Cyber hype: Obama forsakes Confucius, embraces Jack Bauer

By Xi Peixi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 15, 2013
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Recent hype in the Obama administration over alleged cyber attacks originating from China signals the return of classical American political mobilization and fear mongering. This is not a new topic for the world audience. Stirring up resentment of China is not a new American strategy. The cyber attack narrative is an abstract one, told primarily through private media channels. This gives anti-China spin doctors abundant room to create their carefully crafted message.

This new wave of anti-China rhetoric had its dress rehearsal during the Huawei-ZTE congressional hearing back in September 2012.

For instance, when the Chinese Huawei company was accused of stealing commercial secrets from Cisco and Motorola, Huawei’s senior vice president Charles Ding replied that such accusations were groundless and the lawsuits ended either with Huawei as a winner or with the other side dropping all charges.

An investigative report released by the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2012 had to use speculative words like “China has the means, opportunity, and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes” to block Chinese companies’ access to the American market.

Apart from business considerations and a gaping inability for the U.S. to differentiate between business policy and foreign policy, hostile anti-Chinese rhetoric serves to bridge the divide between American Democrats and Republicans. President Obama introduced alleged fears over Chinese cyber security during his second presidential inauguration.

Obama has so far failed in his attempt to create a new “Sputnik moment,” wherein both the American media and public react to a perceived foreign threat. Sputnik was the world’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. The United States responded by investing heavily in research, education and science, culminating in the creation of the Internet and a wide array of various innovative technologies. The Soviet Union was unable to keep pace with U.S. technological advances, and eventually collapsed under its own weight.

Listing off the achievements made by China in education and research investment, solar technology and high-speed rail construction, President Obama proposed a new Sputnik moment slogan on December 6, 2010, in a speech delivered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The U.S. president emphasized that ideological differences should not get in the way of Democrats and Republicans making the American economy more competitive.

The same metaphor was used by Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, when describing China’s triumphs in economic sectors. “Two years ago, China produced 5 percent of the world’s solar panels. Today they produce 60 percent. We’re not even in the game. We invented this technology at the Bell Laboratories 50 years ago. We don’t have one company in the top 10 companies of the world. Shame on us,” he said.

But the political metaphor failed to gain traction and never triggered any kind of media or public support. In truth, it cast China in a positive light and made the U.S. look akin to the former Soviet Union. After all, China is now investing heavily in research and education. This is a good thing. Education is a symbol of cultural icon Confucius and is valued by all Chinese people.

President Obama knows pretty well why the United States has been successful. Instead of citing from Obama’s speech, let us echo the observations made by one of the world’s most respected social scientists, Manuel Castells. He regards the American university system as the source of knowledge and innovation, and as “the real American superiority.” He lists the flexibility, autonomy, decentralized management, cooperation between faculty and graduate students in the graduate programs, intellectual openness, resistance to endogamy, and commitment to academic values and excellence above anything else.

Obama took pride in the same thing and attempted to instill confidence in American people, revive a fledging tradition of innovation, and justify investment in the American future. He also kicked off the 100,000 Strong Initiative, sending American students to study in China. To summarize, Obama revealed a Confucius-like personality in part of his Chinese strategy during his first term in office.

But his political metaphor of a new Sputnik moment did not trickle down into the hearts of the American public, even though he repeated the slogan during the 2011 State of Union Address. The American model of political mobilization differs from the Chinese one. Chinese politicians can rely on official media to publicize political slogans ranging from “scientific outlook on development” by the Hu-Wen administration to “Chinese dream” by the newly-installed Xi-Li administration. However, American politicians lack official media channels and have to pander to the commercial media in order to receive coverage.

After surviving the 2012 general election, President Obama shifted his strategy and ushered in a sensational new political talking point: cyber security. He exaggerated in his 2013 State of Union Address that foreign countries and companies steal American corporate secrets, American enemies are seeking the ability to sabotage America’s power grid, financial institutions, and air traffic control systems, and he signed a new executive order to strengthen cyber defenses. He called for the Congress to pass new legislation as well.

The topic of cyber security has accelerated and now plays a role during the highest-level diplomatic exchanges. Security firm pioneer Kevin Mandia, Attorney General Eric Holder, national security advisor Thomas Donilon, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Obama himself all voiced concerns over the alleged Chinese threat. President Obama also summoned 13 influential corporate CEOs for solutions.

The U.S. is playing hardball with China, and this game often is played for keeps. The obvious reason is that it plays to the American psychological need of an evil Chinese image, hiding behind computer screens stealing American secrets, poised ready to implement an immediate attack on critical American infrastructure, and constituting a clear and present danger. In contrast to this narrative, the Chinese image behind the new Sputnik moment slogan is so peaceful and positive, and this does not fit the American stereotype about China.

Meanwhile, Obama made concessions to the security-obsessed Republicans by agreeing to expand American cyber security. He therefore found a way to dance with Republicans, commercial media, and the public: appealing to their fear. This has been a typical American model for political mobilization, compatible with Hollywood drama narratives. Obama has acquired a divine God-like image leading the bewildered American public to stand up against threats from “Communist China.” He resembles the heroic character Jack Bauer from the television series 24 Hours, who saves Americans from nuclear and chemical attacks.

But there is a difference. President Obama is handling cyber attack threats, not nuclear ones. How to bridge the difference? The American elite have been very skillful in this. They have already matched the seriousness of cyber attacks with nuclear ones. The Panetta-led Pentagon has long drawn a parallel between the two by saying that cyber threats have potential consequences similar to the nuclear threat from the Cold War. Thomas Rid wrote in a Foreign Policy article: “The world has yet to witness a single casualty, let alone fatality, as a result of a computer attack” and “such statements are a plain insult to survivors of Hiroshima.”

The most ironic thing that the Obama leadership had not come to realize is that the drama-saturated narratives they conjured up clash with reality in the most miserable way: both the solely confirmed state-sponsored cyber attack and the solely confirmed nuclear attack in the world were made by the United States. Offensive defense like this will turn the world upside down.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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