Tea Leaf Nation

Net, Interrupted

Chinese wonder who rerouted two-thirds of their Internet.

When the Internet in the world's largest country largely stops functioning, does it make a sound?

On or around 3:20 p.m. on Jan. 21, most Chinese websites became inaccessible --"about two-thirds," one technology expert with anti-virus company Qihoo 360 told state-run China National Radio. According to tech news portal Tencent Technology, during the service interruption, which lasted for almost six hours, many of China's most popular websites, including Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, as well as top search engine Baidu and social media giant Tencent, began redirecting to an IP address (the numerical label of a networked computer) owned by U.S.-based Dynamic Internet Technology (DIT). In a Jan. 22 press conference, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the incident showed China was "a victim of hacking," but named no aggressor. The massive service interruption, coupled with the lack of a full official explanation, left many Chinese wondering whom to blame.

China's state-run media quickly insinuated that foreign interference was involved. The official China News Online stated that a "preliminary investigation" determined an "online attack" had taken place, while Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, cited an expert who said a "hacker attack" was a "very probable" explanation. An unnamed expert quoted by reliable Communist Party cheerleader Global Times speculated that the prolonged hiccup resulted from a deliberate assault: "We cannot eliminate the possibility that real hackers used this IP address," the expert said, "as a springboard for their attack." The article, which carried the Chinese title "Chinese Internet Experiences Mysterious Attack: IP Involved Directs to Censorship Circumvention Software Company," repeatedly mentioned DIT and the fact that it produces Freegate, a software program that allows users to bypass China's enormous censorship apparatus, known colloquially as the "Great Firewall." (DIT founder Bill Xia said in a telephone conversation with Foreign Policy that his company was not responsible for the outage.)

Readers, by and large, had a different theory. Comments on platforms including news aggregator Netease and Sina Weibo evinced a sense that the protracted glitch was in fact an (accidental) inside job. "I think you messed up while tweaking the Great Firewall," an anonymous Netease commenter wrote, "and you're using hackers as a scapegoat." "You weren't careful when you were moving a rock and you dropped it on your own foot," a Weibo user named Wang Rui joked, as if speaking directly to China's authorities."Then you said someone else threw it." One anonymous Weibo user asked, somewhat more obliquely, "Was the Matrix upgrading again?"

That's not to say Chinese state media didn't hit a nerve. Cybersecurity is not just an American anxiety, after all: Former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in June 2013 that the United States had tried hacking "hundreds" of targets in China, including universities and government officials. The vulnerabilities of Chinese cyberspace are clearly real, even if this particular wound may have come from friendly fire.

"China's online spaces are easy pickings for other people," wrote one Weibo user, concluding, "We should improve Internet security defenses." Root name servers, which form the backbone of the Web, "are all abroad," lamented another, noting China's lack of critical Internet infrastructure. "The minute we anger" U.S. President Obama, "he could send us right back to the Stone Age."

Wholesale loss of the Internet was a frightening prospect for Chinese netizens, but regaining normal service did not dispel dissatisfaction with the status quo. After the Web recovered, one Weibo user wrote sarcastically, "A lot of websites remain inaccessible to me, like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter," sites currently banned in China. "How can I fix this?"

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

'I Came to This World Naked'

China's erstwhile No. 2 tries to fend off corruption implications -- and the public isn't buying it.

It hasn't been easy for former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Despite the immense prestige afforded to the person who was China's second most powerful official for 10 years, Wen has found himself and his family put under a microscope in the waning days of his public life.

His family was twice the target of New York Times investigative reports: An October 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning article alleged that his family had accumulated at least $2.7 billion dollars. (In Oct. 2012, lawyers representing Wen's family reportedly called the story "untrue" and threatened legal action.) A November 2013 follow-up in the same publication then alleged financial dealings between Wen's daughter Wen Ruchun and J.P. Morgan, the U.S. investment bank. (J.P. Morgan has declined to comment to the New York Times on the allegations, but in the wake of investigations was recently reported to have removed itself from a major potential investment in a Chinese chemical company.) And in mid-January, an article in British newspaper The Guardian reported that Wen, in addition to other high Chinese officials, had family members who stored wealth in offshore financial entities. None of the articles implicated Wen himself, but the descriptions of nepotism and corruption have painted Wen and his family in a particularly unflattering light.

Then, Wen struck back -- sort of. On Jan. 18, a columnist from Ming Pao, a major Chinese language newspaper in Hong Kong, published a hand-written letter from Wen to his friend Wu Kangmin, a columnist at the publication. In practiced Chinese calligraphy, Wen claims that he leads the "life of an old retiree" filled with "exercising, reading, and meeting friends." But the note also serves, intentionally or not, as Wen's first public response to the New York Times reports, about which he had previously remained silent. In it, Wen asserts that "I have never and would never abuse my power for personal gain." At the missive's end, Wen writes that he longs to "put a good end to the last leg of my life's journey" and concludes with a flourish: "I came to this world naked, and will leave clean."   

Perhaps not coincidentally, two days later, People's Daily online, a Communist Party outlet, published a feature on Wen's family, and depicted Wen as coming from a long line of earnest and humble educators -- his father was a teacher. Given the political connections of the People's Daily, the feature was likely calculated to complement the publication of Wen's letter.

Indeed, the release of Wen's handwritten response may be deliberately timed to quash rumors and vouch for his good name at a time when president Xi Jinping has stepped up his anti-corruption crackdown, vowing to snare both minor and major officials in its dragnet. Wen has not faced any allegations in domestic media following the New York Times exposés, but he might still be concerned about his fate given that Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar, is reportedly under secret investigation for corruption. 

A schism on the Chinese Internet soon emerged: While other mainstream outlets quickly ran the syndicated People's Daily feature, users of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, largely lambasted Wen's letter. Many regard it as a clumsy denial: One user wrote, as if to Wen, "Your son is the president of a state-owned company, your mother is rich, and your wife" -- a geologist who has been described as China's "diamond queen" -- sells diamond jewelry. "Shall we think these are all rumors?" 

Online critics have referred to Wen as "China's best actor" for years, accusing him of speaking too much while doing too little. Similar criticisms popped up again this time: One user wrote that "actor" Wen was best when he was  "reciting poetry" or "shedding tears," not making and implementing policy. Another user wrote, "Perhaps Wen hasn't abused his power for personal gain, but he hasn't used his power to limit personal gain either."

To Maoist conservatives, known in China as "leftists," Wen is the avatar of all they stand against, a convenient piñata for their grievances about China today: income disparity, corruption, and most importantly, the ills stemming from a supposed invasion of foreign capital and ideas. Leftist online communities like Cultural Revolution Net or RedChinaCn.net are full of angry and shrill tirades against Wen, which call him things like the particularly nasty hanjian, which means a traitor against the Chinese nation. Wen's attempt at self-defense is likely to change none of this.

A handful of netizens also speculated about any hidden meaning in the letter. One user speculated that it was "a preemptive action." Another replied that Wen's defense "only reveals the truth," and asked, "Does he know something will happen?" Some netizens gave Wen partial credit for talking the talk of a political reformer, which is extremely rare among any Communist Party cadre, especially one at the top echelon of power. He was the Party's go-to man for a visit to disaster zones: Most memorably, he flew to the worst-struck areas of Sichuan province after a Richter scale 8.0 earthquake in May 2012, and worked out of a tent to rally rescuers despite intense aftershocks. One netizen wrote: "At least he dared to call for political reform," making him more likely "to be brought down by political opponents."

Such a fate is still unlikely -- but it does indeed seem more so now than a year ago. Even if Wen remains safe, he faces a more anxious retirement than a man of his standing might normally be expected to endure. 

Getty Images