Is China Coming Around On Cybersecurity?

The Chinese government arrested hackers at the request of the U.S. government just two weeks before Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United States.

The arrests, reported by the Washington Post on Friday, signal slight progress with China on cybersecurity. They came amid high tensions as the Obama administration threatened to impose harsh economic sanctions on China in the wake of several high profile hacks reportedly linked to the country, including the Office of Personnel Management breach.

Recently China has said it would rein in attacks against the United States, but today’s report reveals China is taking action. The arrests are perhaps more significant than the recent cyber deal the United States struck with China two weeks ago because many worried it was just an empty promise.

The deal was a landmark agreement because it showed the two countries could talk about cybersecurity — an issue that has caused tension between them for years. Here’s what the White House said in a fact sheet:

The United States and China agree that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.

But it quickly gained criticism from experts in the cybersecurity field. Paul Rosenzweig of Lawfare, sarcastically headlined his response to the agreement “I Feel Much Safer Already.” It was vague and offered little explanation for how both sides would be held accountable.

But Herb Lin, a Stanford cybersecurity scholar, said it was promising that the summit did not break down. He said both sides needed to take action.

“Now each side needs to walk through the doors,” Lin said when the deal was released. “This could just be yet another the thing that sits around that doesn’t go anywhere.”

Friday’s report substantiated that cautious optimism. Though the United States and China clearly have to continue to take actions that back up their deal, the arrests show at least China is opening the door to change.

The real test will be how long China can stick to the agreement. Just days after Jinping left the United States, The Daily Beast reported Chinese spies are still hacking American companies working for the U.S. military. Technically these hacks for national security reasons are not necessarily in China’s commercial interests, but they highlight how fragile the recent agreement is.

Though the arrests and the deal indicate promising steps toward a better relationship with China, they’re just the beginnings of what will likely be a very long road that could be derailed by a single breach.