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

19 comments
TMA
TMA

In china at least they do it openly and to the chinese people. There has been no doubt to the things they're doing and why they do it. While US govt does it secretly and to people who uses american technology (practically everyone).

ZhangLao
ZhangLao

I am Chinese myself, and though the U.S. government is bad, I think China and Russia's governments are far, far worse.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

The brutal Chinese Communist Party is a gangster regime full of cruel liars. The Chinese Communist Party is not interested in World peace, far from it. Its ambition is World domination, which is held at bay only by the power of the American military machine. When it comes to the cruelty of the CCP, God bless America is correct. The evil CCP has murdered one hundred million of its own people since 1949 and is now attempting the genocide of tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong practitioners by the use of torture, slavery, organ harvesting and murder. This is my understanding, thank you.

chaokai60
chaokai60

We can of course subordinate the state of yielding in the following transience to meeting public opinion agreement and then ensues a good rating or well meaning in the democracy system, but not a geographic one. We still can change, you know, according to the state of meeting public opinion, but that's really of no concern to the state of light spectrum or time frame at all. 

ysprefer
ysprefer

We shall separate the people and the government. There is differet between Snowden and Liu Xiaobo, Snowden haven't let out any important secret, American's espionage to other countries including China, has been known by China long ago, he just do what he think is right to avoid people's freedom to be inpaired by the American Governments under the name of national security.

While few people believe or even know who is Liu Xiaobo, except those like me who spend 14hours a day on the internet. For ordianry people, do not know, or do not understand Liu Xiaobo. For elit people, they know what he is talking about, but they are not naive to believe it. There is corruption, increasing gap between the rich and the poor, negligence of laws, but China is becoming better and better every day, Chinese people have better education, better living standard, better freedom of speech and ideas, whatever the American and the western world is good, we learn from them, there is no need to risk the security and property of our country to do anything rush. What Mr. Liu Xiaobo is doing, is just what the anti-chinese power want.

In this sense, we may say, Snowden is a hero of freedom and a true patriot of America but not American Government; while what Mr. Liu Xiaobo is doing,  has a potential danger for the wellbeing of Chinese People.

ChasL
ChasL

What can you expect from a government mouth piece like Hannah Beech? Beech writes for China Digital Times, a blog financially beholden to Congressionally funded NED (check CDT's China grant status with NED.)

Duduong is correct, Liu Xiaobo's financial connection with NED is also public information (google "Liu Xiaobo NED"). In the 5 years leading up to Liu's subversion charge, two organizations Liu headed (Independent Chinese PEN, Mingzhu Zhongguo) received nearly a million dollar of US tax payer money thru NED, to advocate abolition of China's constitution.

BTW, foreign sponsorship of domestic politics is illegal in America (ref: FARA). When people like Snowden acts against the state, he's a traitor, but when Liu Xiaobo takes foreign government's money and acts against the state, he gets a Nobel.

para82
para82

@Hannah Beech: I suggest you read the comment posted  by duduong.  This commenter's argument is much better reasoned and objective than yours.   Also you should  remember  the old adage  that people who live in the glass house should not throw stones.  I also remember that there is no such thing as a half-virgin.

prastagus
prastagus

largest police state? Actually USA has 1 police per 100 people while China has 1 per 1000. Since we like to talk about GDP per capita, why not use this for police state too?

rorywong654
rorywong654

The guy Mr.Liu American hero is jailed because he openly wrote something to incite overthrow the Chinese government. What American would do if your citizen openly endorse terrorist to overthrow the exiting system in America? You think he would be award an Nobel Peace prize too.I don't think so.

duduong
duduong

In China, exposing government misdeeds does not usually get you locked up. One just have to go to any of the popular blogs and forums in China to see for himself.

One sure way to get into trouble is to try to subvert the Chinese constitution, particularly the clause on one party rule. This is why Liu Xiaobo was arrested, and similar to the way the US locks up people who donate to organizations the US deems illegal, e.g. "Al-Qaeda affiliated". So far, there is no indication that Chinese prison guards have kept Liu stripped naked in the same manner that their US counterparts did to Bradley Manning, even though Manning had no intention of overthrowing the US constitution or government.

In the end, the greatest difference between the US and China is the former's hypocrisy. Chinese are absolutely scrupulous in not pointing finger at other nations except in self-defense. The US, well, you know. So, Ms. Beech, of course the Chinese are not surprised at the Prism program; what they are surprised at is that Americans, including you, could have pretended they are better than that for so long.



ZhangLao
ZhangLao

There is much hypocrisy in what the U.S. does, of course, but at least ITS people, even high employed gov't officials are willing to speak out and expose. In China, how many people would dare to do so? In Russia? In the Islamic world? It would be nearly unthinkable, and quite rightly so.

I am not trying to anger or please anyone here, it is in the end all a matter of personal perspective which is worse. I have merely given mine.

para82
para82

@duduong  You have just taken words out of my mouth !!!!!!!!

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@duduongAs an American it really pisses me off that I feel compelled to up vote this statement. Although Im pretty certain that all your neighbors and folks living in conquered territories like Tibet would disagree with "Chinese are absolutely scrupulous in not pointing finger at other nations except in self-defense."

duduong
duduong

@SwiftrightRight @duduong

But I am an American too. I just reached disillusion earlier than most.

I remembered vividly the excitement when the Cold War was won. Some reporter wrote about the newly discovered Soviet economic difficulty in the 80's and said that if the Soviet had not hidden it for fear being taken advantage of, the West and the US in particular would have surely helped. We were so naive in believing the idea that America represented everything good back then. But then Soviet collapsed; Yeltsin opened his arms and his heart to the Americans, who promptly took advantage of it and wrecked Russian economy (in the process, some Harvard professors made hundreds of millions of dollars; he was not alone), and Clinton simply incorporated the pieces of the Soviet empire into America's own.

Then there came Bush. I was among the few who knew he was lying about the WMD before the invasion. That was the last straw for me, even though I had supported him in 2000.

Two days ago, on Monday, an American diplomat in Taipei occupied the handicap seats on the public transit and refused to yield to an old man. When a fellow rider spoke up, she shoved her State Department ID in his face and cited diplomatic immunity. The State Department has since refused to apologize. Guess what, this woman and Hannah Beech are the face of America to the Chinese, and what an ugly face we present to them!

As for Tibet, do you know that CIA funded, armed and planned the 1959 Tibetan rebellion which led to Dalai's flight to India. Dalai himself was on CIA payroll for $180k per year between 1953 and 1972. No? I am not surprised. The US media has very effectively censored any such disclosure, even though the relevant documents were declassified in the past few years. A brave (and naive) American woman made a documentary of it, called "CIA in Tibet", but you won't find it in America. This is the free-speech society we live in. I don't know if it still qualifies as "free", but it certainly has a way of covering up truth.


para82
para82

@SwiftrightRight @duduong    @ SwiftrightRight:  I  want to make two things clear.  First,I'm not Chinese, second, I'm not an apologist for the CCP.  You need to study Chinese history a little better before spewing out a lot  garbage  about Tibet.  Tibet has been part of Chinese territory  since the 17th century  when it was conquered by the Manchus of Qing Dynasty.  According to your logic,   Americans  must be living in such conquered territories  as Montana( from Sioux Indians)  New  Mexico( from  Mexico).   American  government  has recognized Tibet as part of China since 1940s.   That is many years BEFORE the Chinese central government REASSERTED  it's  sovereignty  over Tibet  by REOCCUPYING  it in  1950.

ysprefer
ysprefer

The Tibets is no matter of America, why they are so interesting arguing how many years since China own Tibets? It's in their unconscious mind to treat China as an enemy, and the best way to deal with an enemy is to impair it by any means possible. The situation is that for thousand of years in the era of cold war, China can not be conquered except by its own stupid emperor, after the invention of nuclear bomb, China can not be conquered but may be destroyed with the earth together; only a short period after the invention of guns and before the invention of nuclear bomb, that China may be conquered or destroyed by a power without causing itself also destroyed, and this is the period between 1840 to 1949, when China was ruled by manchu minority, who treat majority of chinese as a second class people, who afraid his own subjects more than foreign powers, and this is during this period, China faces so many huminiation by foreign invaders and more huminating by its own corruption and incompetency. But the invasion of foreign power is a kind of blessing hidden in diaster, Han people regain its dominance over China again, and has destroyed the obstacles which as established by himself, and revivled again. That's something we call progress.

para82
para82

@SwiftrightRight @para82 @duduong  @SwiftrightRight.; Your analogy is very flawed.  You should ask "are Montana and New Mexico  part  of  the U.S.?  if  your answer is yes, then  Tibet is part of China.  If your answer is no, then America should give  Montana back to the Sioux Indians  and New Mexico to  Mexico, then you may ask China to give Tibet back to Tibetans.  Tibet has been  a Chinese territory for almost 300 years---  that is  a  lot longer than either Montana or New Mexico has been part of America.  Before spewing out a lot of garbage , study history a little  bit.