But even if there’s an epidemic of Chinese hacking, that doesn’t mean cyber crime is giving China economic or military advantages it doesn’t already have. It’s important to distinguish among three types of hacker attacks emanating from China: economic espionage, cyber warfare propagated by the military, and attacks by “hacktivist” groups with a social or political agenda. The distinctions may matter less in China than in the United States—since the Chinese government is far more pervasive and probably sponsors all types of attacks—but it’s worth noting that attacks do occur for many different reasons.

China has been an economic pirate for decades, stealing and copying the blueprints for everything from automobiles to fighter jets to software. While the Chinese theft of intellectual property has long been one of the top complaints of western corporations, many grudgingly accept it as a cost of doing business in China. …

The extent of cyber warfare practiced by military units is even murkier. There’s plenty of evidence that China is aggressively enhancing its ability to tap into Pentagon computers, disrupt U.S. command and control systems and rely heavily on cyber warfare if there’s ever a military conflict with the United States. But the Pentagon does precisely the same thing, and may be a lot better at it that China’s digital warriors. One remarkable (if still shady) U.S.-backed success was the Stuxnet computer virus that infected the Iranian nuclear program a couple of years ago.