April 6, 2014, by Tony Hong

How Edward Snowden became China’s new best friend

By Kjetil B. Alstadheim,

Student at Nottingham University Ningbo Summer School.

It was from Chinese territory Edward Snowden’s revelations about American massive spying on the internet came. Snowden fled to Hong Kong from Hawaii before leaking documents about the operations of The National Security Agency (NSA). 

Snowden did not stay in Hong Kong for long. But the effect of his revelations remain, not at least in China. The discussion concerning cyber security and espionage has changed.

The story of Google is one example that can illustrate the change. Google decided to stop censoring search results on the search engines Chinese site in 2010. Chinese mainland users were redirected to servers in Hong Kong. Google inc. explained the decision to close it’s operations in China with Chinese cyber attacks on Gmail-accounts of dissidents and the lack of free speech.

Snowden’s revelations in 2013 is giving China a way to hit back.

In June 2014 the state controlled newspaper China Daily published an article about how American tech-companies – naming Google with among others Yahoo and Facebook – could be an instrument for NSA-surveillance and be a threat to the cyber-security of China and Chinese internet users. It was also referred to a Chinese report claiming that mobile phones with Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system is a “gold mine” of data for NSA. In a microblog the newspaper followed up the article calling in strong language for punishment of the US companies: “… we will also severely punish the pawns of the villain”.

Chinese authorities are already punishing American tech companies for NSA’s alleged operations. In May, Chinese authorities announced that it was out of security concerns banning using Microsoft Windows 8 as operating system on new government computers. This is a hard blow to Microsofts market share in China. At the same time Chinese telecommunications companies are replacing American Cisco-routers with domestic products, while Chinese banks are encouraged not to install new hardware from IBM.

The Chinese reactions is worrying for the US tech sector. While American companies like Google deny Chinese accusations of NSA having a “backdoor” to their user’s data, Google and other tech companies at the same time call for stricter regulation of NSA activity. In June, Microsoft expressed fear that foreign governments could impose restrictions that would “freeze out” American products.

So while the discussion concerning internet security and cyber espionage earlier was all about Western worries about Chinese activities, the accusations now go both ways.

National security is only one part of the story. The Snowden revelations is also a golden opportunity for China to develop its own tech industry – including producers of smart phones, computer hardware, search engines, social media services, software and operative systems.

On the other side there are security worries in several Western countries. For example, in relation to the Chinese telecom equipment producer Huawei. And in May, the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against five members of the Chinese military – The People’s Liberations Army – for cyber espionage and stealing secrets from six American companies.

The Snowden effect could be the start of a tech trade war dressed as security concerns.

For China the Snowden effect is also that it can use other excuses for blocking American based social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook or other online services. While Western countries criticize this as an act of censorship and lack of internet freedom and free speech, China Post-Snowden can hide behind worries for the privacy of Chinese netizens.

National security, tech protectionism and internet control – the discussions concerning all these issues are influenced by the Snowden effect. China grabs with both hands a revelation that was brought to light by media that are free to publish this kind of leaked material and are free to criticize their own national authorities. So one of the paradoxes of this story is that even an authoritarian regime can appreciate the work of the free press. Sometimes.

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