HONG KONG — After several days of relative silence on the issue, Chinese state media Thursday highlighted revelations that the US government was engaged in widespread monitoring of Internet and telephone communications, carrying reports suggesting the disclosures could damage relations between the countries.
The disclosures come at an uncomfortable time for US officials, just after President Obama pressed for Beijing’s cooperation in curtailing Chinese cyberespionage.
Chinese government officials have refrained from directly criticizing the United States on the disclosures, but state media have been reporting on the controversy.
“The massive US 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-US 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 US is the unbridled power of the government,” Li was quoted as saying.
Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA 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 US officials pursue possible charges against him in preparation for an extradition effort, authorities in Hong Kong, rather than the mainland government, are likely to decide whether to turn Snowden over. The United States has a long history of cooperation with Hong Kong on such matters.
Snowden said in an interview on 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.
One mainland newspaper, The Global Times, which is part of the Communist Party-run People’s Daily group, called for assertive Chinese action to confront Washington in the wake of Snowden’s revelations.
“Before the US 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 US as an Internet superpower has abused its powers touches on our vital interests directly.”
For the 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 Snowden’s presence on Hong Kong soil, a potentially problematic development as China and the United States have worked to improve relations.
Officials in the United States have rebuffed suggestions that the surveillance by the NSA was in any way comparable to Chinese cyberspying.
One intelligence employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the two situations — China’s stealing of trade and military secrets and NSA surveillance to track possible terrorist attacks — were not comparable, calling them “apples and oranges.”
“I can tell you with absolute certainty the US government does not pass on technological secrets obtained through (strictly speaking, as a byproduct of) espionage to US firms, both as a matter of principle and because there is no fair way to do it,” he wrote in an e-mail.