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People cross a street in front of a monitor showing file footage of Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), with a news tag (L) saying he has left Hong Kong, outside a shopping mall in Hong Kong June 23, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip

Tables turned

Xiegong Fischer / sb
November 7, 2013

For years, Washington has accused Beijing of systematic cyber espionage. Now, with information leaked by Edward Snowden on the extent of US spying, the tables have turned.


"In his novel '1984' the British author George Orwell describes a totalitarian prevention and surveillance state. With its unscrupulous spying on the whole world, the US has turned this imaginary surveillance state into reality!"

So read the beginning of a commentary published by Chinese state news agency Xinhua last Monday, November 4. The author accuses the US of misusing its technological advantage under the guise of "national interests" and thus violating international moral rules.

Attack is the best defense

These are tough words that are not commonly heard from China. Now, however, such talk is becoming increasingly common in Chinese media. For years, Washington has been accusing Beijing of carrying out cyberattacks on US establishments, instutitions and companies. Beijing has denied the claims. But the classified information disclosed by former contractor of the National Security Agency (NSA) Edward Snowden has now turned the tables.

According to Li Datong, media expert and former editor-in-chief of Bingdian, a state-owned newspaper, the Chinese media is capitalizing on the affair and using it as an optimal chance to spread propaganda. "Right now, relations between the US and its allies in Europe and elsewhere, such as Brazil, have been strained by the espionage scandal. The Chinese media is using the opportunity to direct public opinion."

China, however, should not overreact, he added - it is, after all, no secret that every country conducts espionage and that China goes even further: "Even this conversation I am having with you on the phone right now is being intercepted by the Chinese police. They told me that."

China: the US' main target

When whistleblower Edward Snowden sought refuge in Hong Kong, it wasn't a big story in Chinese news. Before fleeing to Moscow, however, he disclosed to a Hong Kong newspaper information about US spying activities on Chinese government facilities and universities. This prompted a strong reaction from the otherwise tightly controlled Chinese media. Xinhua accused Washington of being a hypocrite, among other things, and called it in a commentary the "biggest miscreant of our time."

Hua Chunying, deputy director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Infromation Department, speaks at a press conference at the Chinses Foreign Ministry in Beijing on Feb. 8, 2013. (Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )
Hua Chunying, deputy director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Information Department, demands an explanationImage: picture-alliance/AP

Last week, the German magazine Spiegel Online published a world map indicating spying activities carried out by the NSA based on disclosures made by Snowden. According to the former NSA contractor, China is one of the NSA's main targets. According to the map, the US has used its diplomatic offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong to spy on China.

The same week this information came out, an Australian newspaper, the "Sydney Morning Herald," reported that Australia's embassies and consulates in Asia had passed on information to US secret services. Australia belongs to the so-called "Five Eyes" spy network, along with Great Britain, New Zealand and Canada. The leaked information was followed by a wave of outrage. The spokesperson for the Chinese foreign office responded by demanding an explanation from Washington.

More surveillance, more danger

China wants to use the NSA scandal to strengthen its position in world politics. Xinhua has already speculated over a "de-Americanized" world order.

Thomas Rid, expert for cyber security at the Department of War Studies of King's College in London, sees the Snowden affair as a huge blow to the Obama administration.

"If mass-surveillance becomes public in a highly visible way, this can backfire; the political consequences can be severe, just as they are for the NSA and for Obama right now."

The logo of Sina Corp's Chinese microblog website
Weibo microbloggers openly exchange opinions about the NSA scandalImage: Reuters

Beijing should, however, not see the scandal as a personal political triumph, he added. "Snowden has provided a model to leakers everywhere, even inside the Chinese security establishment; the risk is that others could follow his example. I would assume that some people in Beijing understand the risks very well. The lesson, therefore, is not that more surveillance is more desirable, but that more surveillance is more dangerous."

Chinese netizens have been closely following the NSA scandal. On the social media site Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, users participate in discussions about US spying; and in many of the comments there is a twinge of irony. One user addressed President Obama directly: "Mr. President, on mobile phones of Chinese students, you won't find anything other than filthy jokes and deceptive advertisements. "Another microblogger wrote: "What is worse? Americans listening to your phone calls and reading your text messages? Or brainwashing (in this country)?"

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