On Tuesday night in Seattle, China’s President Xi Jinping pledged a united front against cybercrime. Xi, who is on his first state visit to the U.S., vowed that “the Chinese government will not in whatever form engage in commercial theft” and noted that hacking “must be punished in accordance with law or relevant international treaties.” In a show of Beijing’s commitment, Xi called for the creation of “a high-level joint dialogue mechanism with the United States on fighting cybercrimes.”
Xi’s assurances may have sounded less convincing to American defense and tech analysts, who for years have alleged widespread Chinese online infiltration of not only the U.S. government but of American companies as well. (Yes, Washington snoops even on friendly governments but experts say the level of industrial espionage by the Chinese side is unprecedented.) Last year, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers, accusing them of hacking into the computer systems of Westinghouse Electric, U.S. Steel and others. A report by Internet security firm Mandiant had earlier accused the same PLA group of breaching American national security.
In fact, the “high-level joint dialogue mechanism” that Xi called for in Seattle isn’t a new concept. A previous incarnation, called the U.S.-China Internet Working Group, was suspended by Beijing after last year’s PLA indictment. After Xi heads to Washington D.C. on Thursday, he and U.S. President Barack Obama may talk up efforts to prevent certain types of first strikes from escalating into a cyber war. But beyond that, it’s hard to imagine more substantive progress on the tech front. China isn’t admitting to any online espionage; the Snowden factor doesn’t help the U.S. case, either.
On Wednesday in Seattle, Xi will meet with top American CEOs in a state that exports more to China than any other. Also joining him in Washington State are the heads of Chinese tech firms, who will attend a summit hosted by Microsoft and the Chinese government. These Chinese online companies have flourished at home in part because of the absence of American giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook. China’s Great Firewall censors and blocks unwanted influences from domestic cyberspace. Among the guests of honor at the Seattle tech conference will be China’s Internet czar Lu Wei, who said last year that China had the right to “choose who can come to our home and be our guest.” Apparently U.S. social media, which could be used by Chinese citizens to organize beyond Beijing’s control, are not among the welcomed guests.
There are many irritants to the U.S.-China relationship but few are as troublesome as technology. Charges of state espionage are just one part of the puzzle. New national security legislation in China potentially criminalizes what would be considered normal business activity in the West. Beijing is now pushing multinationals to store certain online data in China and hand over some proprietary technology, prompting fears of both individual security breaches and intellectual property rights violations. The technology crackdown comes as an increasing number of Western firms say they feel that Chinese officialdom is making it harder to do business in China. Shortly before Xi landed in Seattle, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew called on China to provide “fair market access” to American firms.
Of course, for all of the talk of a slowing Chinese economy and bilateral tensions over technology, U.S.-China trade still hovers around $600 billion. For Apple, China may soon eclipse the U.S. as its biggest market. But it was only a last-minute flurry of diplomacy, in which China’s state security czar Meng Jianzu was dispatched to the U.S., that may have prevented Washington from imposing sanctions on China in retaliation for alleged Chinese espionage against American firms. Xi’s visit will not be marred by an embarrassing announcement of U.S. tech punishments. But who knows what will happen after his inaugural state visit ends?