Such a juicy, obvious target for mischievous overseas hackers: It was 2008 and attacks had begun mounting on the official Beijing Olympic website.
Wang Zi and his compatriots responded to the threat by gathering data including the web addresses of foreign hackers and their websites. Then they launched their own – completely unofficial – carefully-orchestrated counter-offensive in defense of the Olympic website.
"Based on this data, we supervised the web addresses of these foreign hackers, accessed the packet data on their computers and analyzed whether they did something bad to the official websites of the Beijing Olympic Games," "Bing'er", one of Wang Zi's partners said.
Indeed, he said, they did find some offenders who were trying to hack the official websites. But he refused to divulge details of what response, if any, they had made.
All the highly secretive members of the hong ke society interviewed by the Global Times refused to reveal their true identities and would only agree to speak anonymously via computer chat rooms or instant messaging.
Three times the Global Times applied for membership of their online chat groups. Three times, the Global Times was kicked out of the forum. But finally the manager of the site Wang Zi privately contacted the Global Times asking the exact reasons for wanting to join the group and a detailed explanation of the story plan. After several exchanges, and after installing the relevant software, he and other senior members agreed to a chat room audio interview.
The main reason most agreed to talk was an apparent chance to separate hong ke – or "honker" in Chinglish – in the public mind from common hackers, by referring to their higher calling, a code of honor and the positive influence they exert on a chaotic and complex online world.
"We reorganized ourselves to safeguard all the official websites of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Games of Olympiad (BOCOG) and ensured the smooth operation of the Beijing Olympic Games," said Wang Zi, a founder of the "union" – actually more like an invitation-only club – of patriotic hackers.
All this work occurred behind a carefully maintained veil of secrecy. The government and BOCOG never had any idea, Wang Zi insisted.
"Hong ke do not seek to make a name for themselves," he said.
"The Tao that can be described in words is not the true Tao. The Name that can be named is not the true Name," – the first two sentences of Tao Te Ching are the slogan of hong ke that appear on the new union's new homepage.
After the Olympics, Wang Zi's group retired from the web for a short time, and then on the first day of this year, the group made a bold new announcement.
The blurb on their newly-launched website reads, "Hong ke culture is back. We will hold and transmit hong ke spirit focusing on justice, pioneering and love for the motherland."
Every newcomer must swear an oath to the organization: "I join the hong ke union of my own will … Nothing is more important than the security and will of our motherland … we will safeguard the dignity of our motherland in our special way."
Wang Zi says his union is a purely non-governmental organization. They could not register the union's name with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology until they deleted "Zhongguo" (China) from it.
"They do not allow us to use ‘Zhongguo' in the name, because we are a non-governmental organization that cannot represent China," said Wang Zi.
Without fanfare, the union has enrolled more than 1,000 members. Worrying people might join for the wrong reasons, the union imposes strict censorship on applicants, and whoever is found to harbor ill purposes – like stealing information off others' computers – is turned away.
Even registered members are kicked out if they violate the rules. A union member is not allowed to privately test the security of other websites without permission or engage in commercial activities in the name of the hong ke union.
"I will investigate in person any cases involving commercial profit," Wang Zi said. "Some guys have attempted to lure our management with lucre in order to erode our core power."
Though he refused to give details of investigations, Wang Zi said five members have already been expelled from the union.
This new style union of today does something they see as the exact opposite of hacking: members locate security holes in domestic websites and then help fix them.
"We inform them of the result in private," he said. "If we publish the result, evil hackers will exploit and take advantage of these security loopholes."
Regardless of motives, their actions are wrong and illegal, Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, wrote in an e-mail interview with the Global Times.
"Hong ke believe they have acceptable motives for entering others' computer systems, whether it is striking a blow at reactionary forces or locating security vulnerabilities.
"Hacking into other websites without authorization is like breaking down doors to prove a house is vulnerable and attacking reactionary forces is a kind of lynching."
Questions of authenticity Others question the new union's authenticity.
"Lion is the spiritual leader of the hong ke union," Lin Lin, a leader of hacker group Eviloctal Security Team, told the Global Times. "And without him, no hong ke organization can be regarded as a reorganization of the original.
"They are making use of the fame of the original union." Wang Zi admits his site is by no means the only hong ke site out there.
What is the ‘real' hong ke union is not so important, in Wang Zi's opinion.
"Actually there is no such thing as an individual hong ke. The word represents a spirit, not a person."
It's been nearly five years since the original hong ke union was dissolved by founder "Lion," who had led Chinese hackers into battles with foreign websites to "safeguard China's dignity."
Lion and his followers engaged in a "cyber war" in May 2001 with American hackers who had launched attacks after an American Navy EP-3 surveillance plane was involved in a collision with a Chinese fighter.
US hacker organization "PoizonBOx" had concentrated attacks on Windows systems, and a single hacker "Prophet" attacked Linux systems, according to an article on the ChinaByte website. "PoizonBOx" had reportedly launched 283 attacks on websites whose addresses ended with ".cn", and "Prophet" had also made 30 successful attacks.
A few days later, Chinese hong ke led by Lion's union and other hacker organizations conducted "counter-attacks", altering the homepages of US websites. By May 7, 2001, 1,600 US websites had fallen victim, including more than 900 governmental and military websites. More than 1,100 Chinese websites suffered the same fate, according to Min Dahong's article, "Say Goodbye to the Years of Passion of Chinese Hackers."
As Wang Zi said, "Though a war does no good to any country, it safeguards the country's dignity."
Not everyone sees it Wang's way.
"Hackers attacked foreign websites just the same as some students threw stones or ink bottles at the US embassy in China," Min said after the cyber war. "They were venting their emotions, not attacking."
Min declined to be interviewed by the Global Times. He wrote in his article that the Chinese government does not allow any organization or individual to attack the web in any way for any reason.
After the cyber war ended in 2001, People's Daily published a scathing commentary pointing out that whether hacker or hong ke, any attack or destruction to a website is an "inexcusable violation of law."
On the last day of 2004, Lion published an open letter on the union's website declaring its dissolution. He claimed he had "lost the passion" and was "unwilling to carry the can for other hackers who sought commercial interests in the name of the hong ke union."
The largest hacker organization in China, fifth in the world, had lasted just four years. Yet within a year of that dissolution, a core member of the original union hong ke tried to restart the union, an anonymous member told the Global Times.
After successfully organizing "counter attacks" on Japanese websites in May, the organization was shut down and some members "were caught by the police," the source told the Global Times.
Although many fans mourned the death of the original union in 2004, insiders mostly felt the opposite, according to Min Dahong. The professor of the Institute of Journalism and Communication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences pointed out in his article that it was not a bad idea to dissolve the hong ke union. Real hong ke should focus on improving their technical skills, he suggested.
Lion wrote that only three members in total were capable of technical support. Wang Zi reported in his online blog that of the claimed "80,000" hackers that participated in the famous "cyber war" of 2001, most knew nothing about networking and they attacked through obsolete methods like junk mails or "pings".
"Skilled hackers are able to program commands and use them to attack, but at present many ‘hackers' just download hacker tools from the Internet," Fang told the Global Times' Chinese edition in an interview in May.
Last year 53,000 websites were attacked and 60,000 the year before last, Fang said, without reportedly indicating which websites or what region.
"Skilled hackers are still rare in China," "yufeicn", a top management member of the new hong ke union told the Global Times, "We should focus on learning and research."
The union has set up a learning section on their website on which they have uploaded learning materials and opened online chat groups for members to communicate their experiences. Every Friday, they offer free online audio lessons on network security.
Members who do a good job in popularizing cyber knowledge are awarded virtual "medals of honor".
"Our focus has shifted to popularizing cyber knowledge and safeguarding network security," Wang Zi said.
The union's ultimate objective is to master cutting-edge technology and contribute to world network security.
"Network security is actually borderless," he said.
Source: Global Times