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Repercussions Remain from the Edward Snowden Incident

Jul 11 , 2013
  • Fu Mengzi

    VP, China Institutes of Contemporary Int'l Relations

It’s been over 10 days since Edward Snowden fled Hong Kong and arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The world’s attention is still on the fugitive PRISM-gate whistle-blower. As Snowden’s escape route involved Hong Kong, it sparked a war of words between the US and China. The State Department even warned China of consequences on China-US relations. What repercussions the incident will eventually have are yet to be further analyzed and assessed. 

Technically, to analyze the repercussions of the Snowden incident, we need to pursue two fronts: PRISM itself, and Hong Kong’s release of Snowden. 

The PRISM program has not had a negligible influence on China-US relations. Firstly, it will change the posture of the China-US dialogue. There is no shortage of people in the US that believe that the current problem between China and the US is neither security nor strategy, but rather cyber issues, or Chinese cyber attacks against America to be more exact. Before the incident, the US portrayed itself as a victim of cyber attacks, accusing the Chinese government and businesses of hacking. The Chinese refutation seemed quite powerless due to a lack of evidence. Cyber attacks were even a core agenda item when Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama met in Sunnylands, California. “The Snowden evidence” has now reversed the situation. The fact that China is actually a victim has now been clearly established. In the relevant dialogues, China reacted passively to the US agenda. This posture has to change. The Chinese should be confident that justice is on its side, and demand that the US earnestly stop infringement and strengthen cyber security cooperation with China. 

Another ramification from the Snowden incident has been an undermined moral image of the American government. Ordinary Chinese tend to have complex feelings toward the US. On the one hand, we are fully aware of and detest past US hostility or even containment attempts against China and we loath its hegemonic behavior in the world. However, many people are also attracted to and identify with the US, a country built on the ideology of freedom, in which principles such as “all men are created equal”, “restraining government power” and “personal freedom is not to be violated” are deep-rooted. With these, the US government has always pointed its finger at other countries from a high moral ground in world politics. However, the disclosure of a pervasive and extensive mass surveillance program has revealed its long-term hypocrisy. The demands for other countries to obey or endorse the US on the ground of its domestic laws are neither just, nor honest. 

Additionally, US relations with the rest of world will have to go through new rounds of psychological adaptation. That China has been under American intelligence surveillance is nothing strange, nor is it beyond Chinese expectation. But more disclosures have put US allies, such as Europe and Japan, on the list of surveillance targets. How can US allies not feel wronged when they treat the US as friends, and are treated by the US as enemies. It will take a long time to repair the damage. 

Snowden fled Hong Kong and arrived in Moscow because the Chinese Special Administrative Region found itself unable to detain Snowden with the insufficient information provided by the US State Department. This issue will have direct and far-reaching influence on China-US relations, but no conclusion can be drawn as to whether the influence will be negative or positive. 

First of all, the Chinese Government respected that the Hong Kong SAR government should handle the incident on its own. Of course the US will always suspect that Hong Kong obeyed an order from Beijing. However, China, as a mature power, can always sit down and talk with the US. And there have been quite a few cases for China to talk with the US about. However, would the US respond positively in such a situation? The departure of Snowden avoided a negotiation that would be hard to conclude and would certainly poison bilateral relations. 

Second, as a sharp contrast to the persistant resistance met by Chinese ICT solutions providers such as Huaiwei and ZTE while trying to invest in the US, eight big US companies including Cisco, IBM, Google, Qualcomm, Intel, Apple, Oracle and Microsoft “hold key Chinese sectors such as government, customs, post, finance, railway, civil aviation, medical service, military and police, maintain close contacts with the US government and military and as such there is zero threshold for the US intelligence to obtain information through their equipment, software and networks.” With products overwhelmingly dominant in key information infrastructures, these companies can actually march in China. With the American government and companies engaging in global surveillance, the Chinese people have the right to demand a governmental investigation into the matter. 

Third, even though the Snowden incident has darkened a shadow over the China-US relationship, it may also help the US realize that, despite the great importance attached to relations with the US and the great desire not to have them disrupted, China does have its bottom line and principles that may not be changed even with a summit. China and the US may agree or disagree, but their bilateral relationship must not be taken hostage. Only with this understanding can the relations develop soundly and rationally. In this connection, clear signals over the Snowden incident may be conductive to the future of this relationship. 

It is equally unnecessary to magnify the influence of the Snowden incident. The more relaxed statements by President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel seem to suggest that the overall China-US relationship will not be much influenced by this situation. 

Fu Mengzi is the Vice President of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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