What is China’s online Blue Army – and is it a threat?

China internet cyberwar

China has for the first time acknowledged it has a state-run cyber squad. But does this indicate an escalation in cyberwarfare?

BY David Cairns LAST UPDATED AT 11:32 ON Fri 27 May 2011

It is just like ping-pong. We have more people playing it, so we are very good at it," said a former general after China acknowledged for the first time that it has a military unit devoted to cyber security.

The Times quoted the unnamed general yesterday as it reported on the so-called Blue Army, a shadowy group of state-sponsored Chinese nerds. Earlier, defence ministry spokesman Geng Yangsheng introduced the group to the media.

It was a "chilling reminder", said the Times, that would "confirm the worst fears of governments across the globe" – China is ready to attack, online. But is it?

Does China carry out cyberwarfare?Yes, most analysts agree that it does. A report by US antivirus company Symantec last year found that more than 25 per cent of attacks on sensitive corporate data originated in China. Rick Fisher of the US-based International Assessment and Strategy Centre told The First Post: "Various Chinese intelligence, criminal and corporate bodies are truly the scourge of the global internet." He added that China used the internet to "wage unrestricted warfare against the world".

However, Nigel Inkster of the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies told The First Post he believes most of these attacks are carried out by "privateers" rather than government-controlled forces. With the 'Blue Army' announcement, says Inkster, the Chinese authorities have effectively given the pirates "letters of marque", official license to carry on their independent activities.

Why is it called the 'Blue Army'?Nobody knows – as nobody knew it existed, officially, until two days ago. However, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's communist ruling party, has long been known to call its 'opfor' units 'Blue Army'. Opfor (opposition force) groups are army units set up to role-play the enemy – and for China, red is the good guys' colour.

This raises the intriguing possibility that something has been lost in translation – did Geng actually own up to a cyberwarfare unit, as the Times claims, or was he merely confirming that China had units who pretend to be hackers from abroad?

What does China say the unit is for?Geng told the media that the 'Blue Army' was purely for defensive measures - strengthening China's Great Firewall and making sure state secrets are safe from attack by foreigners. State mouthpiece the People's Daily said yesterday that "China, armed with comparatively lax online security protection, is among the victims of internet attacks".

What about China's attempts to control the internet at home?Most analysts see the biggest concern of the Chinese authorities as controlling the internet within China's borders, not outside them. One way of doing this is to divert the energies of their burgeoning ranks of hackers towards the outside world – with cyber attacks merely a by-product of this misdirection.

Should we be worried by the Blue Army?Fisher certainly thinks so. He told The First Post: "China has long ago figured out how to turn off your country's power grid, manipulate your financial markets, steal from your bank accounts, and of course, read your email."

But others are more sanguine. "China poses less challenge to US dominance [of the internet] than many in the US would think," said Inkster, pointing out that the US enjoys a commanding lead in internet technology. He added: "The actual wiring, and much of the software that flows on the internet is western in origin..."

Finally, whatever its online capabilities, China is still far from the USA's military equal. And, says Inkster, the Chinese government "can see the rationale for not engaging in activity that invites a response that goes beyond the cyber domain".

Does China perceive a threat from the West?Inkster says yes, the Chinese "feel under threat from soft power" as predominately US-bred technologies and cultures slowly spread by its phone lines.  So the 'Blue Army' announcement could be as much about sabre-rattling – albeit cyber sabre-rattling – as anything else.

"You have to bear in mind the psych ops element to this," says Inkster. "There is a marked tendency by China to highlight the existence of capabilities not yet fully formed from military perspective, as a form of deterrence." · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.