BEIJING — Officially, the Chinese government has nothing to say about Edward Snowden.
But unofficially, its representatives are happy to dump on the United States.
Chinese state media have let loose with a barrage of criticism of the country’s rival world power, especially after former U.S. government contractor Snowden said widespread American Internet surveillance includes spying on people in China.
The English-language China Daily on Thursday 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 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,” the Global Times said.
In Hong Kong, the pro-Communist Party Takungpao newspaper wrote, “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.”
The criticism is irresistible, the opportunity too rich to pass up. For months, 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, who says he leaked National Security Agency secrets and is in Hong Kong, alleged in an interview published 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 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 revealed himself Sunday as the primary source of unauthorized disclosures of highly classified U.S. telephone and Internet surveillance systems and referred to America’s spying capabilities as “horrifying.” Federal officials were expected to file criminal charges against him.
Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong gives the Chinese Communist Party 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, 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, but surfaced in the Chinese news media only on Thursday, at the end of a three-day Chinese holiday.
“I have no information to offer,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said repeatedly with a thin-lipped smile in response to a barrage of questions from reporters at a briefing in Beijing.
She also repeated what has been the stock phrase by the 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 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 newspaper, Apple Daily.
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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 using the Snowden case to cover its 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 in 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,” he wrote in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “and it will be shocking for me if American citizens allow this to continue.”
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