Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Lash Out at U.S. Spying Indictment

Web users there think China should sue back.

Chinese web users scoffed and Beijing expressed outrage at the May 19 announcement of a U.S. indictment of five Shanghai-based army officers on charges of hacking and economic espionage. In an uncharacteristically speedy response posted to the Foreign Ministry website within 90 minutes of the US announcement, spokesman Qin Gang called the accusations "absurd" and "purely ungrounded." Qin demanded that U.S. authorities drop the case immediately and added that Beijing would be suspending its participation in Sino-U.S. talks on Internet security due to Washington's "lack of sincerity." Although Chinese mainstream media was slow to pick up the story, China's rowdy social media quickly jumped into the fray. Many Chinese citizens viewed the U.S. accusations as hypocritical, if not risible.

In its indictment filed May 1, the U.S. Department of Justice claims that five officers of People's Liberation Army Unit 61398, all of whom worked out of an office building in the suburbs of Shanghai, hacked into the computers of U.S. firms Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, and Solar World, as well as the United Steelworkers Union. (U.S.-based Internet security firm Mandiant documented the alleged activities of this unit in a February, 2013 report.) It is the first criminal indictment against state actors for cyber spying against the United States. 

On the Chinese web, users largely dismissed the U.S. accusations as a case of "a thief crying ‘stop the thief!'" and wondered whether China shouldn't pursue charges of its own against U.S. officials for government-sponsored cyber spying. "So this means China can just charge U.S. military officers in the same way," wrote one user on the Weibo microblogging platform. Another called the accusations "ridiculous; the United States has the whole world in its fist, but it's not okay for others to want to listen in on what you're doing."  

Many also wondered aloud whether Beijing shouldn't charge the U.S. National Security Agency for spying on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. (Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reported by the New York Times on March 22 revealed that the NSA had broken into Huawei's networks and monitored communications of its top executives.) China "should prosecute all the agents of U.S. intelligence agencies for using hacking methods to monitor and steal many Chinese secrets, seriously harming Chinese security and economic development," one web user wrote in response to the Foreign Ministry's statement. 

Sami Saydjari, a former Pentagon cyber expert and founder of the Wisconsin Rapids-based consultancy Cyber Defense Agency, told Foreign Policy that the case was a response to Chinese demands that the United States produce proof to back up its allegations of Chinese economic espionage. "This step documents and exposes the attacks and sets the stage to make this an international conversation," he said. Saydjari added that "other diplomatic efforts have failed to dissuade the Chinese from their aggressive cyber espionage program against the United States."  

In announcing the case, both Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin were careful to describe the accusations as relating to economic espionage. The wording appeared to be an attempt to deflect critics who see the charges as hypocritical in light of recent revelations about the extensive global reach of U.S. government spying. "While the men and women of our American businesses spent their business days innovating, creating, and developing strategies to compete in the global marketplace -- these members of unit 61398 spent their business days in Shanghai stealing the fruits of our labor," Carlin said

Chinese web users appeared unmoved by or unaware of this distinction. Spying was the key phrase, and it didn't seem to matter if it the material concerned was economic or political. Wrote one: "Everyone is spying. Whoever doesn't do it must be a fool. It all comes down to who can do it better and who can leave no trace of evidence." On Supercamp, a bulletin board discussion site for military affairs, one user remarked that U.S. knowledge about the details of the case showed that it "had once again infiltrated China's Internet." 

To coincide with the announcement of the case, the FBI posted wanted alerts for the five accused, complete with photos. It seemed unlikely that any of the officers will actually be brought to trial in the United States. But the notices are raising their online profiles. Next to a list of their names posted to Weibo, one user responded with a thumbs-up icon and one word: "heroes." Another wrote the men should get bonuses and "class three merits," a Chinese military honor.

Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.

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Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China's Swaggering, 'Diehard' Criminal Lawyers

They don't scare easily, and they will take any client -- not just dissidents. The Communist Party has noticed.

If there were a checklist for China's "diehard lawyers faction" it would probably read something like this: Must be combative, dramatic, and have a flair for social media; must not be intimidated by authority; and must be willing to spend time under house arrest or in jail.

While there is no official group by this name, the term has evolved over the last few years to describe a particular type of criminal defense lawyer: brash, and determined to take on defendants whose rights, the attorneys believe, have been violated. The phenomenon came into sharp relief after the arrest of prominent Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (pictured above) on May 6 for allegedly "picking quarrels" by commemorating the victims of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen square in central Beijing. Pu remains in detention in Beijing, awaiting a hearing.

It all started with a case gone awry. Beijing lawyer Yang Xuelin, who identifies himself on social media website Weibo as a "diehard," told Communist Party mouthpiece newspaper People's Daily that the term originated from a discussion with another attorney in Guiyang, the capital of Southern China's Guizhou province, in July 2012. Yang and a colleague named Chi Susheng were part of a team of lawyers from around China who had come to the city to defend a former property tycoon accused of gang-related crimes. Over lunch on the first day of the trial, the paper explained, Chi complained the trial was already not going well. It was riddled with procedural problems, she said, and the team was going to have to "firmly fight to the bitter end," using the northern slang term sike -- which roughly means to fight to the bitter end, or to die hard. (The tycoon was sentenced to 15 years in prison.)

Since then, the term has been adopted by the lawyers themselves and become a convenient shorthand widely used by media and even Chinese authorities. On May 8, reliably nationalist outlet Global Times branded Pu as a member of this loosely defined faction in an editorial that argued Pu had "crossed the line" by attending a Tiananmen commemoration. (Pu, who took part in the 1989 demonstrations, has in fact commemorated them every year since.) The article also excoriated other so-called diehards. "These activist lawyers, who have wild intentions to challenge and change the law, have deviated" from what their jobs are supposed to entail, the editorial wrote. It leveled a warning at the group, who must "realize that they are not commandos or the authoritative forces" behind improvements to rule of law in China.

The commando metaphor is one both sides have embraced. An attorney from Xuchang, a small city in central China's Henan province, wrote on his blog that a diehard lawyer was someone who "goes deep into the mountains knowing well that there are tigers there." The tigers, he clarified, are officials, and not just any officials. In many of the cases championed by diehards, the corruption or abuse of power has been at the police or court level. In some cases, that means the tigers are the judges.

Many crusading Chinese attorneys have landed behind bars or been disbarred (or both) for defending marginalized groups which include practitioners of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, Chinese Christians, or political dissidents. But those in the diehard faction do not necessarily focus their practice on dissidents. They take cases where legal rights are being flouted, regardless of the client. Their opponent is the court establishment, namely the police and even the judge. This adversarial stance has caught the attention of China's second highest justice. "We are now seeing a very strange phenomenon," wrote Shen Deyong, the executive vice-president of the Supreme People's Court, China's highest court, in a May 2013 essay published in the Communist Party-run People's Court Daily. "[Defense] lawyers are not in a confrontation with prosecutors, but instead are having confrontations with the presiding judge in the case," he complained.

That combative attitude is part of what makes a diehard lawyer -- so is showmanship. In a July 2011 murder trial in prefecture-level southern city of Beihai -- in which the victim was allegedly stabbed, but the autopsy found no stab wounds -- four of the defense attorneys who worked on the case were detained. One of them, Yang Zaixin, was jailed for nine months and then held under house arrest for six months for alleged witness tampering. (The charges were later dropped.) Yang's Weibo profile picture shows him posing on the enclosed balcony of the apartment where he was kept under house arrest, his fists up in the air like a winning boxer. Later, during the Guiyang trial, Chi, the lawyer who first coined the diehard moniker, collapsed as the judge tried to eject her from the courtroom and was taken to the hospital.

Diehard lawyers are also heavy users of social media, which allows them to stay in touch with each other and to advocate for their clients. Most, including Chi and Pu, have blogs or social media accounts and post frequently (though Pu's blog has been shut down). The constant posting means that plenty of inter-faction diehard squabbling, about what makes a diehard and whether membership should be formalized, also ends up online. Disputes aside, this is part of what makes this group a potential threat in the eyes of the Chinese government: Their refusal to keep a low profile and their potential influence on public opinion. An April 9 article posted to the website of the influential Communist Party journal Seeking Truth complained that diehard lawyers were "disrupting social order and undermining public safety," and called them a "poisonous cancer" on society.

The Chinese government is clearly worried about the so-called diehards’ impact, and is moving to trim it. Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University, told Foreign Policy that the government is responding with an “increasingly repressive policy” that is trying to rein in the legal profession. Pu’s detention, Cohen said, is part of that movement. Although Pu is also considered part of the weiquan or "rights defense" school of lawyering and has represented dissidents like the activist artist Ai Weiwei, Pu straddles factions. And the repression isn't faction-specific.

Cohen said Chinese authorities are clamping down because they “want lawyers to behave like dentists.” In other words, the government thinks attorneys should be "good technicians and not involve themselves in cases of political-legal injustice.” But Cohen added that the crackdowns like that which ensnared Pu are only growing the ranks of “angry lawyers” in China, causing more to take up rights-related cases.

The outpouring of support for Pu on social media, from words of support to photos of him, does suggest that instead of weakening lawyers of his type, it is emboldening them. Another practitioner, Xu Tianming, wrote on Weibo that the "wanton arrest" of Pu would not work. The government should "not think that saying it diligently serves the people over and over" is enough. "In the Internet age," Xu concluded, "the people are their own masters."