China responded Friday to allegations it was involved in a hacking attack on U.S. government computers by saying such claims are unproven and irresponsible, and that it wishes the United States would trust it more.
The administration of President Barack Obama has increasingly pressed China on the issue of cyberhacking, and on Thursday U.S. officials said China-based hackers are suspected of breaking into the computer networks of the U.S. government personnel office and stealing identifying information of at least 4 million federal workers. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said the attack amounted to a foreign power seeking information on U.S. employees who have security clearances for access to sensitive information.
Beijing generally does not explicitly deny specific hacking accusations, but seeks to dismiss them as unproven and irresponsible, while invariably noting that China is itself the target of hacking attacks and calling for greater international cooperation in combating hacking.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news briefing Friday that Beijing hopes the U.S. would be "less suspicious and stop making any unverified allegations, but show more trust and participate more in cooperation."
"We know that hacker attacks are conducted anonymously, across nations, and that it is hard to track the source," Hong said. "It's irresponsible and unscientific to make conjectural, trumped-up allegations without deep investigation."
Cybersecurity analysts who study hacking attacks believed to originate in China have cited evidence suggesting they are state-sponsored rather than independent actions, including that they seem to be highly organized teams that focus on the same kinds of targets, sometimes for years, and tend to work regular hours excluding weekends.
The Virginia-based cybersecurity organization Mandiant concluded in a report in early 2013 that a massive hacking campaign on U.S. business could be traced to an office building in Shanghai run by the Chinese military.
China's military is believed to have made cyber warfare capabilities a priority more than a decade ago. One of the few public announcements of the capabilities came in a May 25, 2011, news conference by Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, in which he spoke of developing China's "online" army.
Beijing also acknowledged its cyber military force in May in a Defense Ministry white paper on military strategy. The ministry called cyberspace a "critical security domain" and said the force is primarily defensive and a response to increasingly fierce competition in cyberspace.
Some Chinese expressed skepticism that Beijing was responsible for the attack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the Interior Department computers, made public Thursday. They note that even if an attack originated in China, it may not have been sanctioned by the government — and indeed could have been launched by anti-government provocateurs.
Even if the attack were state-sanctioned, some said, Beijing would be doing nothing more devious than America's National Security Agency, whose vast, secret data collection efforts at home and abroad were exposed by Edward Snowden.
"Just don't pretend America is the only victim, America also victimizes others," said Shen Dingli, the director of Fudan University's Center for American Studies in Shanghai. "The U.S. government will target the Chinese government. If they happen to see the information of a few million Chinese government workers, would they not download it? I think they would."
He said that rather than publicizing unproven allegations, Washington should have taken a more Chinese approach and quietly contacted Beijing to find a joint solution. "It is important not to publicize it, but to find a way to investigate together," he said. "China may do its utmost to clear itself."
Discussion of the hacking allegations on Chinese social media was muted. Many were largely skeptical that the Chinese government could have perpetrated the attacks, though some heaped praise on their country's "cyber army."
"The U.S. has top IT skills, it's not so easy to hack," Zeng Yaosheng, a 34-year-old advertising designer, said by phone from Maoming city in Guangdong province. "China might not have the ability to do it."