Why Would China Destroy the World Economy?

On Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a report on the U.S. National Security Agency that has been widely criticized for credulity, one-sidedness, mud-slinging and an alleged conflict of interest. At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf focuses on accusations regarding China’s cyberwar plans and abilities:

There’s a lot of sly hedging in there, but the impression 60 Minutes leaves its viewers with is unmistakable: that China has the capability and intention to destroy every computer in the world, but the NSA stopped its dastardly plot, averting the possible collapse of the United States economy, or perhaps the world economy.

But wait just a minute.

Why would China want to bring about global economic collapse?

As Marcy Wheeler notes:

If that happened, it’d mean a goodly percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people would go hungry, which would lead to unbelievable chaos in China, which would mean the collapse of the state in China, the one thing the Chinese elite want to prevent more than anything. But the NSA wants us to believe that this was actually going to happen. That China was effectively going to set off a global suicide bomb. Strap on the economy in a cyber-suicide vest and… KABOOOOOOOM! And the NSA heroically thwarted that attack. That’s what they want us to believe and some people who call themselves reporters are reporting as fact. [Source]

In a broader critique at The Guardian, Spencer Ackerman suggested that the capability was as implausible as the intention:

In 2004, for instance, Berkeley computer-science researcher Nicholas Weaver analyzed vulnerabilities to self-replicating malicious network attacks, including BIOS vulnerabilities, and concluded that a “worst-case worm” could cause “$50bn or more in direct economic damage”. That’s a lot, but not enough to “literally take down” the US economy.

[…] The lack of specificity made cybersecurity expert Robert David Graham dubious that the plot NSA claimed to discover matched the one it described on TV. “All they are doing is repeating what Wikipedia says about BIOS,” Graham blogged, “acting as techie talk layered onto the discussion to make it believable, much like how Star Trek episodes talk about warp cores and Jeffries Tubes.” [Source]

Last week, China denied less far-fetched claims that it had spied on European diplomats: Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei accused U.S. computer security firms of “playing up the so-called cyberthreat […] to gain attention with fake facts.”