Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that’s probably cold comfort to firms like Westinghouse and U.S. Steel, which the U.S. Justice Department says have been hacked by Chinese cyber-espionage teams. By indicting the Shanghai-based team allegedly responsible for the attacks, which are largely conducted in order to give the Chinese an edge in the global economy, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is trying to draw a line between the sort of snooping that the U.S. National Security Agency does for strategic security purposes, and the kind that the Chinese do, which often involves intellectual property theft or the culling of business secrets for competitive advantage.
The problem is that the Chinese don’t recognize that difference, because in China, the state is the economy. I was actually in China as the Edward Snowden story was breaking in 2013, and I remember the Chinese being indignant about what they perceived as U.S. hypocrisy around cyber-snooping.
The importance of the Chinese state in the Middle Kingdom’s economy, which has been growing over the last 15 years or so, is crucial to understanding the hacking affairs. During the period of China’s highest growth, in the years leading up to 1995, the country was all about unleashing the private sector, and paring back the public. A lot of public sector workers were laid off, Beijing liberalized various sectors of the economy, and the private sector took off. But since the mid 1990s, that trend has been shifting.
State-owned enterprises, or “SOEs” have been sucking up more of the countries financial resources (they get about 80% of all debt financing, while providing only 20% of employment), which is one of the reasons that the Chinese economy is slowing. That makes it harder for the country to move up the economic food chain, from lower-end manufacturing to higher-end products and services, which is what it needs to do to move from being a poor country to one in which most of its citizens are middle class. It’s telling that some of the highest levels of unemployment in China are amongst new white-collar college graduates; the country just isn’t creating enough high-level companies, or jobs.
Which goes right to the heart of the hacking indictments. Despite all the hoopla recently over the fact that the World Bank expects China to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy this year, there’s a big difference between being big, and being rich. Average U.S. worker wages are between 6 and ten times what they are in China because U.S. companies produce higher end goods and services. The Chinese economy is still largely a copycat economy—albeit a very good one. Chinese companies tend to take ideas from developed country firms (either legally or otherwise) and try to tweak them slightly to make them cheaper, more suited to local markets, etc. That’s why Chinese hackers were searching for intellectual property secrets at Westinghouse, and probably countless other Western firms. It’s something that American firms in China complain constantly about, and have largely taken as a cost of doing business there.
What’s more interesting, though, are reports that Chinese hackers were also looking for things like the trade deals and strategies of U.S. steel firms. This may speak to one reason that the Obama administration decided to make a big deal of Chinese hacking now. In an age of slower global growth, when all boats are not rising, issues like intellectual property theft and trade tensions become more fractious. The U.S. has been complaining for some time now that China won’t play by the existing rules of the global economy, and that given its size and economic heft, this can’t be allowed to continue. Since the financial crisis and recession of 2008, analysts have been predicting that the U.S. and China would eventually come to blows over trade issues—and it’s interesting that many of the firms being hacked were also those that had approached the WTO about Chinese trade violations.
It will also be interesting to see how the Chinese respond to the Justice Department indictments; needless to say there’s no way they’ll be handing over any hackers and they’ve already pulled the plug on a cyber-espionage working group with the U.S. that was supposed to address some of the tensions between the two countries. One thing you can count on, says Conference Board China economist Andrew Polk, is that the slow growth, increasingly nationalistic environment in the Middle Kingdom is going to “make it tougher for foreign firms to do business there.” As if it was ever easy.