Why cyber war is dangerous for democracies

Moisés Naím writes: This month, two years after his massive leak of NSA documents detailing U.S. surveillance programs, Edward Snowden published an op-ed in The New York Times celebrating his accomplishments. The “power of an informed public,” he wrote, had forced the U.S. government to scrap its bulk collection of phone records. Moreover, he noted, “Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities.” He concluded by asserting that “We are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy. For the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the outline of a politics that turns away from reaction and fear in favor of resilience and reason.”

Maybe so. I am glad that my privacy is now more protected from meddling by U.S. and European democracies. But frankly, I am far more concerned about the cyber threats to my privacy posed by Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes than the surveillance threats from Washington. You should be too. [Continue reading…]


Attack gave Chinese hackers privileged access to U.S. systems

The New York Times reports: For more than five years, American intelligence agencies followed several groups of Chinese hackers who were systematically draining information from defense contractors, energy firms and electronics makers, their targets shifting to fit Beijing’s latest economic priorities.

But last summer, officials lost the trail as some of the hackers changed focus again, burrowing deep into United States government computer systems that contain vast troves of personnel data, according to American officials briefed on a federal investigation into the attack and private security experts.

Undetected for nearly a year, the Chinese intruders executed a sophisticated attack that gave them “administrator privileges” into the computer networks at the Office of Personnel Management, mimicking the credentials of people who run the agency’s systems, two senior administration officials said. The hackers began siphoning out a rush of data after constructing what amounted to an electronic pipeline that led back to China, investigators told Congress last week in classified briefings.

Much of the personnel data had been stored in the lightly protected systems of the Department of the Interior, because it had cheap, available space for digital data storage. The hackers’ ultimate target: the one million or so federal employees and contractors who have filled out a form known as SF-86, which is stored in a different computer bank and details personal, financial and medical histories for anyone seeking a security clearance.

“This was classic espionage, just on a scale we’ve never seen before from a traditional adversary,” one senior administration official said. “And it’s not a satisfactory answer to say, ‘We found it and stopped it,’ when we should have seen it coming years ago.” [Continue reading…]


Fed personnel agency admits history of security problems

The Associated Press reports: An Office of Personnel Management investigative official said Tuesday the agency entrusted with millions of personnel records has a history of failing to meet basic computer network security requirements.

Michael Esser, assistant inspector general for audit, said in testimony prepared for delivery that for years many of the people running the agency’s information technology had no IT background. He also said the agency had not disciplined any employees for the agency’s failure to pass numerous cyber security audits.

Esser and others were testifying Tuesday to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the cyber-theft of private information on millions of former and current federal employees, as well as U.S. security clearance holders, by hackers linked to China.

Officials fear that China will seek to gain leverage over Americans with access to secrets by pressuring their overseas relatives, particularly if they happen to be living in China or another authoritarian country. Over the last decade, U.S. intelligence agencies have sought to hire more people of Asian and Middle Eastern descent, some of whom have relatives living overseas. The compromise of their personal data is likely to place additional burdens on employees who already face onerous security scrutiny.

China denies involvement in the cyberattack that is being called the most damaging U.S. national security loss in more than a decade.

The potential for new avenues of espionage against the U.S. is among the most obvious repercussions of the pair of data breaches by hackers who are believed to have stolen personnel data on millions of current and former federal employees and contractors. [Continue reading…]


Snowden’s files and the files Snowden took: Is Glenn Greenwald playing dumb?

An article in Britain’s Sunday Times this weekend, claimed: “Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.”

Glenn Greenwald writes:

The government accusers behind this story have a big obstacle to overcome: namely, Snowden has said unequivocally that when he left Hong Kong, he took no files with him, having given them to the journalists with whom he worked, and then destroying his copy precisely so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable as he traveled. How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims — “his documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure ” — if he did not even have physical possession of them?

The only way this smear works is if they claim Snowden lied, and that he did in fact have files with him after he left Hong Kong.

In fact, the article says nothing about how the files were allegedly obtained by Russian and China, while Greenwald claims the only way they could have been accessed would be directly from Snowden.

Yet in 2013, Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.”

So aside from Snowden himself (who if taken at his word, no longer possesses the files) there many different people (we don’t know how many or who they all are) who also have or had the files.

Are we to assume that each and every one of them is an unfailing master of digital security and these files could never have been obtained by a third party?

In a world where a data security company like Kaspersky can get hacked, I wouldn’t put it outside the realms of possibility that by some means or other, Russia and/or China might have gained access to the files Snowden took.

There are, however, several reasons to question this report — not because it came from anonymous sources, or necessitates believing the Snowden has lied — but because had these sources been able to substantiate their claims with credible evidence, they would most likely have turned to a better newspaper.


Hackers gained access to records on ‘almost everybody who has got a United States security clearance’

The Associated Press reports: Hackers linked to China have gained access to the sensitive background information submitted by intelligence and military personnel for security clearances, U.S. officials said Friday, describing a cyberbreach of federal records dramatically worse than first acknowledged.

The forms authorities believed may have been stolen en masse, known as Standard Form 86, require applicants to fill out deeply personal information about mental illnesses, drug and alcohol use, past arrests and bankruptcies. They also require the listing of contacts and relatives, potentially exposing any foreign relatives of U.S. intelligence employees to coercion. Both the applicant’s Social Security number and that of his or her cohabitant is required.

In a statement, the White House said that on June 8, investigators concluded there was “a high degree of confidence that … systems containing information related to the background investigations of current, former and prospective federal government employees, and those for whom a federal background investigation was conducted, may have been exfiltrated.”

“This tells the Chinese the identities of almost everybody who has got a United States security clearance,” said Joel Brenner, a former top U.S. counterintelligence official. “That makes it very hard for any of those people to function as an intelligence officer. The database also tells the Chinese an enormous amount of information about almost everyone with a security clearance. That’s a gold mine. It helps you approach and recruit spies.” [Continue reading…]

Adrienne LaFrance writes: it is clear that large-scale data theft is a major problem facing the United States. It has happened before and it will happen again.

In 2012, Verizon said that “state-affiliated actors” made up nearly one-fifth of the successful breaches it recorded that year. In 2013, hackers stole data about more than 100,000 people from the Department of Energy’s network. Officials in the United State blame China for years-long hacking attempts against the Veteran Affairs Department that began as early as 2010 and compromised more than 20 million people’s personal information. And even though the Office of Personnel Management had been hacked before, it appears the agency continued to be astonishingly lax about its own security. [Continue reading…]


Stop using China as an excuse for inaction on climate change

George Monbiot writes: to suggest that China is an inherent and insuperable threat, as many of my correspondents do (mostly those who alternate between insisting that man-made climate change isn’t happening and insisting that we can’t do anything about it anyway), is grievously to misrepresent the people of that nation.

First, of course, much of its energy use is commissioned by other nations. As manufacturing has declined in countries like the US and Britain, and the workforce is mostly engaged in other activities, the fossil fuel burning caused by our consumption of stuff has shifted overseas, along with the blame. Even so, when China’s total greenhouse gas production is divided by its population, you discover that it is still producing much less per head than we are.

Partly as a result of a massive investment in renewables, the Chinese demand for coal dropped for the first time last year, and is likely to drop again this year. Perhaps because of the bureaucratic chaos of China’s centralised, unwieldy government, there is a gulf between the energy transition rapidly taking place within China and its negotiating positions in international meetings, which are “in the hands of completely different sets of bureaucrats.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise for those who unwittingly invoke the old Yellow Peril tropes is that the Chinese people care more about climate change than we do. A survey released on Monday reveals that 26% of respondents in the UK and 32% in the US believe that climate change is “not a serious problem”, while in China the figure is only 4%. In the UK, 7% don’t want their government to endorse any international agreement addressing climate change. In the US the proportion rises to 17%. But in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, only 1% want no action taken. [Continue reading…]


Hackers may have obtained names of Chinese with ties to U.S. government

The New York Times reports: Investigators say that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.

Federal employees who handle national security information are required to list some or all of their foreign contacts, depending on the agency, to receive high-level clearances. Investigators say that the hackers obtained many of the lists, and they are trying to determine how many of those thousands of names were compromised.

In classified briefings to members of Congress in recent days, intelligence officials have described what appears to be a systematic Chinese effort to build databases that explain the inner workings of the United States government. The information includes friends and relatives, around the world, of diplomats, of White House officials and of officials from government agencies, like nuclear experts and trade negotiators.[Continue reading…]


China’s greenhouse gas emissions likely to peak by 2025 or even earlier

China’s greenhouse gas emissions could peak more than five years earlier than expected, helping to avoid dangerous climate change, according to a new paper published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at London School of Economics and Political Science.

The authors of the paper, Fergus Green and Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, find that, although President Xi Jinping has agreed publicly to reduce emissions by 2030, China’s emissions will likely begin to decline by 2025.

Whereas coal consumption in China grew at around 9–10% per year in the first decade of this century, it fell in 2014 by nearly 3% according to recently released preliminary Chinese statistics, and fell even further in the first quarter of 2015. In our analysis of structural and cyclical trends in the electricity and industrial sectors, we conclude that China’s coal use has reached a structural maximum and is likely to plateau over the next five years. Though there are some structural risks of coal use increasing over this period, there are possibilities, in our view more likely, that it will continue to decline. Use of natural gas in these sectors will increase rapidly over the next 5–10 years, from a low base.

In the transport, sector, China’s oil consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are likely to continue growing over at least the next decade, from a relatively low base today, but existing and planned policy measures are likely to result in more moderate growth than commonly projected in many studies conducted over the past decade, with strong potential for future mitigation.

In light of Chinese economic and policy trends affecting the structure of the economy and the consumption of fossil fuels — particularly coal — across power generation, industry and transport, we conclude that the peak in China’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy, and in overall GHG emissions, is unlikely to occur as late as 2030, and more likely to occur by 2025. It could well occur even earlier than that.

This suggests that China’s international commitment to peak carbon dioxide emissions “around 2030” should be seen as a conservative “upper limit” from a government that prefers to under-promise and over-deliver. It is important that governments, businesses and citizens everywhere understand this fundamental change in China, reflect on their own ambitions on climate change, and adjust upwards expectations about the global market potential for low-carbon and environmental goods and services.

Were China’s emissions indeed to peak around 2020–2025, it would be reasonable to expect a peak emissions level for China of around 12.5–14 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This could hold open the possibility that global GHG emissions could be brought onto a pathway consistent with the international goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2°C. Whether the world can get onto that pathway in the decade or more after 2020 depends in significant part on China’s ability to reduce its emissions at a rapid rate, post-peak (as opposed to emissions plateauing for a long time), on the actions of other countries in the next two decades, and on global actions over the subsequent decades.


A picture of loneliness: You are looking at the last male northern white rhino


Jonathan Jones writes: What is it like to look at the very last of something? To contemplate the passing of a unique wonder that will soon vanish from the face of the earth? You are seeing it. Sudan is the last male northern white rhino on the planet. If he does not mate successfully soon with one of two female northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta conservancy, there will be no more of their kind, male or female, born anywhere. And it seems a slim chance, as Sudan is getting old at 42 and breeding efforts have so far failed. Apart from these three animals there are only two other northern white rhinos in the world, both in zoos, both female.

It seems an image of human tenderness that Sudan is lovingly guarded by armed men who stand vigilantly and caringly with him. But of course it is an image of brutality. Even at this last desperate stage in the fate of the northern white rhino, poachers would kill Sudan if they could and hack off his horn to sell it on the Asian medicine market.

Sudan doesn’t know how precious he is. His eye is a sad black dot in his massive wrinkled face as he wanders the reserve with his guards. His head is a marvellous thing. It is a majestic rectangle of strong bone and leathery flesh, a head that expresses pure strength. How terrible that such a mighty head can in reality be so vulnerable. It is lowered melancholically beneath the sinister sky, as if weighed down by fate. This is the noble head of an old warrior, his armour battered, his appetite for struggle fading. [Continue reading…]


Why Russia and China may fear the nuclear deal with Iran

Melik Kaylan writes: Today’s news that Iran’s navy impounded a Western ship illustrates the severe impediments to a nuke deal. With so much going against it, the most powerful argument for completing the agreement still hasn’t been uttered by anyone. Astonishing, you might think. Not really. The central figure on whose shoulders falls the task of selling it to Americans — President Obama — will not tell you. Arguably, he cannot. Meanwhile, his initiative has to survive incessant media barracking about centrifuge numbers, breakout thresholds, regional proliferation, threats to Israel, plausible monitoring and much else.

Even George W. Bush came out of obscurity this weekend to lend his threadbare authority to the naysaying chorus. He added, for good measure, that withdrawing from Iraq was a strategic mistake. It didn’t take long for the Twitterverse to respond that invading in the first place was the greater mistake. We won’t get into that here. Suffice to say that on George W.’s watch, Putin invaded Georgia, China became a global superpower, and Venezuela’s Chavez got a guarantee of security from the US in exchange for uninterrupted oil supplies. Obama’s soft approach to world affairs hasn’t righted things. But the proposed nuclear framework agreement with Iran may be his first big venture to do just that.

The clue — overwhelmingly conspicuous yet everyone ignores it — comes in the form of Russia and China’s reaction. I know something about this having published a book in September entitled “The Russia-China Axis.” When the preliminary stage of talks concluded positively, Moscow immediately announced an agreement to build 50 more nuclear power stations for Iran. This time around, they announced the sale of S-300 missiles.

As for China, here’s a statement by Iran’s official news agency about Beijing ramping up massive investments in Iranian oilfield development and the like. Subtract the propaganda and hyperbole and you still get a clear enough picture. China never abided by the sanctions, becoming Teheran’s main trading partner in recent years. In essence, the sanctions gave China exclusive access to cheap Iranian oil. Iran was among the first nations to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. And now as a possible lifting of sanctions looms, the Chinese are piling it on. [Continue reading…]


China is said to use powerful new weapon to censor internet

The New York Times reports: Late last month, China began flooding American websites with a barrage of Internet traffic in an apparent effort to take out services that allow China’s Internet users to view websites otherwise blocked in the country.

Initial security reports suggested that China had crippled the services by exploiting its own Internet filter — known as the Great Firewall — to redirect overwhelming amounts of traffic to its targets. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto say China did not use the Great Firewall after all, but rather a powerful new weapon that they are calling the Great Cannon.

The Great Cannon, the researchers said in a report published Friday, allows China to intercept foreign web traffic as it flows to Chinese websites, inject malicious code and repurpose the traffic as Beijing sees fit.

The system was used, they said, to intercept web and advertising traffic intended for Baidu — China’s biggest search engine company — and fire it at GitHub, a popular site for programmers, and GreatFire.org, a nonprofit that runs mirror images of sites that are blocked inside China. The attacks against the services continued on Thursday, the researchers said, even though both sites appeared to be operating normally.

But the researchers suggested that the system could have more powerful capabilities. With a few tweaks, the Great Cannon could be used to spy on anyone who happens to fetch content hosted on a Chinese computer, even by visiting a non-Chinese website that contains Chinese advertising content.

“The operational deployment of the Great Cannon represents a significant escalation in state-level information control,” the researchers said in their report. It is, they said, “the normalization of widespread and public use of an attack tool to enforce censorship.” [Continue reading…]


Dilip Hiro: Afghanistan’s China card

In June 2014, as he was preparing to send 300 U.S. military advisers back to Iraq, President Obama hailed the American counterterror campaign in Yemen — Special Operations advisers (and CIA operatives) on the ground, drones in the air — as a “model” for what he hoped to do against the Islamic State. In September, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post wrote, President Obama “cited his Yemen strategy as a template for confronting jihadist threats in other places, including Iraq and Syria.” He was still making reference to its “success” this January when discussing what had become Iraq War 3.0.

Last week, however, with al-Qaeda militants taking a nearby town, Washington withdrew its final 100 Special Operations advisers in Yemen from a southern air base where U.S. drones had been stationed and halted all military operations in the country. By then, the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, the capital, had been shuttered for a month. Meanwhile $500 million in U.S. weaponry had reportedly gone missing in that country and might be in the hands of almost anyone, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the terror franchise. That group had only grown stronger under years of American drone strikes.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now control the north of the country, including Sana’a, and recently seized its third largest city and headed south toward the port of Aden. Yemen seems at the edge of civil war and backers of the Islamic State may even have a foothold there. Strikes from U.S. drones based in Saudi Arabia, among other places, will undoubtedly continue, though assumedly with even less on-the-ground intelligence from Yemeni sources. In sum, as with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya, hopes in Washington that once were so high have been dashed. This is, by now, a commonplace experience:  the early moments of any U.S. military campaign seem so successful — and then, with the passage of time, the verdict comes in: another failure for the twenty-first-century American way of war.

Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro considers one of those failed efforts — in Afghanistan, where the planet’s former “sole superpower” now seems to be losing out not only to local Taliban militants, whose strength has been on the upswing, but to the power it may fear most: an economically rising China. In these years, from the Middle East to Africa, that country has had an uncanny ability to sweep up the imperial spoils, especially local energy resources, without sending a soldier into battle. Now, it seems, China may be in the process of doing just that in Afghanistan.

On this subject and the associated contest between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan, Hiro, whom Jeremy Scahill has called “the quintessential non-aligned journalist… the master chronicler of some of history’s most epic battles,” knows a thing or two. His monumental new book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan, is the first definitive history of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. With a desperate Obama administration struggling over just how many U.S. military personnel to leave in Afghanistan for how endlessly and fruitlessly long, it makes sense to put Washington’s perspective aside for a moment and try to get a bead on what’s really happening in South Asia and Afghanistan through a different lens. Tom Engelhardt

The Great Game in Afghanistan (twenty-first-century update)
And the U.S. is losing out
By Dilip Hiro

Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years — and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.

[Read more…]


Will big data allow China to create the perfect surveillance state?

James Palmer writes: On 5 July 2009, residents of Xinjiang, China’s far western province, found the internet wasn’t working. It’s a regular frustration in remote areas, but it rapidly became apparent that this time it wasn’t coming back. The government had hit the kill switch on the entire province when a protest in the capital Ürümqi by young Uighur men (of the area’s indigenous Turkic population) turned into a riot against the Han Chinese, in which at least 197 people were killed.

The shutdown was intended to prevent similar uprisings by the Uighur, long subjected to religious and cultural repression, and to halt revenge attacks by Han. In that respect, it might have worked; officially, there was no fatal retaliation, but in retrospect the move came to be seen as an error.

Speaking anonymously, a Chinese security advisor described the blackout as ‘a serious mistake… now we are years behind where we could have been in tracking terrorists’. Young Uighur learnt to see the internet as hostile territory – a lesson reinforced by the arrest of Ilham Tohti, a popular professor of economics, on trumped-up charges of extremism linked to an Uighur-language website he administered. ‘We turn off our phones before we talk politics’, a tech-savvy Uighur acquaintance remarked.

The Uighur continued to consume digital media, but increasingly in off-line form, whether viewing discs full of Turkish TV series or jihadist propaganda passed on memory sticks. Where once Chinese media reports claimed that arrested Uighur had been visiting ‘separatist’ websites, now they noted drawers full of burnt DVDs and flash drives.

A series of brutal terrorist attacks early in 2014 reinforced the lesson for the Chinese authorities; by driving Uighur off-line they had thrown away valuable data. Last summer, the Public Security University in Beijing began recruiting overseas experts in data analysis, including, I’m told, former members of the Israeli security forces.

In Xinjiang, tightened control means less information, and the Chinese government has always had a fraught relationship with information – private and public. Today, an explosion in available data promises to open up sources of knowledge previously tightly locked away. To some, this seems a shift toward democracy. But technocrats within the government also see it as a way to create a more efficient form of authoritarianism. [Continue reading…]


If you thought things were bad this year, wait until 2015

Tony Karon writes: Those in Washington nostalgic for the heady days of empire will proclaim 2014 as the year the Cold War resumed: Russia annexed Crimea and backed a secessionist movement in eastern Ukraine after its ally in Kiev was overthrown by a western-backed rebellion. Nato sounded dire warnings and its members imposed sanctions on Russia as the rhetoric on both sides turned decidedly old-school. US leaders berated Russian expansionism, while in Moscow the talk was about resisting Nato’s steady encirclement.

But the renewed US-Russia standoff is nothing remotely like the Cold War.

Geopolitical contests between Washington and Moscow dominated international affairs for the second half of the 20th century. The current Nato-Russia standoff, by contrast, is a petty regional conflict with scant effect on the rest of the world. As the Nato-Russia dispute simmered, the world pretty much got on with its own business – messy and chaotic as that business often was.

Sure, Moscow ended the year in financial turmoil as its currency plummeted, but that was largely a result of the global oil price being cut in half in a matter of six months.

And the fact that Moscow turned not to the International Monetary Fund when it needed to prop up the rouble but instead to China was a sign of just how much the global balance of economic power has changed.

Curiously enough, Barack Obama ended 2014 by finally telling Americans that more than a half-century of US- Cuba policy had failed, resuming diplomatic ties and easing the embargo.

Mr Obama’s decision is historic in US domestic politics, but it simply brings America into line with the rest of the world. The move won universal praise in Latin America, where governments have long maintained normal relations with Cuba and pressed the US to follow suit. Far from the US “backyard” of yore, Latin America today does more business with China, which has broken ground on an epic construction project to open a new transcontinental canal through Nicaragua. [Continue reading…]


Gmail access is blocked in China after months of disruption

The New York Times reports: The Chinese government appears to have blocked the ability of people in China to gain access to Google’s email service through third-party email clients, which many Chinese and foreigners had been relying on to use their Gmail accounts after an earlier blocking effort by officials, according to Internet analysts and users in China.

The blocking began last Friday and has ignited anger and frustration among many Internet users in China. Data from Google shows traffic to Gmail dropping to zero from Chinese servers.

The new step in blocking Gmail has consequences that go well beyond making it difficult for users to access personal emails. Some foreign companies use Gmail as their corporate email service, for example. Now, the companies will have to ensure that their employees have software known as VPNs, or virtual private networks, to access Gmail.

That software allows users to bypass the Chinese Internet censorship controls commonly known as the Great Firewall, but the authorities also attempt to inhibit the software.[Continue reading…]


Chinese viewers mostly give thumbs up for The Interview

The New York Times: Even before Americans began flocking to theaters on Christmas Eve to see “The Interview” — Sony Pictures’ comedy about a C.I.A. plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un — Chinese film fans by the thousands were downloading mostly pirated versions of the movie on domestic video-sharing websites. By midday on Friday, more than 300,000 people had seen the film and the reviews, by and large, were favorable.

“Perfect, the greatest film in history, all hail Sony,” read one online comment. Said another, “Their ability to amuse is out of this galaxy,” referring to the film’s stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco.

In one sign of the enthusiasm for the film, whose theatrical release was initially held up after a hacking attack on the studio, “The Interview” scored an 8.0 rating on the Chinese Internet movie database Douban, with more than 10,000 people posting reviews. In their comments, some people acknowledged having not seen the film, but wanted to show their support for what many approvingly described as an act of subversion against North Korea. [Continue reading…]


Why China celebrates Christmas

Robert Foyle Hunwick writes: There’s a joke going around: “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for presents, and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the chengguan. Therefore, no Christmas this year.”

While some of the humor needs context—there are digs at China’s notorious bystander effect and much-despised urban-management officials, chengguan — the larger meaning is clear. Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in communist China.

Retailers lead the way here: An annual spending season that once focused on Chinese New Year in the winter is now bloated and elongated, stretching from the invented Singles’ Day on November 11 through February, with Christmas as a kind of hump day. Even before December, shops, streets, and hotels begin filling with slightly off-kilter Yuletide scenes: performers in elf suits play traditional cymbals while a grinning plastic Santa Claus toots a saxophone outside his gingerbread cabin. Why the sax? Theorists point to everything from the instrument’s romantic associations with the avuncular Bill Clinton jamming on one in the 1990s, to the smooth alto-sax muzak that’s the preferred soundtrack of Santa’s typical dwelling, the shopping mall.

There’s no sign of Jesus, but in many big cities, you’re still more likely to see Father Christmas’s face than that of “Uncle” Xi Jinping, as state media has characterized the country’s president, presenting a homely, familial image that’s quite at odds with the repressive manner in which he’s coldly eliminated opponents. But Xi is not above the fray himself, visiting Santa’s official cabin in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2010.

The Western religious festival is so trendy, in fact, that it may be the second-most-celebrated festival in China after the Spring Festival among young Chinese, according to research conducted by the China Social Survey Institute (CSSI), which found that 15- to 45-year-olds are the most likely to observe it. [Continue reading…]


Chinese general anticipates North Korea’s ‘collapse’

The New York Times reports: When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

For decades China has stood by North Korea, and though at times the relationship has soured, it has rarely reached such a low point, Chinese analysts say. The fact that the commentary by Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of an important military region, was published in a state-run newspaper this month and then posted on an official People’s Liberation Army website attested to how much the relationship had deteriorated, the analysts say.

“China has cleaned up the D.P.R.K.’s mess too many times,” General Wang wrote in The Global Times, using the initials of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “But it doesn’t have to do that in the future.”

Of the government in North Korea, he said: “If an administration isn’t supported by the people, ‘collapse’ is just a matter of time.” Moreover, North Korea had violated the spirit of the mutual defense treaty with China, he said, by failing to consult China on its nuclear weapons program, which has created instability in Northeast Asia. [Continue reading…]