Quick takes // By Ben FrankelChina syndrome: a giant sucking sound

Published 30 January 2012

Discussions of cyber warfare typically focus on the threat posed by terrorists or nation-states to U.S. critical infrastructure – power grid, water systems, financial institutions, etc.; three former high-level U.S. security officials argue that the threat of China’s economic cyber espionage looms even more ominously; the former officials say the evidence is irrefutable: China intends to help build its economy by industrial espionage and theft “rather than by innovation and investment in research and development (two strong suits of the U.S. economy)”

Here is the opening paragraph of a story we wrote more than four years ago (16 November 2007):

During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, Ross Perot said that if the proposed North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were to go into effect, we would all be hearing a “giant sucking sound” made by millions of U.S. jobs heading south for Mexico. There is a new giant sucking sound being heard: That of American and European trade secrets, patents, and other pieces of intellectual property being brazenly and systematically stolen by China in its effort to short-cut its way to global economic pre-eminence.

We went on to quote the 2007 annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which stated that China’s massive, all-embracing, methodical, and relentless industrial espionage and theft campaign poses the “single greatest risk” to the American technology sector (see HSNW story).

In its report, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission accused Beijing of pursuing an aggressive spying program to acquire critical U.S. technology and adopting “destructive” tactics, including cyber attacks, to target American infrastructure. “Chinese military strategies have embraced destructive warfare techniques, including the use of cyber attacks (which) if carried out strategically on a large scale could have catastrophic effects on the target countries’ critical infrastructure,” the panel reported. “Chinese espionage activities in the United States are so extensive that they comprise the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies.”

By the time our story was published in November 2007, we had already been writing for more than a year about how the U.S. and Western European governments were becoming aware that the Chinese government had instructed its sprawling intelligence community to engage in methodical industrial espionage campaign against American and European companies in order to steal these companies technologies and hand them over to Chinese companies (note: many of these companies are owned, directly or indirectly, by the People’s Liberation Army or the Chinese intelligence services).

There were so many examples of this growing Chinese industrial espionage campaign, and of the threat that campaign posed, that we began to use a header to highlight these stories: “China syndrome.”

In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, three former U.S. security officials voice similar concerns. The writers of the article are Mike McConnell, a retired Navy vice admiral and former director of the National Security Agency (1992-96) and director of