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.

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

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…

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to China's leadership shakeup: Am I an unfortunate casualty?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today