BEIJING — Officially, the Chinese government has nothing at all to say about Edward Snowden.
But unofficially, it is only too happy to dump on the United States.
After days of silence, state media have let loose with a barrage of criticism concerning Snowden’s allegations of a massive electronic surveillance program by the United States. The English-language China Daily ran a large cartoon of a shadowed Statue of Liberty, holding a tape recorder and microphone instead of a tablet and torch.
In an editorial dripping with indignation, the Communist Party-run Global Times demanded an explanation on behalf of the Chinese government.
“Before Snowden is silenced, Washington owes China an explanation of whether the U.S. as an Internet superpower abused its power over our vital interests,” Global Times opined.
In Hong Kong, the pro-Communist Party Takungpao newspaper added: “If the U.S. is the true defender of democracy, human rights and freedom like it always described itself ... President Obama should sincerely apologize to the people from other countries whose privacy was violated.”
Of course, the criticism is irresistible, the opportunity too rich to pass up. For months now, the U.S. government has demanded that the Chinese government rein in an extensive military-sponsored hacking operation. During last weekend’s summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, cybersecurity was the main item on the U.S. agenda.
Snowden, the 29-year-old former U.S. government contractor who says he leaked National Security Agency secrets and is now in hiding in Hong Kong, alleged in an interview published early Thursday in the South China Morning Post that there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations internationally, hundreds of them directed against China and Hong Kong.
“We hack network backbones — like huge Internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” Snowden told the Hong Kong-based newspaper.
He said he wanted to demonstrate “the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries.”
Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong presents the Chinese Communist Party with an opportunity and a headache. He entered Hong Kong on May 20 on a 90-day tourist visa and will need to be dealt with once the visa expires.
Although the former British colony is self-ruled, Beijing has the final say in matters of national security and foreign affairs. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States, but any decision on Snowden’s case must be approved by the Chinese central government.
For days now, the Chinese government has maintained a stony silence. The allegations of the U.S. surveillance program have been splashed across front pages around the world since last week, but only surfaced in the Chinese media Thursday, at the end of a three-day Chinese holiday.
“I have no information to offer,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, responded repeatedly with a thin-lipped smile in response to a barrage of questions by reporters at a briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Pressed by reporters, she repeated what has been the stock phrase by the Chinese government for months now, saying that “China is one of the most affected victims of hacking and wishes to have an international dialogue on the subject based on maintaining peace, security, openness and cooperation.”
Many foreign-policy commentators believe that Beijing will have a hard time exploiting the Snowden revelations to its own benefit, given its vulnerability to charges of human rights abuse and invasion of privacy.
“The fact cannot be changed that China is abusing the Internet to violate human rights and serve its one-party system,” editorialized another Hong Kong-based newspaper, Apple Daily.
Chinese dissidents say they fear that the scandal will weaken the United States’ ability to take the high ground in pushing for more freedoms from Beijing. They say the Chinese government is merely using the Snowden case to cover its own culpability in hacking, eavesdropping and electronic surveillance.
“It is unfair to compare what the U.S. does to China,” said Chen Ziming, a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement centered around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “The U.S. program is trying to prevent certain terrorist activities, while China is listening in to monitor what dissidents are saying and writing. People get thrown into jail here just for an email.”
However, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, artist Ai Weiwei, wrote of his disappointment in an editorial titled “The U.S. Is Behaving Like China.”
“This abuse of state power goes totally against my understanding of what it means to be a civilized society, and it will be shocking for me if American citizens allow this to continue,” he wrote in the Guardian earlier this week.
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