China fears cyberattacks because it is creating cutting-edge technology that others will want to steal, says its envoy to Canada, a rebuttal of the widely held view that the country is a leader in internet espionage.
Canada and China recently agreed to stop state-sponsored hacking of each other's trade secrets and business information, but experts say the deal is unverifiable and potentially meaningless.
Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, says the new arrangement with Canada was necessary for his government to protect its own business interests.
"China is technically advanced now and we are afraid that our things will be stolen by others," Lu said through a translator in an interview with The Canadian Press.
China's innovators are making great strides in quantum communications, supercomputing, and other information technology, he continued.
Last year, China launched a large satellite to support quantum communications, which New Scientist magazine describes as "a form of secure communication in which the laws of quantum mechanics prevent eavesdroppers from snooping in."
China steadfastly denies launching cyberattacks, including the 2014 assault on the National Research Council in Ottawa. The government blamed a sophisticated state-sponsored Chinese entity for the breach that caused a shutdown of the agency's systems. China branded that accusation as reckless.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS, has warned that China – along with Russia – is out to steal Canada's national secrets.
Lu acknowledged that Canada's concerns were a subject of the discussion in Ottawa last month between Daniel Jean, the prime minister's national security adviser, and Wang Yongqing, the secretary-general of China's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. The talks between the two officials led to the new state-sponsored hacking accord.
"What I perceive is the Canadian side is afraid of the Chinese side stealing the Canadian secrets," Lu said, "so this agreement (prevents) both sides from stealing business secrets from each other."
China has maintained that it is a victim and a target of most of the cyberattacks in the world, said Wenran Jiang, a University of Alberta expert on China.
That fear is exacerbated by Canada's intelligence sharing partnership with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the so-called Five Eyes, as well as the leak of classified data on U.S. surveillance operations by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, said Jiang.
"Their perception is Canada is part of the U.S. network, the Five Eyes, actively spying on China and the Chinese especially in the post-Edward Snowden era."
In May, China was hit with a major cyberattack that affected computers in schools, hospitals and private companies.
Analysts say the new no-hacking deal won't stop Canada and China from continuing to spy on each other.
The new agreement simply isn't enforceable, they argue, because China in particular could continue to easily hide its state-driven commercial espionage activities through difficult-to-trace proxies.
"In my view, it's almost meaningless," said David Skillicorn, a Queen's University expert on cybersecurity.
"They (China) will continue to do what they have always done, but arrange their plausible deniability to be a bit more robust."
Jeremy "Jez" Littlewood, of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said there is enough ambiguity in the wording of the agreement to allow for continued bad behaviour.
Littlewood said nothing in the agreement specifically prohibits spying. While it does ban hacking if it gives a competitive advantage to a company, it doesn't rule out espionage if it gives a competitive advantage to the government or the military.
Paul Duchesne, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, said the agreement is "an important step in addressing malicious cyberactivity and protecting the economic prosperity of our nations."
China has made similar commitments with the United States and Britain, he added.
"Canada also remains vigilant in monitoring potential vulnerabilities, and will work with partners to address these threats," said Duchesne.
Littlewood said that for any agreement to be verifiable, both sides would have to admit to spying on each other. That would involve providing details on specific spying methods, which neither country is likely to give up.