This is How a Bloody U.S.-China War Could Start

A cyber clash escalates to real war.

Editor's note: The following is a translation of Chapter 14 of the book If the U.S.and China Go to War假如中美开战 by the author and analyst Chen Pokong. The current volume was published in Chinese in 2013 and was later translated to Japanese.

The chapter sketches the hypothetical beginnings of a conflict scenario between the United States and China. In it, the U.S. responds to provocative Chinese cyberattacks by launching one of its own, tearing down the Great Firewall. In response, Chinese authorities clamp down Internet access completely, which America quickly responds to. Ultimately, regime-organized street violence endangers the lives of American consular staff, and U.S.-China relations quickly descend from the current modus vivendi to outright hostilities.

While both the United States and China can be expected to avoid going to war, it’s by no means difficult to imagine a scenario in which such a war might break out. Let’s consider such a development from the perspective of a young Chinese computer technician named Xiaolu:

After returning home from work one Friday evening, Xiaolu follows his usual practice of turning on his home computer and preparing to access his favorite overseas websites through proxies that will help him break through the Chinese government’s internet firewall. To his great surprise, he finds himself able to freely browse the Voice of America website without a proxy. He tries the BBC Chinese-language website, and then Radio Free Asia, Epoch Times, Boxun, the Chinese-language websites of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. . . surfing all of them with ease, he wonders if there’s some bizarre fluke in the system. He quickly telephones a friend and tells him to give it a try, and the friend reports the same experience. Overjoyed, Xiaolu contacts all of his friends and tells them to log onto the internet as fast as they can.

The situation continues the next day, and China’s streets and microblogs are abuzz with the news. People wonder if the Chinese government has suddenly decided to lift its internet blockade, and if this means political reform has also been launched.

Xiaolu stays glued to the internet all the next day and evening, too excited to sleep until he finally drifts off near dawn. By the time he awakens, the sun is high and the clock shows that noon is approaching. Luckily it’s still the weekend, and Xiaolu doesn’t need to be at work. Rolling groggily out of bed, he slouches over to his computer and goes online again, only to see a blank wall. Not only the foreign websites, but even China-based websites have disappeared and have been replaced with a uniform message of “Page not found.” Shocked, disheartened and angry, Xiaolu wonders what happened. He turns on his television just in time to hear a CCTV presenter read out this news bulletin:

“The United States has used the pretext of alleged Chinese hacker attacks on American websites to blame on the Chinese government and People’s Liberation Army. These baseless accusations originate from the pathological fantasies of certain individuals in the United States, and we have always categorically refuted them. The United States is now using the pretext of ‘freedom of information’ to interfere with China’s normal internet operations and oversight. This is a genuine cyberattack and a blatant cyberinvasion. It is a plot to overturn the Chinese government.

Interfering with and sabotaging China’s internet is a brazen violation of Chinese sovereignty and dignity. It is a last-ditch effort by American hegemonism to obstruct China’s rise following its failure to impose ‘peaceful evolution.’”

Xiaolu now understands that his earlier access to overseas websites was due to the United States playing a technological wild card that destroyed China’s internet blockade. His current inability to go online is due to the Chinese government taking the drastic step of cutting off all internet access after losing its “Great Firewall” to America’s technical superiority.

Through his shortwave radio, Xiaolu hears an announcement by the U.S. government:

“Safeguarding freedom of expression and freedom of information is a universal value. The United States of America firmly upholds the Chinese people’s freedom of information, the deprivation of which is an infringement of fundamental human rights. . . .”

Related reports and discussion show that the cyber operation, codenamed “Airborne Freedom” and launched by the United States, is in fact retaliation for a cyberattack by China. China has for some time been carrying out cyberattacks and cyberespionage against U.S.-based websites, and repeated warnings from Washington to end the attacks have met with only temporary pullbacks by Beijing, followed by renewed onslaughts. Reaching the end of its patience, the United States has finally decided to take action, and a full-scale cyberwar has been launched between China and the United States.

With internet access cut off, Chinese netizens begin taking to the street to express their indignation, their eyes directed straight forward or upward to signify their silent protest. The Chinese government issues an announcement: “The relevant departments have cut off internet access only as a temporary measure and as the only option. The United States, which launched a cyberattack to interfere with and sabotage normal internet operations in China, must take full responsibility.”

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