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China's leadership shakeup: Am I an unfortunate casualty?

I've been trying – and trying – to reinstall software I need to freely access the Web in China. I increasingly suspect I'm doing battle with state-sponsored hackers ahead of the sensitive party congress.

By Staff writer / October 30, 2012



Beijing

Take me back to the days of carrier pigeons and cleft sticks.

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Beijing Bureau Chief

Peter Ford is The Christian Science Monitor’s Beijing Bureau Chief. He covers news and features throughout China and also makes reporting trips to Japan and the Korean peninsula.

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I have just spent an entire day wrestling with my computer and my Internet connection, and I have a strong suspicion that I have been wrestling too, at a distance, with an agent of the Chinese government who has been doing his or her best to frustrate me.

In order to access the Web freely from China, you need what is called a Virtual Private Network, which jumps the Great Firewall erected by Chinese censors. Mine expired the other day, so I needed to re-install it. 

That proved unusually difficult, even with online help from the company selling me the VPN, and it became clear that something was just not right.

My suspicions were heightened by the fact that I, like many other journalists, have recently received emails with Trojan horse malware (malicious code that looks like a legitimate file but in fact gives a hacker access to a computer) in their attachments. Cyber analysts who inspected them have warned that the attachments appear to come from state-sponsored hackers. 

Google has also informed me in a banner appearing on my Gmail account that it suspects "state-sponsored" hackers have been trying to penetrate my account. 

The last time this happened to me was during the Tibetan riots in 2008, when the authorities were very, very nervous about foreign journalists and began interfering directly with our communications. (That is over and above the normal surveillance to which our emails and phone calls are subject.)

Today we are at another highly sensitive political juncture, 10 days away from the 18th congress of the ruling Communist Party, which is due to anoint a new generation of leaders. But there are signs of a continuing power struggle at the very top of the party, suggesting that the government system is a good deal less stable than Beijing would like us to believe.

There came a moment this afternoon, when the VPN would not install, when a Microsoft update would not install, and when a virus detector would not install, that I came to believe I was in direct contact with my persecutor.

I was on the “Sophos” virus detector’s webpage, seeking to download the tool. Each time I clicked on “download,” I got the standard message when the censors have banned a site: “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage.” But the page itself was not blocked and after a few tries I found I was being cut off even before my cursor reached the “download” button.

It was just as if somebody was watching my screen and interrupting me as I was on the point of doing what I wanted to.

I have no idea how possible this is, but tend to take the advice of my Chinese assistant. “There is nothing a hacker cannot do,” she has decided. “Why don’t you try again when ‘they’ have gone off duty?”

So I’ll be back in the office at midnight, and hope that “they” do not work 24/7…

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