The China Daily, the Chinese government’s English-language mouthpiece, couldn’t have been handed a better story. On June 13, Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency who exposed a vast American electronic surveillance program before fleeing to Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily, that the U.S. has for years hacked into Chinese computer systems. After days of silence about the presence of a U.S. whistle-blower on Chinese soil — albeit in a territory governed separately from the rest of the country — the Chinese state media swung into action. “This is not the first time that U.S. government agencies’ wrongdoings have aroused widespread public concern,” opined the China Daily in an editorial. In a separate news article, the official state newspaper wrote that “analysts” believed the bombshells dropped in the Snowden affair are “certain to stain Washington’s overseas image and test developing Sino-U.S. ties.”
Cybersecurity was one of the many contentious issues U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed during their summit in California last week. For months now, the U.S. government has implicated Beijing in state-sponsored hacking. Western Internet security firms have accused a Shanghai-based People’s Liberation Army unit of mining confidential data from U.S. government agencies, American corporations and human-rights organizations critical of China, among others. Beijing has denied that any such program exists and says that China is also the victim of cyberespionage. Snowden’s testimony to the South China Morning Post certainly adds a dose of conviction to the Chinese government’s claims.
There is, of course, an element of absurdity in Snowden criticizing the “hypocrisy” of the U.S. government’s data-espionage program while seeking refuge in a tiny territory that belongs to the world’s largest surveillance state. Hong Kong, as Snowden has said, places a certain premium on rights like freedom of speech and privacy. China, the territory’s overlord, does not. Perhaps Americans were surprised by their own government’s prying into their online lives, but state eavesdropping is a given in China. On Weibo, the Chinese social-media service, one user commented: “We all know what the Chinese government does to its citizens. The point of the Snowden affair is that an American opposes the American government’s monitoring of its citizens in the name of national security. We Chinese people are so accustomed to government monitoring, so why are we so excited about the Snowden case?”
Indeed, as the Chinese state press enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude over Snowden’s allegations that the U.S. government has infiltrated “hundreds” of Chinese electronic targets, news trickled out that Du Bin, a Chinese photographer who has worked for TIME, had been detained on May 31. A brave photojournalist and filmmaker, Du has spent much of his career chronicling the plight of those left behind by China’s economic boom and crushed by the vagaries of the country’s justice system. (Du can be held for 15 days without charges.) Earlier this month, a brother-in-law of jailed Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail on what human-rights campaigners have deemed trumped-up fraud charges. China needs no whistle-blowers to make known such remarkable cases.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing