China: The Snowden Advantage

03 Jul, 2013    ·   4019

Rana Divyank Chaudhary on the implications of the Snowden affair vis-a-vis the differing stances of Beijing and Washington

Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Research Intern

What significance do Edward Snowden’s actions have for China? How opposed in reality, are Beijing’s and Washington’s positions on the issues of whistle-blowing or information security?

A Level Battlefield
Edward Snowden, former contractor for the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) turned whistleblower, just did Beijing an unanticipated favour and tipped the scales for closed totalitarian regimes. Before flying to Moscow for asylum, he alleged that the American intelligence-gathering organisations, particularly, the NSA, have been hacking into Chinese computer and telecommunication networks under the PRISM programme since 2009.


Snowden earned the derision of many by first making his escape to Hong Kong, in a part of the world not known for being particularly kind to its own dissidents. Perhaps, he had in mind that the Chinese system’s negative predisposition on the Unites States’ targeted intelligence operations and methods, and Hong Kong’s autonomous status and liberal societal image made for a reasonably good two-tier protection.

Surely, the allegations of an insider that civilian networks in both Hong Kong and mainland China have been routinely compromised by the NSA operations hold weapons-grade symbolic value for Beijing. The US government has pointedly accused China of hacking into American military and commercial computer networks and stealing massive amounts of sensitive information from corporations in recent months. China may have realised that but it would not have an overt part in the drama by sheltering Snowden and engaging the United States directly in a diplomatic tug-of-war. He has since flown to Moscow triggering a new phase in the tussle, that between the United States and Russia.

However, the ‘unanimity’ of opinion on the menace of Chinese cyber espionage that filters through Western media reportage and analysis might never have seemed more biased and dubious. China has not asked for acceptance of its methods in the past and it may no longer need to. It does not yet have the capabilities or the scale of operations which the NSA can boast of, for snooping on billions of individuals, civilians and military, communicating worldwide on open or ‘secure’ channels. Certainly, it has gained significant mileage from the damage done to the United States’ image before an international code of conduct for cyberspace even reaches the roundtable. 

If Snowden indeed has troves of incriminating documentary evidence on his person then the Chinese and the Russians may acquire blockbusting propaganda ammunition against the United States by quoting him the right price above all - freedom from trial under American law. To what extent will this impact the future of cyber warfare will depend on the way he chooses out of the situation. If he concentrates on disseminating his evidence on the lines of WikiLeaks, he will have done more than his part in pushing governments and major power players on to their toes.

Beijing may enjoy the edge so long as it stays detached from Snowden, hero or traitor, himself. While the United States would now witness intense domestic debates on unchecked government surveillance, its hand in browbeating its opponents in cyberspace on world forums would be significantly weakened. The alleged manner in which the information technology giants have colluded with the US government is telling that the lines drawn in the sand may seem clear but the rights and freedoms of Americans and non-Americans alike are, in reality, exposed to be much alienated from Washington’s liberal advocacy of them. With China getting a part to play in the unfolding drama, the many movements waged by outfits such as the WikiLeaks, against the United States’ own secretive structures, may now have a new validating context and the open or tacit support from one of the most powerful state actors.

In the States of Nature
US President Barack Obama’s call for letting his government bring Snowden, who he considers to be a hero of little significance and a traitor who endangered national security, to justice is merely a distraction from bigger eye-openers. Snowden’s choice of destinations abroad – China and Russia – has highlighted the interest Washington has shown in encouraging and incentivising political dissidence, and arranging defections in more recent years in both China and Russia. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, was directly involved in the transfer of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng to the United States in 2012. Someone who is an individual threat to the security and stability of a one-party totalitarian state could well be a legitimate voice of political opposition in a democratic one and that is not completely unjustified.

But, when it comes to national security and official secrets, where often the latter precede the former, democratic governments will find it convenient to borrow not-so-democratic measures and tactics. The irony is not lost on those who believe national security concerns and individual privacy are not necessarily at odds and that one does not overwhelm the other. Beyond the theatrics of the situation, here is another peephole into how state espionage minimises its signature from people’s lives while turning their trusted networks on themselves. And, whether the government is elected and democratic or not has very little to do with how it employs the tools of surveillance at its disposal.