Sex Hacker: Configuring Asian Women in the Age of Digital Penetration

Version of Record: Bui, Long T. (2015). Sex Hacker: Configuring Chinese Women in the Age of Digital Penetration. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.6. doi:10.7264/N31834S4

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2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This essay registers concern with the ways Asian women generally and Chinese women specifically inhabit the binarisms of international and social relations, exploring how they confound contemporary forms of power/knowledge. Thinking of them as more than constitutive outsiders (or oppressed insiders) to technotopia but as those who hack into the epistemologies and domains of sex acknowledges their immanent power to cut through sedimented layers of technocultural hegemony. As a contradictory figure of power and resistance, the sex hacker figure rewrites the fetishizing gender script of the computer age, demonstrating how minoritarian subjects can flexibly warp the stakes of global competition.

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4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 In a common refrain for the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder on May 19, 2014 accused a band of Chinese citizens of poaching trade secrets from American companies like Steel and Westinghouse, a breach in national security so serious officials requested indictment of foreign criminals in a U.S. court of law. Such worries echo old “Yellow Peril” fears of Chinese migrant “coolies” cracking the U.S. national mainframe, infiltrating the country with falsified their identities to scramble the bureaucratic codes and technologies of a new border enforcement regime. Despite the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, thousands of “paper sons” managed to evade national sensors, prompting numerous counter-intelligence probes against Chinese U.S. citizens. Chinese women were almost entirely excluded before their male counterparts under the Page Act of 1875. Demonized as hypersexual immoral beings, Chinese women were thought to be more dangerous than men in their ability to penetrate the inner “core” of American domesticity, thus warranting their near total exclusion (Ngai 2014, Peffer 1986).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 In the ongoing battle between the U.S. and China (Huntington Post, 2014), the potential of Asian women as “sex hackers” breach the symbolic protected walls of the nation-state, rewriting the algorithm of geopolitics and shifting the framing of a hypermasculine “clash of civilizations” to highlight the subversive activities of women of color in a networked planet and its “massified” multitudes (Hardt and Negri 2000). The sexualized spaces and gendered forms of communication and labor imputed to women of color—while crucial to the reproduction of the global “digital village”—have not been considered as formative to it. The sex hacker figure revamps the ways Asian women have been historically insinuated within the either/or Western sexual archetypes of helpless subordinates (Lotus Blossom), slinky seductresses (Geisha/Dragon Lady) (Espiritu 2008). As a metaphoric sometimes literal subject of subversion, the sex hacker takes root in the shadows of the positive feedback loop of modern communications, offering more than a virtuoso performance of resistance “from the margins,” but inserting viable roles that grant them according to Tina Chen (2005) the “space to maneuver and the ability to resist singular interpretation” (xxii). It is necessary first to understand what is meant by hacking and how it plays on gender and sexual meanings.

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Configuring the Gender Performativity of Hacking

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Hacking is a shibboleth or word used to differentiate ingroups and outgroups based on value variants. For programmers, hacking is a neutral term and the term “cracker” is preferable to mean those who break into computer security systems. With racial subtext, good crackers are “white hat hackers” fixing security holes distinguishable from the bad “black” ones (typically from Orientalized countries in Eastern Europe and Asia) sending malicious software to disrupt the firewalls that protect sensitive electronic information. According to the father of “hacktivism” Ricardo Dominguez, the ethical question of what is legal or illegal in the context of computer hacking is not stable as hacking creates different affective and visceral responses within an unruly “performative matrix” (Dominguez 2008). Hacking offers an alternative mode of expression to the modern governmentality of surveillance and science. All subjects are coded in particular ways (by sex, race, class, nationality), which must be then decoded to understand how power/knowledge functions in non-instrumentalist ways [1]. Performance scholar Jade Sotomayor (2012) defines code as “secrecy, intrigue, privacy, communication via illegitimate means, strategic circumventing of power, something closed to be cracked, and hacked open in order to yield a more democratic society” (23). The hacker is everyday citizen-subject and potential terrorist/criminal able to “code switch” and provide alternative uses of language within the same discourse where the interplay of dominant cultures and subcultures creates an improvisation of hyper-embodied hacking experience.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 4 Insofar as “code” denotes both accepted social rules of engagement as well as protected secrets, decoding the sex code of heteronormative global relations demands a complex semiotics indeed. Hacking is a sexual innuendo referring to fornication (e.g. “hacking into her”), reflecting the ways computing language can be erotic with suggestive terminology like “packet,” “sniffer,” “cookie,” and “master.” Hacking evokes pornographic connotations of someone (usually a lone male sitting in a dark room) attempting to penetrate deep dark private spaces, taking advantage of vulnerable “gaps” and “holes” in systems, “probing” and “gaining access” to databanks through the “backdoor,” “worming” and “fingering” his way to a target infecting it with his deadly “Trojans” or simply messing with it for “good times” (a hoax virus).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Masculine authority and feminine helplessness is insinuated through an allegorical vocabulary alluding to rape with unsuspecting “victims” and “abuses of privilege.” In a technologically “enhanced” moment of mankind that also boosts the “sex machine” of globalization and its global hypermasculine processes where the East Asian women are both recast as feminine and masculine in the gendered image of modernity (Ling 1999), hegemony these days is characterized by the digital penetration of wealthy governments, multinational corporations, and savvy computer gurus into all corners of the world, the social engineering of women of color as minor players or mere “servers” responding to requests by an international roster of male “clients” assumes they possess no “network sovereignty” in the way that indigenous scholars are assumed to not have any (Duarte 2013), when in fact they are actors in the “theater between the codes of the utilitarian-effective created another space—that of the ‘immoral’ or, more specifically, questions of poetry, ethics and justice” (Nadir 2012). Hacking as social performance offers a social paradigm of public nuisance, inspiring subaltern swarms to challenge the “scattered hegemonies” (Grewal and Kaplan 1994) of White male capitalist supremacy.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 For example, the electronics manufacturing industry in developing countries is the largest employer of Asian women on the planet. Women’s invisible but central role in Silicon Valley, that beacon of “high-tech industry” is as much propped up as much by the “nimble fingers” and mechanized appendages of Asian female low-wage laborers putting together microchip parts for multinational electronics companies as much as the “invisible hand” of capital accumulation and wealth provided by Chinese nouveau rich, Korean businessmen, and Indian bourgeois elites.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 Sexist assumptions about women’s abilities can prove deadly. In actor network theory, the nonhuman object participates in the network, and given the ways Asian women have been historically rendered as objects of fantasy and the playthings of men, one can imagine how they have not only been objectified by technoculture but turned that objectification into an advantage.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 Xiao Tian is the new general of China’s “hacker babes” smashing patriarchal systems of control. Posing in coy flirty doll-like positions on her online blog, the teenager’s self-portraits are disarming in their dual connotations of Oriental submissiveness and treachery. With a salacious moniker translated in Chinese as ‘a little bit of heaven,” Tian inspires fellow female hackers leading the Cn Girl Security Team, a group with over 2,000 member in a country where hackers are accorded rock star status as the sometimes “proxy army” for the communist party (Vembu 2008). These female hackers however sell secrets to the highest bidder, always “on the prowl” for any opportunity for personal gain, indicating more than the selfishness of individuals but the diffuse power and crowdsourcing of the world hivemind.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 Hackers like Tian are not above exploiting their imagery as Asian women and eroticized public entities (web searches for “Asian women” mostly call up pornography sites) to recode or puncture globally trafficked sex codes, mobilizing newtechnologies toward a non-positivist “girl power” movement that undermines the old boy’s club of hackers as well as the binaristic dogma of Western feminism focused on male-female relations and differences between White and colonized women. Asian women hackers are material girls living in an immaterial world, their sexed raced bodies “matter” in a post-millennial “posthuman” culture striving to “banish biology and corporeal substance” (Kirby 1998, 98). Through their sex hacking work, they shatter the techno-Orientalist imaginary of the East as porous, fluid, and “open” virgin territory for easy conquest. The rich symbolism of the Chinese sex hacker as hyperlinked to the sinister gendered iconography of “rising China” provides a polysemous association that reconfigures our binary sensibilities to recognize the multiplicity, hybridity and amorphousness of virtual relations (without the postmodern indifference). Such is the effect of women hacking into the domain of “sex,” splicing through the protocols of world domination while offering micro-challenges to the computerized world-system with its serialized binaries and double helix hierarchal structure of power (friend/enemy, powerful/powerless) through “invaginated” lines of miscommunication (Derrida 1980).

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The Sexual Technology of Parlor Maid

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 Social context is always important when it comes to talking about digital culture. In 1994, the same year that the Taiwanese entrepreneur Jerry Yang booted up his celebrated website Yahoo!, becoming overnight the face of high-tech Asia/America, a congressional bill was introduced to “restore the American family, reduce illegitimacy, and reduce welfare dependence” (Library of Congress 1994). The racial threat posed to national domesticity by the Black Welfare Queen subject and the waves of refugees from Southeast Asia and Latin America coming to this country supposedly living off the government’s largesse required a hard-line stance against those feminized criminal populations that would stand in the way of the country’s progress in the new era of new media masculinity.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Bill Clinton’s presidency ushered in the dot.com boom with as much gusto as his fierce promise to end welfare as we know it. The digital revolution thus began in earnest with the moral imperative to wipe out the dregs of a digitized America no longer needing to deal with the material bodies of migrants, minorities, and mothers. This new “digital civilizing mission” fetishizes the technologization of society, a convergence of electronic and ideological platforms that largely ignores how the “digital divide” maps onto an existing global division of humanity in terms of non-white/white, women/men, rich/poor etc. Under digital colonized thinking, there is little understanding of how the enfolded position of Asian women within a colonized, racialized, and gendered society featuring greater technological and digital “penetration” in our daily lives.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 4 2005 was the year of two big Katrina stories disturbing the peace of U.S. national domesticity and the “postracial” myth of Black-White and Chinese-American convergence. The first is the sad tale of how Hurricane Katrina wrecked havoc on New Orleans and the failure of U.S. government to save the refugees, almost all poor people of color, but instead placing them in harm’s way illustrative of the genocidal practices of U.S. The second event involved a Chinese woman named Katrina Leung accused of being a spy for both the U.S. and China. Leung was a prominent transnational businesswoman who was recruited by the FBI in the 1980’s to spy on China. She was given U.S. citizenship in 1984 and given the code name “Parlor Maid.” Ms. Leung ran her own consulting firm with important professional and political ties, making her the most prized “asset” for U.S. intelligence officers [2]. During this time, Leung signed on as a secret agent for China (Gertz 2006). A search into Leung’s home revealed that this femme fatale had taken and leaked government files from her FBI “handler” and lover to the PRC. She was arrested in 2003, charged with aiding a foreign government and copying federal documents related to the satellite retrieval systems technology (Gertz 2005). For twenty years, this sex hacker had an affair with two of the FBI’s top Chinese specialists, becoming the FBI’s top secret source on China. The FBI paid her $1.7 million during those years for briefings based on sometimes false reports that went all the way to the White House.As one reporter sarcastically put it, the FBI thought “they had a brilliant penetration operation running; but while their top agents were certainly penetrating Katrina Leung, she was penetrating the FBI in a manner that put the legendary Mata Hari in the shade” (Quadrant Online 2014).

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 Without the aid of sophisticated computer technology, the woman known as “Parlor Maid,” whose nickname references subservient domestic work, became wealthy helping companies strike deals and facilitating business exchange between China and the U.S. Katrina hacked into power the old fashion way through wiles, using the cultural rendering of women as cultural ambassadors slip in-between different public spaces with ease, evidencing the slippery slope between sex and spying in the murky game of counter-intelligence. Katrina Leung turned out not to be not merely a double agent working for both the U.S. and China, but a “triple cross” agent who supposedly betrayed both countries for her own benefit, but even this preposition was never truly proven as no one ever knows the true intentions or desires of the sex hacker.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 As key “assets” within the intercourse of superpowers, Asian women’s sexual technologies have been frequently sought out by national governments to facilitate the “interpersonal” aspects of closed door private affairs and high-sensitive spying, a vital role that later leads to their persecution [3].Katrina was jailed on $2 million bail, which pales in comparison to the treatment of her FBI handler set free on bail on charges of gross negligence. According to Leung’s family, “They blame the non-agent and the foreign-born, especially the Asian, especially the woman. When the FBI is embarrassed, they revert to their old ways. They use a double standard to blame outsiders and protect their own” (Eggan 2003).James Lilley, the former US Ambassador to China, believed there was no real authentication of responsibility in the case given “the contamination of the sexual factor” (PBS Dateline 1994).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 Uncertainty about which “master” Leung served reinforces the gendered codes of sexpionage, where female bodies occupy a liminal status in terms of national security. In the age of digital penetration, hacking does not denote only electronic security breaches but the ways virtual imaginaries are wrapped around sexual ones, and the ways that sex itself is virtual, thus, the ultimate form of hacking. The Parlor Maid case reinforces the discursive construction of Asian women like Leung as a national threat/asset to the U.S., whose perceived inscrutability entraps them in an aura of immorality and serviceable utility that cannot be easily domesticated. During the prosecution of Leung emerged as a globe-trotting tigress, whose sex hacking work laid bare the flaws of security apparatuses but also a technocultural imaginary that cannot account for the complex dimensions of women like her. This controversy also spoke to the secret traditional practice of the FBI of utilizing Asian female professionals as spies but never trusting these “foreign” alien women.   In the end, Leung was cleared of all charges due to the “prosecutorial misconduct” of state prosecutors, but the serious damage to national reputation was done. The borders of national chauvinism had been thoroughly breached.

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The Coda

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 3 That Asian women like Leung and Tian do not fit the usual male geeky profile of a cyberterrorist gives them capricious power to move and parse through the same infrastructures that seek to marginalize or commodify them. Without denying the class privilege accorded to such entitled global elites, I believe the metaphoricity of the Asian woman as potential “sex hackers” engenders a kind of feminist “split, partial knowledge” without Cartesian binaries (Haraway 1991) [4]. Not every Asian woman has the material capacity to smash systems of oppression, but the categorical designation of “Asian woman” with all its symbolic trappings can be read otherwise as what queer theorist Eve Sedgwick (1994) calls a nonce taxonomy, a reservoir of unrationalized energies and possibilities found in the nonce (24). Nonce is Anglophone slang for sex offender or alternatively a means to prevent replay attacks in communications (cryptographic nonce). Indicating at once penetration and protection, the nonce of the Asian woman offers more than a fixed identity to be entered, violated, and pilfered by others but an irreducible itinerant identity.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Informed by Third World feminism and queer theory, this essay recognizes how everyday people possess the “critical machete” to knife through the think encrusted intersectional matrix of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation—cutting a ray of feminist knowledge across the cloud of colonized thinking blanketing our modern consciousness. We are all hackers in some way but not all hackers are equal. Some are well-paid technical degrees in information science and engineering but other types of potential hackers populate the digital landscape, whose “cunning of unreason” lobs attacks against intelligible Moderns unable to apprehend the subaltern non-visible “Other” (Latour 2004).

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 The figure of the sex hacker disrupts the technocultural limits of the new world order, exposing its penetrable borders. In the Western imagination, our world is divided in terms of Black and White, communism and democracy, female and male, 1’s and 0’s. But another script exists beyond the hegemonic Unicode, where hypertexts are written not in the Romanized tongue and tools of the Master. This code lies dormant in all of us as the wake-up call toward higher selves far beyond the utopian cyborg life promised by technology. In numerology, the number 11:11 is linked to new beginnings, spiritual awakening and transformation and this sequence been linked to the temporal “end” of the Mayan calendar (Jones and Flaxman 2013). 11:11 also references our “junk DNA,” the 97% of our body’s non-coding DNA (RNA) that can trigger a new state of consciousness beyond human cognition. In the so called “Asian Century” and the age of China, decrypting the sex code of digital geopolitics is serious business, and with the Asian female hacker as our guide, we learn not live in world of rigid binaries, but inhabit the unruly environs of a pluralized heterogeneous “1.”

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26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [1] Michel Foucault claimed that historically Asian societies tended to demonstrate an open erotic culture celebrating sex while modern European society was founded on the art of confession and secrecy. This construction has been problematized for its Orientalism but it nevertheless holds true for what Europeans thought of foreign and ancient cultures.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [2] In many ways, all Chinese are potential assets according to the Cox congressional report on counter-intelligence, which documented the “thousand grains of sand” approach and dirty little secret of the Chinese government in taking bits of information from the countless Chinese students and workers spread around the world to amass facts about its enemies.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [3] In the notorious case of Wen Ho Lee, when the U.S. failed to pin charges of espionage on a Taiwanese American scientist, it was learned that Lee’s wife, Sylvia, had been an official FBI informant, supplying Chinese scientists to the CIA as a liaison between scientists and delegates.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [4] That text set the scholarly grounds for cyberfeminist studies and how to think about gender and race in technoculture, but it problematically attributes too much privilege to Southeast Asian women factor workers as “real-life” cyborgs actively rewriting the stakes of their survival through a “play of readings.”

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Contributor bio

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Long T. Bui is currently the Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne in the Department of Asian American Studies. Investigating the intersections of gender, sexuality and race in technoculture, Bui’s work has appeared in the journals Feminist Media Studies and positions: asia cultural critique.

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