China hits back at US-led accusations over cyber attacks

China has challenged US-led accusations that Beijing was at the heart of a wave of global cyber attacks including an offensive against a Microsoft email application that affected tens of thousands of organisations.

Chinese diplomats in countries including the UK, Canada and New Zealand issued statements on Tuesday slamming the allegations as “groundless” and a “malicious smear”.

“China urges Canada to abandon its cold war mentality and ideological prejudice . . . stop political manipulation on relevant issues, and stop unprovoked attacks and deliberate slander against China,” said Beijing’s embassy in Ottawa.

Beijing’s sharp response followed a rare co-ordinated effort by the US, Nato, the EU, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. The western allies accused China of collaborating with criminal cyber gangs and compromising global security, including an attack on Microsoft’s Exchange application that allowed hackers to access the email systems of a wide range of private and public sector organisations.

The US also alleged that Beijing’s Ministry of State Security oversaw a sweeping campaign to infiltrate foreign companies, universities and government organisations throughout much of the 2010s.

The Global Times, a state-backed tabloid, accused US-based hackers of longstanding and repeated cyber attacks on Chinese companies, research institutes and Communist party departments. The nationalist paper alleged one US-based group called “A” launched so-called brute force attacks last October in a bid to remotely access servers from Chinese groups, including Chinese steel and car engine companies.

“All major countries occasionally suffer from cyber attacks and in this regard China has been harmed much more than the US,” it wrote in an editorial. 

“The US is forcibly creating a new area of geopolitics by turning an internet dispute into a major clash,” by roping in allies to frame China as a sinister actor, it added.

The co-ordinated effort followed a separate joint approach by the US, UK, the EU and Canada in March to impose sanctions against Chinese officials over the mass internment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Beijing retaliated with its own sanctions and the resulting diplomatic spat froze EU-China market-access negotiations.

The accusations over China’s alleged cyber activities came amid renewed signs of intensifying diplomatic hostilities between the world’s two biggest economies.

Washington and Beijing have not held top-level meetings since March, when talks in Alaska between Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Yang Jiechi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, ended acrimoniously.

Beijing this month refused to grant Wendy Sherman, US deputy secretary of state, a meeting with her counterpart in China when she visits Asia this week. China had previously rebuffed requests for Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, to meet General Xu Qiliang, China’s most senior military official.

The latest US-China stand-off has also emerged as Joe Biden seeks to step up engagement after months of pursuing a more hardline stance against the policies of Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

Despite those overtures, however, the Biden administration has continued to exert pressure over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong and policies that erode freedoms promised to financial hub following the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing

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