Edward Snowden

US cyberspying an affront to Tsinghua University's open culture

Yoichi Shimatsu says US has proved itself a poor advocate of democracy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 7:10am

Carved on a plaque in its famous grassy quadrangle is the informal slogan of Tsinghua University: "Deeds speak louder than words", which is the streetwise summary of its formal motto "Self-discipline and Social Commitment".

Either version explains how the US government has failed its own advocacy of democracy in China with duplicitous acts of spying and subversion, as revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The National Security Agency has been targeting Tsinghua, he disclosed. The university is known for its role as a hub of the China Education and Research Network.

As a foreigner teaching at Tsinghua University, I was impressed with its relaxed yet earnest atmosphere of serious debate in class and off campus. Open discussions often ventured outside the narrow bounds of political correctness that prevails at universities in the US and Japan.

The mood was sometimes marred by the grim demeanour of tech-savvy visiting professors whose main purpose, it seemed, was to agitate for youth rebellion by obsessively denouncing China as a dictatorship.

While the foreign cyber-ideologues theorised about rock music and the scent of jasmine, their Chinese counterparts were designing the architecture of an online social democracy. A pioneer was Professor Jianping Wu, who led the computer-engineering team that built the China Education and Research Network, the high-speed backbone of China. His commitment to an expanding communications network granted calculating power for the science and technology departments while enabling journalism students to produce news, graphics and video content for the new media.

Pursuing dreams of a billion internet users, global hi-tech corporations like IBM, Microsoft and Google signed leases at the many hubs inside the Zhongguancun computer industry district, including Tsinghua University Science Park. But then those sweet dreams turned sour with the realisation that Google was violating the very freedoms it espoused by collecting personal data and suspected hacking into certain user accounts.

Snowden's disclosure of even deeper NSA cyberespionage is alarming, considering that many of China's leading figures are eligible, as alumni, for Tsinghua e-mail accounts. At the height of the US hacking campaign, three of nine Politburo Standing Committee members, including then leader Hu Jintao , were Tsinghua graduates.

Among these leaders, premier Wen Jiabao was, notably, an avid visitor to blogs, where he exchanged opinions with online dissenters and sometimes adopted their proposals for reform. That is exactly how the internet was intended to foster political change, through open debate and dialogue.

Tsinghua could have been a strategic target for the US cybercommand because the China Education and Research Network adapted next-generation internet protocol for 3G and 4G smartphones. The network will assign the new addresses to institutional users, including ministries, the military, police, security agencies, state-owned enterprises and the central bank - a directory that would be of interest to the Pentagon.

Now, we can only make an appeal that America's theft should not prompt Beijing into a backlash of expanded censorship.

Leaders of the US government, especially those lynch-mob congressmen who are demanding the messenger be punished, should instead be expressing contrition and remorse for their crimes against Chinese internet users. Rather than dispensing vapid lectures about intellectual freedom, Americans should be learning about China's traditional values known as the five virtues, especially yi, which translates as honesty and uprightness. A criminal mind is certainly no basis for democracy.

Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of The Japan Times Weekly, was the first non-Chinese to be appointed as a full-time lecturer in Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication