BEIJING Foreign journalists in Beijing have been targeted by two very similar malware attacks in just over two weeks in the lead-up to China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
The emails - one appearing to come from a Beijing-based foreign correspondent and the other from a Washington-based think tank - both contained an attachment with the same type of malware, according to independent cyber security expert Greg Walton who reviewed the files.
Malware attacks on foreign correspondents in China, Chinese dissidents or academics researching China tend to spike in the periods leading up to politically sensitive events for China. Previous spikes occurred ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule in 2009.
A government spokesman warned against jumping to conclusions about who was responsible.
"China manages the Internet according to law and has engaged in cooperation with the international community to promote Internet security. Internet security is a complicated issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said when asked about the emails.
"China is also a victim of Internet attacks. The source of these Internet attacks is very difficult to determine. Reaching conclusions without sufficient evidence or fair and thorough investigations, it's just not serious."
Both of the emails referred to the upcoming handover of power in the top ranks of the ruling Communist Party.
The attachment, if opened, would have installed malware that sent encrypted information from the user's computer to an external server. That server is hosted in Britain.
It has often proven difficult to prove who is behind malicious hacking attacks related to China.
"The Chinese government often gives blanket denials that this happens, and in some cases the left arm may not know what the right arm is doing," said Duncan Clark, chairman of technology consultancy BDA in Beijing.
The Communist Party will hold its party congress some time in coming weeks in Beijing, although the date has not yet been announced. At the congress, the top positions in the party are expected to be transferred to a new generation of leaders.
(Reporting By Lucy Hornby and Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)