Friday, June 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When we landed in China early this week, we hadn’t realized that a long holiday, the Dragon Boat Festival, was about to begin. It took us a little while to figure out why traffic was so light in Beijing and why the offices where we were meeting officials were so deserted.
We were a handful of journalists on a three-city tour that included Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan, an industrial city in central China. (The trip was organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, which organizes trips for Western journalists to China four or five times a year.)
Because we had just come from the United States, the news about Edward Snowden was much on our minds. To us, at least, it seemed to scream for a Chinese response. Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, had leaked information about a huge program conducted by the National Security Agency to obtain a record of every phone call made in the United States. He also leaked news of another program, Prism, that gathered information from Facebook, Apple and other tech companies about the cyberactivity of customers. The revelations were astonishing.
Now Snowden was hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong, popping up just long enough to grant the occasional interview. What would China do if, say, Snowden asked for asylum? And what did China have to say about all this spying by the U.S. government?
Not much, at least not at first. In one early meeting, the official answering our questions knew so little about l’affaire Snowden that he asked us to walk him through it. “It sounds like Hong Kong has quite a problem,” he grinned.
Yes, we all concluded: It had to be the lingering effects of the Dragon Boat Festival.
It’s not that there weren’t other things that Chinese officials wanted to talk about. But most of their observations began with the idea that their government was trying to be the “good” superpower, wanting harmonious relations with the United States, while the Americans continued to act in provocative ways, putting peace-loving China on edge. Topping the list of such “provocations” was the accusation made by the Obama administration that China has been hacking into American computers.
Is China hacking? Of course it is — on a broad scale. A report issued in February by the Mandiant Group was close to definitive. It traced a group of hackers to a building owned by the People’s Liberation Army. Yet any question broached on the subject brought furious rebuttals. China did not hack American computers, we were told. Our so-called evidence was pathetic. Zhang Ping, the vice president of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, described the hacking allegations as “defamation.” Chinese computers were hacked every day, he said — by Americans. It was the classic Chinese response to allegations it didn’t want to discuss.
There was another classic response, which we saw a few days later. After he had been in Hong Kong a few days, Snowden gave another interview in which he said that the United States had routinely hacked into Chinese computers. In addition to suddenly improving his chances of gaining asylum, Snowden had given the Chinese the ammunition they had been looking for.
All over the country, a magic switch went on. Thousands of writers and editors who hadn’t dared touch the Snowden story on Tuesday couldn’t get enough of it on Wednesday.
“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News.
China Daily quoted a Chinese expert on American affairs saying, “For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government.”
I don’t know whether Prism and the other programs truly stop terrorists. I have my doubts. What I do know is that if you are going to lecture the world about right and wrong — and if you’re trying to stop bad behavior — perhaps you shouldn’t be engaging in a version of that behavior yourself.
Instead, this has become one of the trademarks of the Obama administration: decry human rights abuses abroad but hold men in prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who have never been accused of a crime. Say all the right things about freedom of the press — even as you’re subpoenaing reporters’ phone records. And express outrage over Chinese hacking while carrying on a sophisticated spying operation of your own citizens. It may seem to us a false equivalence, but the existence of Prism will make it far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about stopping their own hacking.
Maybe America’s new motto should be: Do as we say, not as we do.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.