Proposed counter-terrorism legislation in China has prompted intense criticism from the United States. President Obama condemned its broad provisions, stating that the law would “essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services.” There is no doubt that this legislation represents an indefensible extension of state surveillance. But criticism of China’s surveillance policy from the United States and Western governments rings hollow. China is not ignorant of international practices and precedents – it is simply following a path already established by the United States and its allies.
The new legislation would require technology and Internet companies to hand over encryption keys to Chinese security agencies and intentionally leave back-doors in their products to facilitate surveillance. It would also allow for the surveillance of streets and public spaces with cameras equipped with facial recognition technology. The new law will cement the reach of China’s surveillance capabilities by forcing foreign companies operating in China to open their infrastructure for easy inspection. While a smaller nation might suffer economically from similar measures by dissuading foreign investment, China will not. The Chinese market is one of the largest in the world and foreign companies will face serious pressure to cooperate. Furthermore, the Chinese government is unlikely to change course even if some Western corporations threaten to cease operating in the country, as China is keen to develop indigenous competitors in a U.S.-dominated market.
Chinese authorities justify the legislation by raising the specter of terrorism conducted by Uyghur separatists. This justification conveniently ignores the Chinese government’s own role in fostering extremism by repressing dissent and the legitimate grievances of the Uyghur population. But using terrorism as a pretext for widespread and abusive monitoring of Internet communications is nothing new. This strategy was pioneered by the United States and its allies in the “Five Eyes” network – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As early as 2001, privacy advocates warned that an unconstrained system of surveillance was being developed with little civilian oversight.
The Snowden leaks only confirmed the extent and development of these programs. Despite the U.S.’s explicit condemnation of backdoor requirements, the NSA itself has installed back-doors in numerous communications technologies, including Cisco products and NIST encryption frameworks. Monitoring ordinary Internet users without restraint is also established U.S. practice. The U.S. government started forcing Internet companies like Yahoo and Google to turn over massive amounts of user data for surveillance purposes almost a decade ago. President Obama himself justified NSA surveillance practices, stating that the U.S. government struck the right balance between security concerns and protecting civil liberties. Like its Chinese counterparts, the U.S. government defends these practices with reference to an ill-defined terrorist threat.
In both China and the United States, the threat of terrorism and terrorist-related damage cannot possibly justify the cost of the surveillance practices put in place. Terrorism-related deaths in China per year number in the low hundreds. While this is clearly a problem, Chinese deaths from traffic accidents total around 275,000 per year. The Chinese government does not, however, spend billions on a security apparatus designed specifically to prevent traffic accidents and catch reckless drivers. The United States is little different. In 2011, eight Americans were killed worldwide by terrorist attacks, while around 32,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. The United States government does not spend billions of dollars on an omnipresent surveillance system and global military operations to combat the threat of traffic accidents.
So why do governments in China and the United States spend so much time and money worrying about the threat of events that occur about as frequently as lightning strikes? In China and the West, terrorism serves as a convenient pretext for monitoring the civilian population and suppressing domestic dissent. In the United States, Department of Homeland Security and FBI coordination centers established ostensibly for combating terrorism were used to police the Occupy movement. In China, the new surveillance system will aid not just the monitoring of Uyghur groups but also dissidents and protestors in places like Hong Kong. Terrorism does not pose a serious threat to the governments of China and the United States; domestic dissidence might.
Sadly, China’s proposed counter-terrorism law will merely allow the Chinese government to catch up to Western standards of omnipresent surveillance. The U.S. government cannot claim the moral high ground when it blatantly violates the rights enshrined in its own constitution. A serious challenge to state surveillance will not come from other states; it must arise from China’s own citizenry. Now more than ever, American and Chinese citizens share a compelling interest: protecting their persons and privacy from an increasingly powerful global surveillance apparatus.