China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in the midst of an unprecedented expansion, using ample budgets for everything from developing a blue-water navy to launching a test flight of the country’s first stealth fighter jet last year. Now the PLA has announced the deployment of another crucial military team: a cyber security squad. Described as an “online blue army” by a Ministry of National Defense spokesman on May 25, the Chinese force is supposed to protect the country from cyber attacks. The PLA Daily, a military-run newspaper, reported that the digital squad would be based in China’s southern Guangzhou military region and would enjoy a budget in the tens of millions of yuan. (10 million yuan is equivalent to $1.54 million.)
Many developed nations have military-run online security forces, the U.S. included. But the establishment of the Chinese cyber troop is somewhat ironic because it is the Chinese themselves who are most often blamed by other governments as instigators of cyber malfeasance. In March, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper alleged that China has made “a substantial investment” in cyberwarfare and intelligence-gathering techniques, calling the Chinese effort “pretty aggressive.” Beijing, for its part, has repeatedly denied responsibility for international hacking attacks. The Defense Ministry spokesman reiterated that the online blue army is only for defensive purposes, not offensive ones.
The military’s cyber squad isn’t the PLA’s first digital foray. Earlier this month, the Nanjing military region announced that it had jointly developed a computer game called “Glorious Mission” that allows gamers to defend China’s honor in a military confrontation. Among the apparent enemy combatants? American soldiers. (The U.S. Army has developed a somewhat similar form of computer entertainment called America’s Army that is supposedly a recruiting tool, but the Chinese do not appear as the bad guys in those games.)
Military computer games may be just games. But the online presence of official Chinese censors is already a very real problem. Chinese cyber squads have built what has been dubbed the Great Firewall, blocking websites or searches deemed politically or socially sensitive. Both Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. Although savvy Chinese netizens rely on virtual private networks to bypass the censors, even these evasion measures have become less reliable in recent weeks, as a crackdown against dissent and political expression intensifies. China’s cyberwarfare, it turns out, may be directed just as much toward its own citizens as any outside force.