Are Chinese Bloggers America’s Accidental Spies?http://www.wired.com/
On Dec. 22, 2010, someone apparently pointed a cellphone out of the window of a car driving along a public road outside the perimeter of a military airfield in Chengdu, an industrial city in central China. The person holding the phone, whose name has never been revealed, snapped a photo of a black-painted jet fighter taxiing through fog blanketing the airfield.
With that simple act, the photographer appeared to outperform the $80-billion-a-year U.S. spy community, which has the advantage of a plethora of drones, satellites, hackers and old-fashioned human spies. The snapshot was the first hard evidence of China’s very first “fifth-generation” stealth fighter, the J-20 — and it seemed to come as a surprise to some Pentagon analysts. “We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery and initial operational capability of Chinese technology weapons systems,” Vice Adm. David Dorsett said.
In 2009, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had predicted that China would “have no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020.” Granted, Gates might have meant operational fifth-generation aircraft. All the same, the J-20′s appearance years ahead of schedule was a dramatic demonstration of China’s rapidly expanding aerospace prowess. And discovering it was also a signature achievement by a relatively unknown group of Chinese internet users whose military-technology fandom is having a profound effect on the most important strategic rivalry of the early 21st century.
The Chinese fanboys, who post rumors, photos and snippets of technical data to a wide range of blogs and forums, are America’s de-facto spies in China, hoovering up information on Beijing’s latest planes, ships, missiles and ground vehicles and making it widely available to U.S. analysts, journalists, military planners and policymakers. These “accidental spies” are also the subject of my feature in the new Pacific Standard magazine. (Danger Room’s own Spencer Ackerman is also a contributor.)
The Chengdu snapshot’s roundabout journey from the photographer’s cellphone to computer screens in the United States is typical of the postings from these Chinese forum members. The photog uploaded the J-20 shot to an obscure military forum apparently hosted inside the firewalled Chinese internet. That’s where one prominent, U.S.-based Chinese forum member found the photo. This person, whose name I agreed not to mention, uploaded it to Top81, a popular forum that includes an English-language extension that is easily accessible by foreigners.
On Christmas Day 2010, Bill Sweetman, one of the world’s leading aviation journalists, noticed the photo at Top81 and, appreciating its significance, linked to it at Ares, the website of Defense Technology International magazine. Sweetman’s link spawned countless other links. There were skeptics, at first. But within a few days the J-20 was featured in newspaper headlines all over the Western world. Shortly thereafter Dorsett admitted the Pentagon was behind the curve.
It’s not actually certain that the fanboys are better spies than the Pentagon’s, CIA’s and NSA’s professional spooks. It’s possible that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army controls the trickle of information to the forums, and by extension to Western audiences — making the fanboys more propagandists than spooks.
Indeed, some forum members admit to belonging to the “50-cent club,” named after the bounty the PLA pays for each reposting of information the military quietly disseminates. Other forum-goers are given access to military facilities or alerted to forthcoming weapons tests at sites that are calculated to be just barely visible to the curious public.
As I explain in Pacific Standard, some forum members are apparently straight-up government mouthpieces or counter-intelligence operatives, willingly repeating government talking points in pursuit of some sinister agenda. Tellingly, the J-20 first flew on Jan. 11 (depicted in the video), during an official visit to China by Gates and other top Pentagon officials. It’s likely the J-20′s debut was timed to embarrass the American defense secretary.
Equally, the PLA could be using the forums to compensate for its own poorly developed public-affairs apparatus. There’s an expectation of official secrecy in China that can be counterproductive to Beijing’s own goals. Inasmuch as the PLA has an interest in being respected for its military capabilities, it could rely on the forum members to paint a believable portrait of those capabilities.
In that way, China’s accidental spies might also be its accidental diplomats.