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A poster supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance, is displayed at Hong Kong's financial Central district June 17, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Image: Reuters

Surveillance scandal

von Hein, Matthias / gd
June 26, 2013

Washington slammed China for allegedly helping NSA leaker Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong. But Beijing immediately rebuffed the claims. China expert Björn Alpermann examines how this might affect bilateral ties.


DW: The Chinese government denies any involvement in the departure of the fugitive US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden from Hong Kong. Did the Chinese leadership in Beijing play a role in this?

Björn Alpermann: It was clear that the US would be upset about Snowden leaving Hong Kong. Due to the international scope of the matter it's hard to believe that the Hong Kong authorities did not coordinate this, at least informally, with Beijing.

Snowden's revelations of American and British surveillance programs seem to have come in handy for the Chinese. They seem to have enabled Beijing to put Washington's accusations of Chinese cyber attacks into perspective. What alternatives did Beijing have besides allowing Snowden to leave the country?

First of all, the Hong Kong government was facing a dilemma. If the authorities had arrested and extradited Snowden to the US, local opposition parties would have certainly accused the government of violating human rights, an issue the Hong Kong government is very susceptible to. The leadership of the semi-autonomous territory is constantly accused of acting at Beijing's behest.

Professor Björn Alpermann, head of the department of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Würzburg in Germany. (Photo:private)
Alpermann says the Hong Kong government was facing a big dilemmaImage: privat

On the other hand, by allowing Snowden to leave, government members have made themselves vulnerable to precisely these kinds of accusations. But, as I said, Hong Kong's government was facing a big dilemma. I therefore believe that Beijing advised Hong Kong authorities to take care of the matter as quickly as possible. The 'solution' was to state formal grounds for their decision to let him go and say: 'The documentation presented to us by the US requesting the extradition was incomplete, according to our laws.' This enabled Hong Kong to put at an end to the matter without losing face - or at least to make it somebody else's problem.

For Beijing, Snowden's leaks came at just the right time. The news broke shortly after US President Barack Obama met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in California. Obama wanted China to admit and stop cyber attacks on US companies and security-related infrastructure. Nonetheless, Snowden's revelations of US spy programs have undercut Obama's efforts. I believe Beijing doesn't care much about whether Snowden is put on trial or not. I rather see a problem for the Hong Kong government.

What's your view on the mutual accusations between China and the US?

I believe there is a lot of ramped-up rhetoric coming from both sides. On the one side, Washington is trying to portray China as an accessory to a US traitor. On the other side, Beijing is trying to draw the world's attention and portray the US as a country that broke the law by implementing sweeping surveillance measures. However, I believe Snowden's departure from Hong Kong is not going to become a long-standing issue between the two nations. Snowden is not in China anymore. The US' fury now is being directed at Russia and this can only be a good thing for US-China relations.

The Chinese state newspaper, the People's Daily, wrote that the United States has gone from a "model of human rights" to "an eavesdropper on personal privacy," and is the "manipulator" of the centralized power over the international Internet, and the "mad invader" of the networks of other countries. When will the Chinese people understand the irony of this, when they know very well that their own privacy is not respected by their government?

One of Snowden's allegations was that the US was trying to spy on the elitist Tsinghua University in Beijing, which houses a very important Chinese Internet server. A Hong Kong newspaper published how calmly students reacted to the statement. They were quoted as saying: "This is not a nice way of behaving, but we are aware that we are being monitored by our own government."

Such sophisticated readers will certainly know how to interpret the comments made by the state newspaper.

However, this will probably lead to a loss of American prestige with the majority of Chinese. And Beijing is exploiting this. Whenever there are allegations of human rights violations committed the US, the Chinese are quick to react, criticizing the US or other Western nations, for once, playing the role of the accuser.

Professor Björn Alpermann heads the department of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Würzburg in Germany.

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