Snowden NSA Leaks Meet Muted Reaction in China

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is reported to have checked out of his Hong Kong hotel and disappeared on Monday, as American authorities prepared charges and an extradition request which may or may not prove successful. Amid the debate over the brilliance or otherwise of his flight to Hong Kong, some proclaimed Snowden a hero, while others denounced him as “a grandiose narcissist“, a clueless lost soul or just “a bad guy”.

The reaction to Snowden’s leaks and unmasking in China has been muted, however. From Adam Minter at Bloomberg View:

To start with, for Chinese social-media users, of communications, electronic and otherwise, is a given. What might sound like a horrifying transgression of basic civil rights to an American comes off as a comparatively benign state of affairs to a young Chinese Internet user. Prism hasn’t trended on Chinese social media or search engines.

This is not unknown to the Communist Party-owned media, and it’s probably a reason they’ve avoided Prism over the last several days. Why hype a story that serves to remind Chinese Internet users that the surveillance to which they’ve become accustomed is so much worse than what Americans experience? Indeed, Chinese media — and the Communist Party that controls it — is unusually sensitive to unfavorable comparisons with other people and places, and none so much as Hong Kong

[…] For Chinese newspaper editors, the choice is thus whether to downplay a good spy story happening just across the border or risk highlighting how Hong Kong citizens enjoy a freer political environment. Then again, the Snowden story has been widely available on China’s Internet since early Monday morning, and Internet users — with some exceptions — still don’t seem to care very much. This is really a story about a martyr for rights enjoyed by Americans, not Chinese. [Source]

China Real Time’s Josh Chin found that some netizens did praise Snowden and his actions.

While Mr. Snowden is being celebrated in China, however, his revelations have provoked debate about the integrity of the U.S. government, with many expressing disappointment that it would engage in activities more typically associated with the Communist regime in Beijing.

[…] Not all Chinese Internet users were ready to equate the NSA programs and aggressive pursuit of leakers with China’s own spying and information-control efforts. As bad as the scandal might seem, some argued, the fact that Mr. Snowden managed to push the information out through the media and was able to talk about it days later was evidence that the freedoms enjoyed by U.S. citizens were still something to envy.

“What I want to know is what would have happened if this guy had tried to do this in the Celestial Kingdom,” wrote one microblogger, using a slang term for China. “I’m guessing he would have been killed in a car accident, or died of carbon monoxide poisoning, or something along those lines.”

“Every country [spies on its citizens],” wrote another. “It’s just that we’re already numb to it.” [Source]

As for the Chinese and American governments, Gillian Wong reported that while recent revelations might strengthen China’s hand, both sides share an interest in limiting the fallout. From the Associated Press:

The leaks about Washington’s own domestic surveillance program could end up hurting U.S. efforts to pressure China on , said Zhu Feng, an expert on China- at Peking University in Beijing.

“This case will hurt the U.S. bargaining power and dishonor its own credibility in charging China for cyberattacks. This is truth-telling,” Zhu said. “China will likely tell the U.S., ‘don’t be too high profile, and don’t take the moral high ground.'”

[… Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s David] Zweig said both sides were likely to try to play down the affair, saying they would not want to waste the effort made over the weekend in California.

[…] “The ‘shirt sleeves’ summit looked nice and they looked like they really were trying to kick back, put up their feet and talk about where they saw the countries going,” Zweig said. “I can’t imagine that after all this effort, they’re going to let this one thing make a mess of it.” [Source]