Viewpoint: Why Surveillance Outrage Falls Flat in China

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Kin Cheung / AP

A TV screen shows the news of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, June 17, 2013

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman’s advice was polite but pointed: “We believe the United States should pay attention to the international community’s concerns and demands,” said Hua Chunying on June 17, “and give the international community the necessary explanation.” Fair enough. It’s not just Americans who want to know more about Prism, the surveillance program whose existence was leaked by Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who fled to Hong Kong earlier this month. Prism reportedly has the capacity to mine the telecommunication records of Americans and non-Americans alike. Who doesn’t want to receive a “necessary explanation”?

The U.S. government’s hypocrisy in attacking the Chinese government for state-sponsored hacking while quietly conducting its own spying campaign has provided delightful fodder for China’s state-linked media. Turning the tables on foreign press who routinely write about Chinese dissidents by referring to Snowden and other American whistle-blowers as “Western dissidents,” a columnist for Xinhua, China’s state newswire, wrote: “When American politicians and businessmen make accusatory remarks, their eyes are firmly fixed on foreign countries and they turn a blind eye to their own misdeeds.”

(MORE: Beijing Reacts to Snowden Claims U.S. Hacked ‘Hundreds’ of Chinese Targets)

That’s reasonable criticism. But to equate what happens every minute in China with the excesses of Prism is ludicrous. China is the world’s largest police state. There is little rule of law. Yes, the country is far freer and richer today than it was a generation ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that phones are routinely tapped, the Internet censored and jail sentences slapped on those who are too persistent in pointing out China’s faults. Indeed, one common Chinese reaction to the Snowden affair has been a collective shrug: Of course our government spies on us, Chinese have commented online, why would you expect anything less? Over the weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama defended Prism, saying that the program was legal and had yielded intelligence that “disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well.”

Perhaps it’s naiveté that led some Americans to express surprise that a U.S. surveillance system, complete with a James Bond bad-guy moniker, exists. The enduring survival of Guantánamo, the racial profiling of Muslims on American soil, the U.S. Administration’s less-than-forthcoming response to Senate queries about secret government data collection — all these prove the gulf between American democratic ideals and a harder reality shaped by politics and vague national-security considerations. It doesn’t help the U.S.’s cause that there’s a tendency in the States to claim universal values as American ones, as if one nationality somehow deserves a monopoly on upholding and enjoying human rights.

(MORE: After Slow Start, Obama Administration Finds Its Voice on Surveillance)

Nor does it enhance Sino-American relations when people in Washington speculate about Snowden being a Chinese spy, as former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney did last weekend when he called Snowden a “traitor.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua dismissed such claims as “sheer nonsense,” and Snowden himself scoffed in a chat on the Guardian newspaper’s website: “Ask yourself: If I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now.”

Metaphorical birds were also on the mind of Xu Peixi, the Xinhua columnist and professor at the Communication University of China, who enthused about Snowden: “These people are too brilliant to be caged. Their feathers are too bright.” (The reference was to a quote from The Shawshank Redemption, the film about a man unjustly jailed.) But what about Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace laureate still imprisoned for his eloquent defense of fundamental human rights? Or his wife Liu Xia, who remains essentially under house arrest with nary a charge? Or his brother-in-law, who on June 9 was sentenced to 11 years in jail in what many suspect is another trumped-up conviction? Or the others locked up in labor camps and so-called blackjails for presenting a reality that contradicts the Chinese state’s narrative? How many tens of thousands of brilliant Chinese, with their bright feathers, remain caged by a government terrified of their truth telling?

Cover Story: How China Sees the World