The culture of hacking in China is not confined to top-secret military compounds where hackers carry out orders to pilfer data from foreign governments and corporations. Hacking thrives across official, corporate and criminal worlds. Whether it is used to break into private networks, track online dissent back to its source or steal trade secrets, hacking is openly discussed and even promoted at trade shows, inside university classrooms and on Internet forums.

The Ministry of Education and Chinese universities, for instance, join companies in sponsoring hacking competitions that army talent scouts attend, though “the standards can be mediocre,” said a cybersecurity expert who works for a government institute and handed out awards at a 2010 competition.

Corporations employ freelance hackers to spy on competitors. In an interview, a former hacker confirmed recent official news reports that one of China’s largest makers of construction equipment had committed cyberespionage against a rival.

One force behind the spread of hacking is the government’s insistence on maintaining surveillance over anyone deemed suspicious. So local police departments contract with companies like Xhunter to monitor and suppress dissent, industry insiders say.