China's unfair trade practices are bad enough. But now it appears China has added outright cyber theft to its efforts to gain a global-marketplace edge over the United States.
The Obama administration is sending a clear message that this underhanded practice will not be tolerated.
A federal grand jury charged five military officers belonging to a Chinese army computer unit with breaking into the files of a variety of companies, including SolarWorld, U.S. Steel, Allegheny Technologies, the United Steel Workers Union, Westinghouse and Alcoa. All but the last two were also involved in trade disputes with China.
The evidence linking the break-ins to official Chinese policy is detailed and convincing. China's outraged denials are not.
The Justice Department said last week that thieves used computers to break into company files in a "21st century burglary," but the results were the same as if they had used crowbars. Attorney General Eric Holder, announcing that the grand jury had returned indictments against the five, said, "The alleged hacking appears to have been conducted for no reason other than to advantage state-owned companies and other interests in China at the expense of businesses here in the United States."
Officials said more indictments are coming.
Justice officials said they had brought charges against the five mid-ranking Chinese officers after frequent diplomatic protests had brought no results. President Obama himself raised the issue with China's president Xi Jinping twice in 2013. Officials said the Chinese response to U.S. complaints was, "Where is the evidence?"
The new indictments are very specific. But the likelihood that any of the five will be turned over to U.S. authorities is probably zero. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman called the charges "extremely absurd," and complained about U.S. cyber warfare against China as exposed by fugitive NSA employee Edward Snowden.
But there is a big difference between intelligence gathering for national security and the theft of commercial property.
And when China uses techniques like cyber theft and dumping to drive American competitors out of business and destroy thousands of jobs, it is high time for our government to fight back.