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Xi Jinping’s Superpower Ambitions: Understanding China’s Cyber-Attack on the Electoral Commission

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The West has, for some time, been vulnerable to malicious Chinese cyber-attacks. China’s hacking of the UK Electoral Commission brought this issue to greater prominence in the UK. Arden’s Patrick Marsh reflects on Xi Jinping’s geo-strategic logic and explores how Britain may respond in the coming years.

The nature of the UK and the West’s relationships with China will be the defining foreign policy challenge of the next decade and beyond. Whoever wins the next UK election will need to arrive at a coherent strategic posture. 

China’s ability to penetrate British democracy is clear. Back in August 2021 the UK’s election watchdog, the Electoral Commission, was the victim of a complex cyber-attack leaving up to 40 million voters’ data compromised, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers. 

Oliver Dowden responded to this by sanctioning two individuals, Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin, as well as a company associated with the cybergroup APT31, which is linked to the Chinese Ministry of State Security. More China-sceptic UK Parliamentarians have called for the government to go further, labelling China a ‘threat’ instead of an ‘epoch-defining challenge’, the Labour Opposition have focused on ensuring the UK’s elections are not at risk of foreign interference.     

But this event cannot be seen in isolation. This is just one of many orchestrated attacks from China in the last few years, all of which have exploited UK vulnerabilities. By attacking Britain’s democratic institutions, China has again flexed its muscles. How the West responds will impact on China’s next move.

Chinese hybrid-warfare

Whether framing China’s digital malevolence as ‘hybrid’ warfare, ‘grey zone’ warfare, or simply a modern version of grand strategy, Chinese military thinking now relies heavily on non-kinetic tactics to achieve its geopolitical ambitions. These include a mixture of economic and diplomatic pressure, information warfare, psychological manipulation, and as discussed here, cyber-warfare. Xi Jinping believes squeezing several different pressure points simultaneously removes an opponent’s ability to respond. He has demonstrated this with striking efficiency in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, a clear display of such tactics. 

To this end, China has long been linked to state sponsored cyber-espionage, and their capability is constantly evolving. By finding weaknesses in their targets’ systems and software, operatives can infiltrate sensitive environments and extract valuable information.  

The hack on the Electoral Commission shows exactly this. By gaining unauthorised access to their database, personal details of over half of the UK’s population are now in the hands of the Chinese state.  

Superpower ambitions with Chinese characteristics

You may be asking yourself, why does China want this information – is it simply agitating, or are there more sinister motives? 

Take a step back and China’s geopolitical logic appears more transparent: Xi Jinping has superpower ambitions, and by conducting multiple cyber-operations across the globe without inviting meaningful responses he has managed to push the boundaries even further of what is tolerated deep inside of Western jurisdictions. 

In the words of political scientist and international relations theorist John J. Mearsheimer  

“The aim of states is to be the biggest and baddest dude on the block because if you’re the biggest and baddest dude on the block, then it is highly unlikely any other state will challenge you”. 

China is flexing its ability to do as it pleases. What makes this challenge particularly difficult to deal with is the lack of international coherence on how to respond to cyber-attacks. Naturally, a conventional threat would be met with a conventional response. But responding decisively to an incursion by an unseen army, stealing invisible data, is more difficult.  

Xi Jinping is taking advantage with alacrity to project power globally without meaningful consequence. And we shouldn’t expect him to stop here. 

How should the UK respond?

The fact the UK publicly exposed China as the guilty entity for these attacks was a positive first step. Too often cyber-attacks occur without those responsible being revealed owing to their discreet nature. Here should be a more coherent set of red lines and practical responses that democratic nations cooperatively adhere to. A similar posture is already in place for expelling undisclosed intelligence agents after high profile violations, which has seen the UK’s allies jointly expel Russian agents across multiple nations for Moscow’s physical activities in the UK.  

It is also clear the UK needs to place even greater emphasis on improving its cyber-resilience, particularly on critical infrastructure and democratic institutions. With the increase in defence spending up to 2.5% being backed by both major UK parties, a significant proportion of any uplift should be targeted at advanced data protection, cyber-defence, and research into developing our own cyber capabilities. Modern threats require up-to-date responses.  

We should not underestimate the continued malevolent attempts to shape our democracy. Counterintuitively it is largely down to the antiquated way in which the UK conducts our elections that the election count itself is likely immune from interference. We vote with paper and pencil, local constituency results are emailed and phoned into the election authorities, and there is no central count to be manipulated as there is in many Presidential systems. All of this means that the Electoral Commission has deemed an election altering cyber-attack unlikely. However, its abundantly obvious that multiple State actors will seek to influence the tone and texture of the upcoming UK election as a means of engendering greater polarisation.  

Xi Jinping’s geopolitical ambitions remain a widely debated topic, but what is beyond doubt is that China is intent on following a more assertive position towards the West, including the UK. No matter who wins the upcoming UK and US elections, much of both government’s strategic foreign policy thinking will be about calibrating the correct posture towards China. There’s no time to waste. 

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