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Authoritarian governments often hack into U.S. computer systems, but it’s rare for Americans to learn exactly what those adversaries do with the information they steal. No one knows exactly how China will use the confidential personnel records of 20 million federal employees, or Vladimir Putin’s plans for Hillary Clinton’s emails.
But we now have one example, thanks to a New York Times report on the arrest in China of a Swede who ran a nongovernmental group training Chinese lawyers and judges hoping to build an independent judiciary:
“On the 10th day of Peter Dahlin’s captivity in a secret Beijing jail, Chinese state security officers sprang one of their big surprises—something he found even more astonishing than hearing a colleague being beaten in a room above his cell.
“They showed him a document about the organization he had started. . . . It appeared to have been prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is largely funded by the U.S. Congress.”
The NED internal document, written for the endowment’s top officials, described the programs run by Mr. Dahlin’s China Urgent Action Working Group. Mr. Dahlin told the Times he had never seen the document before: “I realized it must have come straight from NED itself somehow.” His interrogators also showed him emails sent and received by his colleagues.
The target was well chosen by a regime so insecure it must suppress any effort to hold the ruling Communist Party accountable. President Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy in a speech to the British Parliament in 1982, proposing it as a way “to foster the infrastructure of democracy” around the world.
Mr. Dahlin is the only foreigner so far jailed in President Xi Jinping’s campaign against China’s human-rights lawyers. In an unprecedented crackdown, Beijing has arrested hundreds of lawyers for bringing cases to challenge the actions of Communist officials. Mr. Dahlin said his interrogators seemed chiefly interested in how nongovernmental organizations like his operate, “how international funding operates, how you transfer funds, what’s the project plan.” He added: “They’re basically trying to understand this field so they can counter it.”
This case suggests a shift in China’s hacking strategy. Beijing has gone from amassing huge amounts of communications to deploying the information for its own ends. Most notably, Mr. Dahlin’s case shows that Beijing has decided it is sometimes even worth disclosing sources and methods. By showing it has access to U.S. documents, Beijing sends the message to other reformers in China that they too can be called in any time and accused of “endangering national security.”
Mr. Xi, who took office in 2012, has taken the harshest line against critics since Mao. A law passed in April that goes into effect next year puts the 7,000 nongovernment organizations operating in China under the control of the Ministry of Public Security and requires them to find a local “sponsor.”
Mr. Dahlin was jailed for three weeks and forced to read false confessions for broadcast on China’s state-run television, CCTV—the same official Communist Party broadcaster allowed to air on U.S. cable and satellite systems.
Another coerced CCTV confession was extracted from Lam Wing-Kee, one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers who were taken over the border last year to be jailed in the mainland for selling books critical of Chinese officials. Beijing had denied snatching the men, but Mr. Lam last month confirmed that he had been forced out of Hong Kong against his will. “As a Hong Konger, I’m used to being a free man,” he said, explaining why he disclosed China’s abduction, which violates international law and Beijing’s promise to preserve Hong Kong’s freedom under the rubric “one country, two systems” when Britain gave up sovereignty in 1997.
Beijing has every reason to assume it will pay no price for its actions. The American Bar Association last year withdrew its offer to publish a book by Chinese lawyer Teng Biao, who was forced to emigrate to the U.S. after numerous arrests and beatings. The ABA told him in an email that it wouldn’t publish his “Darkness Before Dawn” because “there is concern that we run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government by publishing your book.” The association tried to explain away its shameful action as a business decision, but Beijing got the message that thuggish tactics work, even for associations that ostensibly exist to defend the rule of law.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, remains passive in response to China’s unprecedented cyberattacks. Mr. Dahlin won’t be the last victim.