New York Times HONG KONG — After several days of relative silence on the issue, Chinese state media Thursday highlighted revelations that the United States government was engaged in widespread monitoring of Internet and telephone communications, carrying reports suggesting the disclosures could damage relations between the two countries.
The reports in the state media are the closest thing to an official Chinese response to the revelations, which have come at an uncomfortable time for U.S. officials, just after President Obama pressed for Beijing’s cooperation in curtailing Chinese cyberespionage. While Chinese government officials have refrained from directly criticizing the United States on the disclosures, the state media typically serve as a proxy for their views.
“The massive U.S. global surveillance program revealed by a former National Security Agency employee in Hong Kong is certain to stain Washington’s overseas image and test developing Sino-U.S. ties,” said an article in the state-run China Daily, citing analysts. The newspaper quoted Li Haidong, a researcher of American studies at China Foreign Affairs University, warning of the impact the disclosure could have on relations between the United States and China.
“For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government,” Mr. Li was quoted as saying.
Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. computer technician who disclosed the surveillance, is now believed to be in Hong Kong, which is administered by China but has a large degree of legal autonomy. As U.S. officials pursue possible charges against him in preparation for an extradition effort, the authorities in Hong Kong, rather than the mainland government, are likely to decide whether to turn Mr. Snowden over to the United States, which has a long history of cooperation with Hong Kong on such matters.
Mr. Snowden said in an interview Wednesday with the South China Morning Post that the United States had gained access to hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and China since 2009.
On Thursday, Mr. Snowden’s image was splashed across the top of the Post, an English-language paper based in Hong Kong, and his actions were the subject of more intense discussion in media outlets on mainland China and on social media sites.
One mainland news outlet, the Global Times, a newspaper that is part of the Communist Party-run People’s Daily group, called for assertive Chinese action to confront Washington in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s revelations.
“Before the U.S. government rushes to shut Snowden’s mouth, China also needs to seek an explanation from Washington,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “We are not bystanders. The issue of whether the U.S. as an Internet superpower has abused its powers touches on our vital interests directly.”
For Chinese media, coverage of the issue can be a delicate balancing act, since the allegations that the United States is employing a double standard naturally focuses attention on its assertions that Chinese entities are engaged in widespread cyberspying, an issue that Chinese state media outlets have shied away from. There is also the tricky issue of Mr. Snowden’s presence on Hong Kong soil, a potentially problematic development as China and the United States have recently worked to improve relations.
Officials in the United States have rebuffed suggestions that the surveillance by the N.S.A. was in any way comparable to Chinese cyberspying. One intelligence employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the two situations — China’s stealing of trade and military secrets and N.S.A. surveillance to track possible terrorist attacks — were not comparable, calling them “apples and oranges.”
“I can tell you with absolute certainty the U.S. government does not pass on technological secrets obtained through (strictly speaking, as a byproduct of) espionage to U.S. firms, both as a matter of principle and because there is no fair way to do it,” he wrote in answer to an e-mailed question.
“I recall some senior bureaucrat proposing this some two decades ago — and he got nowhere,” he wrote. “None of the agencies wanted anything to do with it.”
“China, by contrast, deliberately targets foreign technology for military and commercial purposes, so this is apples and oranges,” he wrote. “But in the propaganda war, that fact won’t matter.”
While meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in California last week, Mr. Obama pressed the issue of Chinese cyberspying, but Mr. Xi did not acknowledge any culpability.
At a daily news briefing Thursday, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was pressed repeatedly to address Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, but said she had “no relevant information to supply.”
“Just like what I’ve repeated here multiple times, China is also a victim to the most sophisticated cyber hacking,” she said. “We’re willing to engage with the international community in constructive dialogue and cooperation so as to jointly safeguard the peace, security, openness and cooperation of the cyberspace.”