My Take

Big Brothers of every shade are watching, in China and the US

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 2:55am

Big Brother is watching. And his face can look either Chinese or American these days. What is fascinating is that the world's leading authoritarian state and its greatest democracy look increasingly like the two sides of the same awesome state power crushing the lone individual in their respective societies. The Winston Smiths of China and the US watch out - your time is up.

The latest news on the mainland is that anyone who spreads a rumour on the internet can earn themselves three years in the slammer. It appears the truth or falsity of the rumour is immaterial. What matters is its effect. The same rumour may land you in jail or not, depending on whether it has been forwarded more than 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 times. This runs counter to the very notion of the rule of law. An exemption, though, may be made if a legitimate allegation is made on the record against official corruption.

China's repression aims mainly at its own citizens. America's war in or on cyberspace has compromised the web's integrity for everyone, by deliberately weakening protocols on encryption standards and forcing US technology firms to create vulnerabilities for its cyberspies to snoop around. Of course, weakened protection on the internet also invites criminals.

But the Obama administration is also carrying out an unprecedented war on whistle-blowers at home. We are not talking about Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, just old-fashioned ones who stole nothing and only exposed government misdeeds. The US government has jailed the CIA officer who exposed the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects; prosecuted a National Security Agency worker for disclosing a US$1.2 billion contract for a data-stealing programme that could be done for US$3 million; ruined the career of the ex-chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo after he criticised the infamous prison in newspapers; and persecuted four employees of a US Air Force mortuary for revealing the mishandling of the remains of American service members. The list goes on and on.

Freedom in the 21st century is under threat everywhere. And "democracy" may be as much a threat as dictatorship.