China is the “leading suspect” in the massive hack of a US government agency holding the personal records of millions of Americans, a US intelligence chief has said.
James Clapper is the highest-ranking American official to publicly implicate Beijing since news of the data breach emerged.
China has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that it is behind the hacking.
The statement came after three days of high-level talks in which China and the US agreed to a “code of conduct”.
“China remains the leading suspect,” said Mr Clapper at a conference in Washington DC, but “the US government continues to investigate” he added, according to his office.
At the Washington talks, where cyber security was a top priority, US Secretary of State John Kerry said there was a need to work with China to develop a “code of conduct” on state behaviour in cyberspace. Chinese representatives had agreed with these conclusions.
“It’s something that we agreed needs to be addressed and hopefully it can be addressed soon,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
China has said any suggestion it was behind the hacking was “irresponsible and unscientific”.
On 5 June the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said more than four million employees, pensioners, contractors and job applicants may have had their personal data compromised and some unconfirmed reports have put the number at 14 million or higher.
The OPM first became aware of the breach in April and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the hackers were believed to be in China.
In March last year hackers breached OPM networks but the attempt was blocked. Again China was held to blame.
Meanwhile, China’s cabinet yesterday criticised racial discrimination and police abuses in the US, in a report intended as a counterpoint to American criticism of Beijing’s own human rights record.
The report issued by the State Council Information Office cited the killing of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cases in which unarmed African-Americans were shot and killed by white police officers.
Such cases “exposed the feature, gravity and complexity of human rights problems in the US,” the report said. America’s institutionalised racism continues to negatively impact law enforcement and on the judicial system, it said.
“Police killings of African-Americans during law enforcement have practically become ‘normal’ in the US,” the report said.
Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese foreign minister, said yesterday that Washington failed to conduct dialogues on human rights on the basis of mutual respects and equality.
“Therefore, we would like to make some comments about what happens in the US as well, as the principle of fairness,” he said. “It may also be regarded as an equal action.”
Other issues cited in the report included domestic violence, wage discrimination, poverty, homelessness, income inequality and rights abuses by US forces and government agents abroad. The report mainly used as sources official US figures, media reports and data from the United Nations.
China began issuing such accounts several years ago in response to annual reports by the US government on human rights concerns in China and other countries demanded by Congress.
US reports generally focus on China’s restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, religious observation and political participation, mainly citing information collected by its own diplomats and independent monitoring groups.