Is Prism Turning the U.S. into China?

Reaction to Edward Snowden’s disclosures of documents revealing widespread U.S. government surveillance of communication systems has been somewhat muted on Chinese social media networks. Some people have accused the U.S. government of behaving like the Chinese Communist Party in its efforts to collect vast amounts of metadata from Internet and phone users, but overall the reactions in China have been mixed. In the New York Times, Didi Kirsten Tatlow asks:

Is America becoming more like China, a country that has long subjected its citizens to surveillance?

The revelations came in a week when President Barack Obama met with Xi Jinping in California — and cybersecurity was a major point of discussion, with the U.S. saying China has been stealing secrets.

“It is striking how the west and China are moving incrementally towards each other, especially in the practice of mass surveillance,” wrote Henry Porter, a journalist and novelist and the London editor of Vanity Fair magazine, in the commentary in The Observer.

“But unlike the Chinese, for the moment at least, we have the option to oppose what’s happening,” he concluded. [Source]

For artist and activist Ai Weiwei, the answer is more clearcut. He expresses his disappointment in the U.S. in an op-ed for the Guardian:

I lived in the United States for 12 years. This abuse of state power goes totally against my understanding of what it means to be a civilised society, and it will be shocking for me if American citizens allow this to continue. The US has a great tradition of individualism and privacy and has long been a centre for free thinking and creativity as a result.

In our experience in China, basically there is no privacy at all – that is why China is far behind the world in important respects: even though it has become so rich, it trails behind in terms of passion, imagination and creativity.

Of course, we live under different kinds of legal conditions – in the west and in developed nations there are other laws that can balance or restrain the use of information if the government has it. That is not the case in China, and individuals are completely naked as a result. Intrusions can completely ruin a person’s life, and I don’t think that could happen in western nations.

But still, if we talk about abusive interference in individuals’ rights, Prism does the same. It puts individuals in a very vulnerable position. Privacy is a basic human right, one of the very core values. There is no guarantee that China, the US or any other government will not use the information falsely or wrongly. I think especially that a nation like the US, which is technically advanced, should not take advantage of its power. It encourages other nations. [Source]

While activists throughout Asia have expressed concerns that their personal details will be shared with authorities through the National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program, some dissidents in China, including Hu Jia, did not share those fears. Some activists, however, expressed worries that the U.S. had lost leverage in calling for Internet freedom from countries like China. From Reuters:

“I’ve never considered abandoning Twitter, YouTube, Google, Gmail or Gchat,” said Hu Jia, a prominent Chinese dissident. […] “These are the only weapons we have to get our message out and the only safe way to do so. The U.S. would never monitor us. They are using it to fight terrorism. It’s totally different to what the Chinese government does to listen in on us,” he said by telephone.

[…] Nathan Freitas, a New York-based activist who helps Tibetans defend against Chinese cyber-surveillance, said the reports on Prism were nevertheless troubling.

“I’m concerned that from a Western perspective, or at least a U.S. perspective, we are losing some of that moral high ground from which we can pressure China,” he said.

“It’s just going to be harder to say what they are doing is fundamentally wrong, when maybe it’s just becoming statecraft.” [Source]

Other Chinese Internet users have said they are in fact now more hesitant to use U.S. Internet services such as those provided by Google. Tea Leaf Nation translated a range of netizen responses to the news:

Weibo user @SugarCHH expressed his disappointment in Google’s internet services:

I am no longer that fond of Google, especially after PRISM, if the FBI and NSA’s notice about ‘inspecting users other than Americans’ is true. Think about how much of our private information has been sold by Google. America only has around 300 million people, but even if Google’s China search service only amounts to a few percent points, that would be a lot of netizens. Furthermore, some people use all of the services Google provides. I have been betrayed. [Source]

Another Tea Leaf Nation post provides examples to show that, while the NSA leaks are still not a big story on Chinese social media sites, Chinese people who follow the story are developing a more nuanced and critical view of the U.S.:

This does not mean that the U.S. is always at the top of the Chinese collective mind. While there was certainly some revealing chatter about Snowden and PRISM on the Chinese Internet, even the most popular posts garnered only a few hundred retweets, and at no point did any related keyword or post trend.

If Chinese reaction to Snowden’s leak is significant, it is because it contributes in a small way to an increasingly nuanced view of America and its politics. Debates about the U.S. drone program, for example, take place among followers of international politics on China’s Weibo just as they do on Twitter. While some Chinese have lauded what they call Snowden’s “heroism” as an example of American citizens’ “civil awareness,“ others in Chinese cyberspace have begun to ask whether Meiguo [America] is still deserving of its erstwhile status as a benchmark. [Source]


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