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Chinese Netizens React Strongly to Prism

If you think Prism has made a mess in the US, you should see the reaction in China.

China has a very active Twitter-like “microblog” called Sina Weibo, with over 400 million registered. They actively discussed Prism and Snowden, with over two million postings and discussions. The overall tone was very clear – microbloggers were angry about the perceived hypocrisy, they were sympathetic to Snowden, and they were disillusioned about the US as a democratic role model.

The first reaction for most Chinese netizens was anger towards the US government. Prism was portrayed as a broad-scale surveillance project targeting “non-US citizens outside the US.” To them, this was a blatant invasion on their privacy committed by aforeign country which has no jurisdiction over them. Many microbloggers showed concern for the Chinese First Lady, who was photographed to be using an iPhone during her visit to the US. The microbloggers asked “Would the US government access her private data through Apple’s iCloud?”

The netizens also felt Prism revealed American hypocrisy. Just prior to the Prism news, the US pointed fingers at China for cyber-espionage. But through Prism, the US appears to be doing exactly what it accuses China of. Another recent report by Foreign Policy about NSA’s ultra secret China hacking group further exacerbated the matter. While media coverage was moderate, the most important state-owned media CCTV and Xinhua both covered the news, and the latter quoted Snowden saying that he “exposed the truth about America being the Hacker Empire.” These reports left little doubt in the microbloggers’ mind that the US was “one thief calling another thief.”

The issues above extended into a credibility crisis for the US government and even its founding principles and values. The US government is considered by the reform-minded Chinese netizens as the role model for protecting human rights and freedom of speech. And the Chinese blogosphere is often enlivened with heated debates between the hardliners vs. the reformers about whether the US government and its founding principles and values were applicable to China. In this case, the hardliners gained an upper hand, and pushed to question: Whatever happened to protecting human rights? How can you trust this hypocrite? Does this demonstrate that the system of democracy, “checks and balances”, “due process” and “rule of law” has failed? The blasting caused further collateral damage, as the hardliners challenged Google, Microsoft, Apple products — might your beloved product be secretly handing your information to the CIA? The US government’s irresponsiveness didn’t help elucidate whether this situation was a terrorist-targeting project, an isolated event, or a systemic breakdown. So the reformers generally remained quiet as the hardliners piled on sarcastic comments and insults.

Naturally, then, the great majority of the netizens were sympathetic to Snowden, feeling that he was a righteous whistleblower who had the courage to expose a conspiracy. Quite a few netizens called Snowden a hero. Netizens eagerly discussed and admired how he gave up a $200,000 salary and a beautiful girlfriend. They even gossiped about his modeling career and his good looks. Ironically, there were almost no mention of how he broke the law and his contractual promise to the US government. 81% of the microbloggers supported China to offer Snowden asylum, and only 3% supported extraditing him back to the US.

Finally, a small number of netizens pondered global and China implications. Did the digital age and network technologies give all governments a powerful and irresistible tool to violate netizens’ privacy and freedom? How far can “national security and citizenship safety” go to justify invasion of privacy? If a system like the US, with checks and balances, could do something like Prism, how far might other governments go? Is at least the Western free media worthy of praise, as they acted as government watchdogs without fear of retribution? These issued were raised but quickly buried by the furious discussions about espionage, hypocrisy, heroism, and disillusionment.

At this point US government needs to respond with a comprehensive response.

  • Was Prism lawful? If so, is something wrong with the law; if not, who broke the law to implement it?
  • What was the role of the companies? How can their denial be reconciled with Snowden’s allegations?
  • Who were targeted by Prism? Was the program broad or narrow?
  • What steps and actions would the US government take to calm people’s fear for invasion of their privacy, and restore people’s faith in the US government?

A lucid and no-nonsense response by the US government is imperative, not just to address domestic skepticism, but to avoid global distrust; not just to close the allegations toward one project, but to open a process to protect human rights in the digital age.






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