The opinion writers at China’s state media outlets haven’t been known to be the biggest fans of whistleblowers.
When, earlier this year, a spate of corruption scandals — many unearthed by intrepid bloggers wielding the new-found power of Chinese social media websites — rocked the Communist Party, several official media outlets cautioned against the dangers of ‘rumour mongering,’ although the leadership, confronted by angry public opinion, was forced to sack officials to placate the tide of online anger.
And, when several of those bloggers and activists were subsequently silenced, there was barely a murmur of protest in the State media.
However, when a 29-year-old American whistleblower surfaced in Hong Kong last week, the party’s mouthpieces welcomed him with open arms. “Whistleblower welcome in China,” ran one headline on the English-language website of the People’s Daily , the party’s official newspaper.
It isn’t surprising that the revelations of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, have been welcomed in China. For months, Beijing has been chafing at accusations from Washington that the Chinese were mounting a widespread hacking campaign against government agencies and enterprises in the U.S.
Snowden’s revelations this week included new details of the U.S. hacking into servers in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland. In an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post , Snowden said the U.S. had been carrying out such activities “for years.” He reportedly even shared details of IP addresses in Hong Kong and China that the U.S. had targeted.
“What has happened recently,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in response to the revelations, “has shown that China is indeed one of the major victims of cyberattacks.”
In a not-too-subtle dig at the U.S., she added: “What cyberspace needs is not war or hegemony, not irresponsible attacks or accusations, but regulation and cooperation.”
China’s media outlets were less diplomatic in their language. “In the past years, the U.S. government has been blaming other countries for threatening cybersecurity,” wrote the state-run Xinhua news agency. “However, the recent leakage of the two top-secret U.S. surveillance programmes of the National Security Agency (NSA) has smashed the image of the U.S. as a cyber liberty advocate and revealed its hypocrisy.”
The Global Times , a party-run nationalistic tabloid, said Beijing should “explicitly demand a reasonable explanation from the U.S government” about the NSA’s activities. The newspaper did acknowledge that the Snowden case could pose a tricky diplomatic test for China.
If the U.S. seeks to extradite the former CIA employee, Snowden’s fate will rest in the hands of Hong Kong’s courts, which have, in the past, worked closely with the Americans on criminal cases, even if they do make an exception for “political cases.” Snowden has reached out to the Hong Kong media in an apparent effort to build a groundswell of public support to pressure the government to back his case.
On Saturday, activists in Hong Kong took out a rally to support Snowden. “Obama and Xi are watching you! No Big Brother State!” one banner read, referring to the U.S. and Chinese Presidents.
Beijing can intervene in extradition cases in its “Special Administrative Region” if the cases are seen to affect its foreign policy or defence interests.
Diplomats here suggest the Chinese government is unlikely to do so openly, considering recent sensitivities in Hong Kong over the perceived influence of Beijing. Lawyers have pointed out that it can take months — in some instances, years — for extradition cases to wind their way through the courts, suggesting that Beijing may prefer to simply wait and watch.
The Global Times suggested that Chinese public opinion would be strongly against extraditing Snowden. “China should make sure that Hong Kong is not the last place where other “Snowdens” want to go. At the very least, Hong Kong should be an acceptable destination for them,” the newspaper said.
The irony of a usually hard-line party mouthpiece calling for support to whistleblowers was not lost on many Chinese bloggers.
Beyond the official media’s unquestionable sense of schadenfreude at Washington’s predicament, the Snowden case has also shed light on the rising number of Chinese who are waging similar battles for transparency.
“When would China have its own Snowden?” was a common question on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese Twitter equivalent used by 300 million Chinese.
It is clear that like Snowden, a growing number of technologically savvy young Chinese are using the power of the Internet to bring about greater political accountability.
Anti-corruption activist Zhu Ruifeng is one among them. Zhu rose to fame when he posted a video of a powerful local official in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, Lei Zhengfu, having sex with an18-year-old girl.
The video, which subsequently went viral, unearthed a sordid corruption racket in Chongqing that resulted in the sacking of half-a-dozen officials. Zhu discovered that local property developers were using young women to extort contracts from party bosses, exposing the seamy underbelly of the graft that greases the wheels of politics and business in China.
Shortly after the Lei Zhengfu case, journalist Luo Changping also took to Sina Weibo to expose the corrupt practices of a senior official, Liu Tienan, who was a Vice-Minister in the National Development and Reform Commission, the top planning body. Luo knew that censors would likely kill his investigative piece, so he turned to Weibo. But after his tweet elicited thousands of responses, the central government was subsequently forced to launch a formal investigation.
A pledge from the new President, Xi Jinping, that he would swat both “tigers and flies” to fight corruption energised activists like Zhu. But in recent weeks and months, the leadership has shown that it is more wary, rather than welcoming, of people like Zhu by quietly silencing whistleblowers.
Since March 15, activists who were calling on officials to publicly declare their assets have been detained on charges including “illegal assembly” and “inciting subversion of State power.”
Nine activists in Beijing and one in southern Jiangxi have been arrested, while four others are yet to be formally charged, according to Human Rights Watch. Journalist Hou Xin, securities trader Yuan Dong and retiree Zhang Baocheng were detained after unfurling banners in Beijing, calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets.
Meanwhile, Zhu Ruifeng has received visits from police in his modest Beijing apartment. He has since slowed down his whistle-blowing activities, although he has pledged that his work remains unfinished.