Pic: AP.

In 2009, China lodged a protest against a visa application in India that hadn’t even been submitted. The information came from an exchange of emails the applicant had with the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India. The Chinese officials had long hacked into the Tibetan government-in-exile’s computers and made were not ashamed to show off Beijing geeks’ mighty reach.

Hong Lei, the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was not as brazen yesterday, when he denied bombshell allegations by the New York Times that Chinese government-linked hackers had infiltrated the newspaper’s computer systems and stolen reporters’ passwords.

“To arbitrarily assert and to conclude without hard evidence that China participated in such hacking attacks is totally irresponsible,” he told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, calling the allegations “groundless”.

The hacking attempts, which were rooted through U.S. university servers, began when the Times revealed in October last year that China’s Premier Wen Jiabao’s extended family controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion, a report which a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said “blackens China’s name and has ulterior motives.”

“On Oct. 25, the day the article was published online, AT&T informed The Times that it had noticed behavior that was consistent with other attacks believed to have been perpetrated by the Chinese military,” the Times wrote on Wednesday.

Hackers appeared to be looking for information on who provided information to its Shanghai Bureau Chief David Barboza, who broke the Wen story. Bloomberg confirmed that similar attempts have been made to hack into its systems after the news service published its expose on the wealth of China’s incoming President Xi Jinping last July.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal said that its systems had also been hacked by Chinese hackers. Among the targets were its Beijing bureau chief and the reporters who contributed to the Journal’s coverage of the fall of disgraced Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai.

“Evidence shows that infiltration efforts target the monitoring of the Journal’s coverage of China, and are not an attempt to gain commercial advantage,” Paula Keve, a spokeswoman for Journal publisher Dow Jones, said in a written statement.

China’s Foreign Ministry has haplessly stuck to its position of denial against the hacking accusations perpetuated by other parts of China’s complex state apparatus. “Nowadays the problem is that there are some people abroad avidly concocting rumours about China’s so-called Internet espionage,” then Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said at a 2009 press conference, a year after first email hacking reports emerged. “There’s a ghost abroad called the Cold War and a virus called the China threat.”

“Advanced persistent threat”, tech-speak for cyber-attack groups, are bound to prosper as China undergoes a once in a decade leadership change, says Mandiant, the computer security firm hired by the Times to investigate the hacking, in a blogpost on Monday. “We have determined that the new leaders will only enhance the influence that the People’s Liberation Army, State Owned Enterprises, and national-level central planning initiatives have already had in contributing to an environment which produces and nurtures APT.”