Virtual Conflict and Beyond: A Review on the US-China Cyber Conflicts

The development of technology benefits globalization. Access to information has become increasingly convenient, and it accelerates the knowledge and understanding of different cultures. The growth of the cyber world has brought a tighter connection in the physical world. While the world is enjoying the benefits of the cyber industry, one problem is concerning: is it safe? 

Cybersecurity issues are side effects of the rapidly growing Internet industry. It covers areas from the theft of identity to sabotage of information and physical property. It has not only caught the attention of technology specialists, but also of governments. It has been decades since experts have tried to tackle security issues. However, hacking methods improve at the same time, and the process has become automated. Another problem is that countries haven’t reached a consensus on the definition of cyber crime. The definition of pure sharing of information and privacy theft could be manipulated, which brings difficulties for the government to decide what threatens the informational safety of the country and its people. The US and China relationship has been intense over the last few years, and the tension is expanded to the cyber world.

The Barriers from the US

It is not the first time that China-owned technology companies are suspected of threatening behavior. In May 2019, Huawei was officially blacklisted by the US government. Earlier in January 2019, Huawei’s CFO was arrested for financial fraud, and Huawei was indicted for the theft of trade secrets. The series of incidents happened because of its plan for the next-generation 5G network. It is suspected that Huawei spies on the intelligence of the US and other countries for the China government because the China National Intelligence Law required organizations, Huawei included, to support the national intelligence work. Huawei has simply denied the accusation. It attempted to announce the ban from the US government unconstitutional, but failed. 

Recently, the US government announced the intention to terminate the running of WeChat and Tiktok, two apps owned by Chinese technology companies. The ban on these two applications escalated the cyber conflict between the two countries. As mentioned, WeChat and Tiktok are both applications created by Chinese technology companies. WeChat owns over 1 billion active users, and it is one of the most popular social apps with Chinese people. Although WeChat is less used among non-Chinese users, the wide distribution of Chinese ethnics made it a global app. Tiktok, on the other hand, has a more diverse user profile. It is the international version of Douyin, a content sharing platform created by ByteDance. It is viral internationally, and according to the New York Times, it is “rewriting the world.” Both apps are under scrutiny by the Trump Administration claiming both apps threaten cybersecurity by harming the privacy of US users.

China’s Cyber Great Wall

The US is not the only side with a hostile attitude on this issue. China has been using a strong network firewall to implement network security rules. It functions as a filter for information sharing, the websites visited, and application running, and it aims to prevent information and intelligence leak. The firewall prevents the entering and development of a large number of companies, the most famous ones being Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, and their services. To access these websites, Internet users in China have to use VPN (virtual panel networks). However, many VPN services were prohibited during the continuous government regulations, and those that are still running face the risk of a forced shut down.

Contrary to the US, the China government sets up the cyber Great Wall, not only for preventing the leakage of information, but also for the regulation of information that is exposed. The security extends the safety of private information and government intelligence, and the perpetuity of conducting socialist communism in China. The government has repeatedly emphasized the importance of publicizing the correct socialist ideas that are core to Chinese communism in this Internet era. Any forms of sensitive and reactionary expressions to the central government will be regulated. For example, any expressions that support the independence of Hong Kong and questions of the policies issued by the central government will be banned online, and the accounts that post the expressions will be frozen indefinitely. It also highlighted the welcoming messages to foreign technology companies that are willing to develop their business in China, but must strictly follow the national law.

After Google announced its exit, Chinese officials responded that Google disobeyed its written promise when entering the China market. The China government required it to filter and scrutinize when providing searching services. However, Google didn’t cooperate as it insisted on its own values. Before its exit, Google was condemned by China’s government representatives and by China’s official public broadcasters, CCTV. They pointed out that Google illegally spread pornographic content, and Google Library was prosecuted for copyright violations. Facebook and Twitter were blocked for similar reasons. The companies and the China government were unable to reach a mutual agreement on the operation on the China continent, and neither was willing to compromise.

Beyond the Cyber Conflict

Security-related issues are undoubtedly the most important concerns during the cyber conflict between the US and China. However, it is not necessarily the only one. Internet technology is the future, and it could even be considered as a new superpower. It drives development in almost all industries and will bring a complementary raise in international status and monetary profits.

The possible initiation of the aggression on Huawei could just be the technology competition. 5G technology provides a faster Internet speed, and it brings more benefits to the COVID-era that heavily depends on the Internet than ever before. The master of the technology by Huawei could bring its country China, a big component of the US, huge advantages. 5G related products by Huawei can quite easily occupy the market share from the US-owned companies given its price and quality. Furthermore, the UK government has officially claimed that it does not consider Huawei a threat to national security. With the credibility of UK technology in intelligence-related work, it is a reasonable assumption that the concern of the US government is beyond national security. Tiktok and WeChat also diverted the oligopoly of social media by US companies. Tiktok has been a new trend after Instagram, and WeChat shares quite similar functions to Whatsapp and Messenger. Tiktok has already gained popularity over the world; although WeChat is used by mostly Chinese at this moment, given the spread and the number of Chinese ethnics and the indication of master of relevant technology, it may enjoy as much favor as Tiktok.

On the other hand, China banned Google and Facebook for similar reasons. When Google entered in 2006, Baidu, the leading search engine in China, was experiencing rapid development, along with Tecent, the host company of WeChat. Although Google only had 30% of the market share in China then, it had an advantage in searching with English terms. During that period, English learning was hugely promoted, and it was very likely that Google would be preferred over Baidu for English speakers and students in China. Technology companies such as Tencent and Xinlang were also undergoing essential growth. The reluctance to compromise with the terms and practices of Google and Facebook could be the unwillingness to share the social network with foreign corporations.  The cyber conflicts nowadays can extend beyond technology to economics and politics. There is no doubt that the ones with better technology are stronger in developing their cyber power and protecting their information and intelligence. The conflict can stimulate competition and the following development, but it also has negative subsidies. From the global perspective, cooperation should be encouraged with security as the foundation in the cyber era. Between China and the US, cooperation seems to be less likely at this moment, but conflicts need to be alleviated if there is to be a higher level of trust and increased communication.

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