron and Blood Union, which is linked to several of the Red Hacker Alliance web sites. They articulated their philosophy as follows:
“The goal of this community: Is to grieve for the prior generation and to never forget the nation’s shame; to use history as an example for facing the future.”
While the case can be made that the government has the ability to fan the flames of patriotic zeal inside the Red Hacker Alliance, it is apparent that it already exists within the group and is not fabricated. It is also doubtful that the Chinese government is overly enthusiastic about causing major unrest in large numbers of students, who comprise a substantial portion of the hacker organization. Student led demonstrations during the May 4th Movement of 1919 and Tiananmen Square in 1989 are deeply ingrained in their memory. The case can also be made that nationalism provides a certain shield against government scrutiny and possible interference. By Chinese government standards, this is a large group of individuals with common ties that are not easily monitored or controlled. If the Chinese hacker alliance did not set very strict internal guidelines or failed to clearly show its support of the government/people, it might quickly find itself censored and broken apart. The political activist nature of the groups making up the alliance has also bolstered their reputation within China and may have perpetuated their nationalistic character.
CAUTION: The historical account that follows has been primarily pieced together from documents obtained off of Red Hacker web sites and expresses their perspective on how events began and unfolded. This note of caution should not and is not intended to cause the reader to discount the Chinese rendering of events. To the contrary, the descriptions they provide are quite compelling and introspective. As with any story, there is always the possibility of exaggeration and misinformation (not to be confused with disinformation ). The major sin that may have been committed would be that of omission and not commission. The Chinese hackers have presented us with the portion of their history that shows the strong patriotic side of the alliance and have chosen to delete that portion that did not. When deemed appropriate, comments and analysis have been added.