December 2, 2019 / by Pieter Verstraete

Pieter Verstraete in financial newspaper ‘De Tijd’: “Our China paranoia is blinding us”

China reporting in Belgium always seems to swing wildly between two extremes: embarrassing naiveté or hot-headed paranoia.  This is the English translation of the opinion piece  ‘ We laten ons verblinden door paranoia over China’ published in the Belgian financial newspaper ‘De Tijd’ on 28 November 2019. 

 Belgium’s initial enthusiasm about its latest big trade mission to China was already cooling the day after it ended (November 24, 2019) due to an alleged “mass hack” on Belgian targets in China. ‘135 cyber attacks per hour’, a Belgian daily headlined. ‘The Chinese waged cyber attacks on Belgian trade mission on a massive scale’, Belgium’s Dutch-language public broadcaster, VRT, said.

As someone who has been working in China for over a decade and has set up collaborations between Chinese and European companies, all I could do was sigh deeply while reading sensational press like that.

Without getting into the particular bits and bytes: it’s hard to prove that the cyber attack in question was intentional. The Internet is teeming with thousands of automated programs that are constantly scouring it for weak points to enter. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese computers with pirated copies of Windows are acting as a botnet zombie army. Open up your laptop in a Beijing hotel lounge: congratulations, you’ve painted a target on your forehead.

VRT reported about broadcasting antennas being set up in the hotel’s neighborhood. But why would the Chinese intelligence services, even if what was going on was, in fact, a premeditated cyber attack and even if they were the ones behind it, do this? China’s intelligence bureau already has complete access to all of China’s telecom networks. An action like that would be testament to a comical form of incompetence.

On the other hand, there is no cause to be naïve, and I wouldn’t be surprised if evidence would emerge that hacking attempts had been made. I would be similarly unsurprised if the Russian government or American intelligence services would try the same. That is simply today’s reality. China’s intelligence services are perfectly capable of hacking foreign dignitaries’ computers and phones, but if they did, there should be proof. Would they really be so incompetent as to leave easily identifiable breadcrumbs that could be traced back to their own government?

Puppets

Of course, a headline like ‘we may have been hacked and we don’t know who did it’ is not very sexy. An investigation will hopefully shed more light on this question. However, the true is how much eagerness there is to portray China as dangerous and unreliable. Especially how China is equated to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how “the Chinese” as a whole act as a stand-in for the CCP. ‘Why do the Chinese want to hack our trade mission’, VRT asks. Note: the Chinese, not just ‘a Chinese person’ or ‘a Chinese gang’. Xi Jinping’s 1.4 billion puppets, so to speak.

Another implicit message in such articles is that it’s better for Belgians to stay out of China and that doing business with Chinese companies and investors is suspect by definition – a form of cavorting with the enemy. Even if a hack did take place and it does have the fingerprints of China’s policymakers all over it, then Chinese intelligence is to blame. 94% of China’s population is not a member of the CCP and an even smaller part of the remaining 6% is involved with national intelligence.

Consider that the notion that Xi Jinping is pulling the strings of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens is as ludicrous as it would be for a Chinese person to believe Belgian businesspeople are taking marching orders from Belgium’s Prime Minister or that they are eager to serve the Belgian king.

Caricatures

The reality is that Chinese businesspeople who work with Belgian entrepreneurs in China or Belgium do business with us because they want to – and vice versa. The lion’s share of China’s business world simply wants to earn money, just like us. To turn our back on the gigantic growth market China represents, along with its fast-paced technological developments going on their now, would be cutting of our nose to spite our face. Doubly so if it’s based on fact-free fear-mongering.

We need to be pragmatic. Collaborating with Chinese companies doesn’t mean we (implicitly) approve of Xi Jinping’s policies. It could, however, result in strong long-term business relationships that could be beneficial for both Belgian and Chinese entrepreneurs. But we’ll never get there if we keep letting caricatures determine our vision on China and if we keep putting in our heads into the Belgian sand.

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