The timing of Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing in relation to the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) cyber surveillance activities couldn’t have been more ironic or – for the USA – inconvenient. Coming on the eve of scheduled summit talks between Barak Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on cyber espionage, the revelations removed what moral high ground the US side may have held in relation to its claims around China’s cyber activities.
The leaking of the NSA’s electronic surveillance program, writes president of the Eurasia Group Ian Bremmer, follows ‘a grand American tradition of major disclosures that undermine the high standards to which the United States holds itself – and the world’. It is, what he calls, the ‘flip slide’ of American exceptionalism. On the reaction of China’s Internet users, Lee Kai-Fu, former head of Google China, has observed ‘Most discussion on Weibo is “Wow, you are not really different from the others”.’
On the back of the Snowden affair, international commentary is now questioning whether there is any real difference at all between Washington and Beijing in relation to individual privacy, online freedoms and intellectual property theft. With media coverage on the issue still thick and sickly sweet, the Snowden affair has been described as a propaganda coup for China and ‘the gift that keeps giving’.
Despite the increasingly damning picture of Washington’s position painted by the NSA revelations, much international commentary argues that the way in which the USA and China engage in cyber practices remains incomparable. In particular, assertions that China’s tactics are ‘unfair’ point to undemocratic Beijing’s lack of accountability and its control over and use of the private sector in its clandestine incursions into cyberspace.
According to Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, ‘The Chinese and US approaches to surveillance and how each of their security apparatuses go about organizing and carrying out such activities are fundamentally different in nature.’ He describes the US approach as the ‘democratic security state model’ and China’s the ‘authoritarian surveillance state model’. Although Cheung suggests that the differences have narrowed somewhat since 9/11, he still sees daylight between the two models.
Echoing Cheung, Bremmer points to what one might refer to as the unfair advantages available to the totalitarian state. He characterizes China’s approach as the ‘state capitalist model’, in which the government possesses 'broader control over the private sector, and intertwines these state-owned enterprises’ success with that of the government itself'. In this characterization, China’s globalizing capitalist entities become the camouflaged tentacles of a rising communist superpower. It is an idea that sits well within established ‘China threat’ discourse.
From a Chinese perspective, Bremmer’s ‘state capitalist model’ critique would be read with some irony – Snowden’s employer was Booz Allen Hamilton, a private company described by The Guardian as 'a significant part of the constantly revolving door between the US intelligence establishment and the private sector'.
It’s a door that since 9/11 appears to have been revolving faster than ever, with the Snowden revelations prompting the Chinese press to reprise former US president Eisenhower’s 1961 warnings about the growth of the American ‘military-industrial complex’.
In his farewell speech, Eisenhower had asserted the need to 'guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence' of the military-industrial complex (MIC), which he described as the 'conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry'. Close parallels have been frequently made between the MIC specter and the USA’s recent cyber monitoring activities in Chinese reportage. A recent Xinhua report picked its words carefully in describing how Snowden had 'revealed that a number of large U.S. companies, including Google, are government controlled collaborators in the area of network security'.
Awash with references to the MIC and to Orwell’s 1984, Chinese media reportage has no doubt played on the ironies that the Snowden affair has so unexpectedly produced. As such, any future criticism of China over Beijing’s covert use of the commercial sector to advance its national interests will likely be dismissed offhand as hypocrisy.
Nicholas Dynon is an academic and former diplomat specialising in Chinese soft power. A doctoral candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney, his research has appeared in The China Journal and Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. He is coordinator of the Line 21 Project (www.line21project.org), an online resource on contemporary Chinese state propaganda and public diplomacy.
 Bremmer I (2013) American exceptionalism, seen through the prism of American blunders. Reuters, 13 June. Available at http://blogs.reuters.com/ian-bremmer/2013/06/13/american-exceptionalism-seen-through-the-prism-of-american-blunders/ [accessed 19 June 2013].
 Lee S and Lococo E (2013) Hong Kong Groups Plan Protest to Support Edward Snowden. Bloomberg News, 13 June. Available at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-13/hong-kong-groups-plan-protest-to-support-edward-snowden.html accessed 25 June 2013.
 Cheung TM (2013) Who’d You Rather Be Watched By: China or the U.S.? ChinaFile, 13 June. Available at http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/whod-you-rather-be-watched-china-or-us [accessed 25 June 2013].
 Bremmer, op cit.
 Borger J (2013) Booz Allen Hamilton: Edward Snowden's US contracting firm. The Guardian, 9 June. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/09/booz-allen-hamilton-edward-snowden [accessed 25 June 2013].
 孙兴杰 (Sun Xingjie) (2013) 斯诺登背后的情报复合体 (The Intelligence Complex Behind Snowden), 新华新闻 (Xinhua News), 21 June. See also reportage in The Daily Beast at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/06/12/the-military-industrial-complex-is-real-and-it-s-bigger-than-ever.html
 Eisenhower DD (1961) Farewell Address, 17 January. Available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/dwightdeisenhowerfarewell.html [accessed 26 June 2013].