Internet & Tech

Hacker academy

What goes on inside China’s most famous vocational school?

Hacker School w

The Pentagon’s greatest fear? Lanxiang’s computer lab

The origins of polytechnic schools were military. By the late eighteenth century artillery had become so sophisticated that armies needed to train officers in mathematics and mechanics. The École Polytechnique is widely regarded as being the first of these new schools. In 1804 Napoléon Bonaparte confirmed as much when he designated it with military status and the motto ‘For country, science and honour’.

West Point modelled itself on the École too.

China’s own foray into modern tertiary education began almost a century later with the Imperial Tientsin University (now the University of Tianjin). It also started as a polytechnic in 1895, with the imperial government desperate to train military specialists to defend itself against foreign powers.

Polytechnic schools blossomed again in the 1980s as economic reforms called for huge numbers of new technicians and better-skilled labour. By 2013, there were more than 13,600 institutes of technology or vocational schools in the country. Chances are you have never heard of most of them. One possible exception is Lanxiang Vocational School.

The Shandong-based institute first attracted international headlines in 2006 when it broke the world record for having the biggest computer class, with 1,135 students in a single room. A certificate commemorating the event still hangs in the school’s trophy room.

But Lanxiang’s computer programme has grown much bigger since then, as has the belief that is now one of the breeding grounds for China’s secretive army of computer hackers.

In early 2010 the New York Times named Lanxiang and Shanghai Jiaotong University as the two Chinese schools behind a massive cyber attack against Google. Tracing an IP address to one of Lanxiang’s computers, the report also suggested the hackers were students at a class taught by a “Ukrainian professor”. A short time later the Wall Street Journal reported that Google had identified a phishing assault against overseas targets as originating in Jinan, Lanxiang’s hometown.

With the escalation of cyber spying rows between China and the US (see WiC248) the whispering about hacking activity at Lanxiang has grown, even if the state media argues that the allegations have exaggerated its influence. Rong Lanxiang, the school’s founder and headmaster (though, it should be stated, the college isn’t named after him, being composed of differnt Chinese characters), has also complained that Lanxiang is a victim of misinformation.

“The Foreign Ministry has already made clear China’s stance. I hope domestic media will stop speculating on the rumours,” he told 21CN Business Herald in an interview.

Rong also moans that the school has become a target for overseas hackers itself. “These guys visited our website 70 to 80 times a day. Sometimes it goes completely blank and we need to rebuild it again.”

Rong founded the college in 1984, the year that Deng Xiaoping publicly proclaimed his new pro-market idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Millions of rural migrants soon descended on the cities looking for jobs. The enterprising Rong – then in his late teens – rented a dozen classrooms from a high school in Shandong’s Jinan city and offered training programmes (initially they included instruction on sofa-making and hairdressing).

“Many people were opening privately-run vocational schools. There were more than 1,000 in Jinan alone, doing courses from repairing timepieces to fixing radios,” Rong recalls.

Rong doesn’t deny that Lanxiang’s big break came after it was acquired by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1989, a period when military units started buying into non-military businesses. (By the early 1990s the PLA-affiliated Poly Group was already operating hundreds of companies in industries ranging from real estate to elephant training, see WiC203.)

In 2001 Lanxiang acquired its first school site, which it has since expanded into five campus districts covering more than 400,000 square metres. It now has a teaching staff of over 1,000 people and provides 60 vocational training courses to more than 30,000 students every year.

The PLA, on other hand, was told to exit its commercial activities in 1997, although the ban has proved difficult to police. And though no longer PLA-owned, Lanxiang itself has maintained close ties with the military. In fact, it even markets the relationship, describing itself as “the only private-run vocational school which supplies technicians to the army”.

The rapid expansion of higher education in China has obviously led to more competition for students among the vocational schools (see WiC245). But Lanxiang’s hint of intrigue allows it to stand out from the crowd. Despite the “most difficult jobseeking season in history” for those leaving colleges with degrees, Lanxiang achieved “100% employment” for its new graduates last year. Moreover the Jinan Daily reports they are all earning “respectable incomes”.

Such is Lanxiang’s reputation that state firms and government bodies seem eager to employ the school’s former students.

Some employers even pay “reservation fees” to the college to ensure they get the skilled labour they are looking for. These revenues contribute a third of its income, according to Rong (who declined to disclose the full extent of Lanxiang’s financial situation).

But he did reveal that he had declined an investment proposal from a private equity firm and promised that the school won’t be launching an IPO.

So is Rong really headmaster of the hackers? Rather improbably the Jinan Daily says the most prestigious programmes at the college are the cookery classes (In May alone more than 20 trained chefs graduated from Lanxiang and have since gone on to work for state firms operating in Uganda).

For the foreign press, Lanxiang is less about Peking Duck and more about hacking. But the domestic media is less impressed, the Beijing Times says, and tends to view Lanxiang more with derision than dread.

For instance, Zhihu Daily, an internet newspaper, enrolled an undercover journalist in one of the computer programmes to see if there was any substance to the allegations about Lanxiang’s hacking classes.

In an eight-month course, he started out with a two-week module on Microsoft Office applications. He soon discovered that most of his classmates came from rural areas and half of them were busy snoozing or playing with their smartphones during lessons. He found out that no foreign teaching specialists had ever been employed there. In one of the giant server rooms, he could only find a 60 year-old security guard whose main task was to prevent students from eating there.

The Zhihu Daily’s man dropped out of college on the 20th day of his undercover mission, having forked out tuition fees of Rmb10,000 ($1,625). His conclusion? That Lanxiang’s reputation for producing tech whizz-kids capable of hacking into American targets is “as unbelievable as a Chinese farmer successfully building a space shuttle”.

Then again, some cynics in the Western press may wonder if this report might not be an ingenious exercise in disinformation…

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