Why China has little to celebrate from the Edward Snowden affair

NSA whistle-blower's civil disobedience highlights the duty of citizens to protect their rights when their governments do not

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 July, 2013, 8:46am

As Chinese state media praise Edward Snowden for exposing the hypocrisy of the US government, they should not miss a major lesson from the affair: domestic rights abuses can quickly cross borders today to become the subject of international outrage.

The internet has made it easier than ever for people to compare and contrast overseas rights violations with conditions in their own countries - and to start questioning whether their own governments are guilty of the same.

Yes, the broad belief that Snowden might have been able to resist extradition through Hong Kong's courts reveals just how much the Unites States' human rights standing has fallen since its "war on terror" began.

The decision on whether or not the former National Security Agency contractor should be extradited would have involved an unflattering examination of Washington's own human rights record and whether Snowden might be denied a fair trial, or even face torture, if handed over.

Sceptics need only to look at the pre-trial detention of Bradley Manning, the 25-year-old American soldier now facing court martial for passing hundreds of thousands of US intelligence files, videos and diplomatic cables in relation to America's war in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks.

The US Army private was held in solitary confinement for 11 months by his military jailers, who kept him awake from 5am to 8pm every day, and was forced to sleep naked for a week. The UN special rapporteur on torture concluded last year that such conditions amounted to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" - an international human rights violation.

But while the Snowden affair has certainly embarrassed the US, it has also cast a light on China's human rights record.

One of the reasons Snowden got so much support in Hong Kong is that some local rights activists saw him as an exemplar of civil disobedience, of how an individual can stand up against a powerful government to protect people's rights.

As several hundred Hongkongers rallied in the rain to show support for keeping Snowden in Hong Kong, his case also became a proxy in the debate over Hong Kong's rule of law and concerns over increased interference from Beijing.

The discussion quickly carried into the mainland, where rights lawyer Xie Yanyi publicly requested information about the central government's surveillance of Chinese citizens. Like Snowden, Xie said he wanted "to prevent violations of citizens' personal privacy and freedom of internet communications".

No one expects Xie to get answers, but his request shows how one man's battle with the US administration has raised sensitivity to similar issues beyond America's borders.

It is valid to remind the US to put its own house in order before it criticises others. China should likewise focus on improving its own problems before it gloats over its rivals' failure to live up to their own human rights ideals.

Just because the US' list of human rights abuses is getting longer, that does not mean China's is getting shorter.

Washington attracted criticism for attaching a long list of reservations to its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - one result being that the treaty's key provisions were not directly enforceable under its domestic law. But China has still not ratified the treaty.

Despite its problems, the US still has an aggressive free press and civil society to keep the government in check, something that China lacks. A transparent judiciary and deep tradition of due process ensure a fair trial in the vast majority of US criminal cases.

Many have drawn parallels between Snowden's flight from US prosecution and the numerous Chinese dissidents who have sought refuge on American soil over the years.

Just last year, the central government was left red-faced when blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from detention and hid out in the US embassy, thereby drawing international attention to the issue of forced abortions and suppression of dissent on the mainland.

Since the end of the second world war, the protection of human rights has been an accepted universal goal. While each country has its own priorities, the ultimate goal should be the same: to improve the well-being of its citizens.

China has little to celebrate in the Snowden affair, but much to do to continue improving the rights of its people.

Ng Tze-wei is a former South China Morning Post reporter