China's government and state-run media stepped up criticism of the United States on Monday over the issue of computer network cyber-attacks.
The Chinese accused the Pentagon of boosting cyberwarfare efforts, and suggested Washington both covertly used electronic social networks to foment recent protests in Iran and was behind recent computer attacks on the Chinese Internet-search engine Baidu.
An unusually harsh commentary published in the People's Daily, official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, stated that the Pentagon is increasing the U.S. military's cyberwarfare capabilities and has created the world's first "hacker Web force."
The report said U.S. information warfare efforts include using the promotion of democracy and free access to the Internet as an ideological battleground against nondemocratic states.
"In the present Internet era, international politics have extended from the geographical space and outer space to the cyberspace, and national sovereignty extended from the territorial space and airspace to the 'information frontiers,'" the report said.
"As the birthplace of the Internet and network application, the United States has resorted to the 'Internet diplomacy' and found it to be the most favorable and useful battleground."
The comments, along with at least two other state-run Chinese media reports over the weekend on cyber-issues, are rare because China generally directs its tightly controlled media to avoid strident criticism of the United States, except on a few issues, such as arms sales to Taiwan.
Pentagon, State Department and Chinese Embassy spokesmen had no immediate comment.
One U.S. official said the commentary was unusual for China.
The People's Daily commentary quoted Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as boosters of U.S. cyberwarfare capabilities.
The report, headlined "Internet Freedom and Double Standards" appeared to be prompted by mild criticism of China's restrictions on the Internet voiced last week by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton said in a speech Thursday that "countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."
Larry Wortzel, a former U.S. military attache once posted in Beijing, said the Chinese comments appear to be "part of an information counteroffensive."
The forceful public response to recent U.S. criticism of China's Internet controls and hacker activities indicates Beijing's leaders "are no longer quietly accepting U.S. criticism," he said.
China's military and intelligence organizations have known for years that the U.S. military is working actively on developing cyberwarfare weapons. For example, the Chinese military knows that U.S. forces used cyber-operations during the conflict in the Balkans and in both Iraq wars, he said, noting that Chinese cyberwarfare doctrine was initially modeled after U.S. programs.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist, said the Chinese media attacks were more likely aimed at Google, which has threatened to pull out of China over the recent cyber-attacks on Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese dissidents.
"It's not Hillary that they are aiming at, it's Google," Mr. Tkacik said.
China's government has responded to Google's threat to pull its operations out of China by demanding that the U.S.-based high-tech company obey Chinese law.
The Pentagon recently ordered the creation of a new command for cyberwarfare that will seek to direct both offensive and defensive electronic and computer-based warfare. Pentagon officials have said U.S. offensive cyberwarfare capabilities are advanced, and that its defensive capabilities are in large measure directed to countering the cybewarfare operations of China and Russia.
A State Department official said Mrs. Clinton asked Chinese leaders to explain whether government-sponsored hackers were behind the Google attack.
The People's Daily commentary said that in response to U.S. requests for a Chinese investigation of the Google attack, "the U.S. should first look into attack problems itself."
"Not long ago, the largest Chinese search engine Baidu was attacked, and the domain-name registration service provider was right in the U.S. territory," the report said.
On Iran, the report, quoting unspecified media reports, said the United States was behind the recent demonstrations in Iran against the government by passing rumors and causing trouble on social-networking media, such as Twitter.
"Behind what America calls free speech is naked political scheming. How did the unrest after the Iranian election come about?" asked a report by Wang Xiaoyang.
"It was because online warfare launched by America, via YouTube video and Twitter microblogging, spread rumors, created splits, stirred up and sowed discord between the followers of conservative reformist factions."
Separately, a Chinese government official, Zhou Yonglin, on Monday was quoted in state-run media as repeating earlier Beijing denials that Chinese government hackers were behind recent computer attacks against Google and other U.S. high-tech companies.
Mr. Zhou, deputy chief of the operations department of China National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team, said U.S.-based hackers had remotely taken over Chinese networks.