BEIJING - These are good days for China. Not so much for the United States -- or Sino-American relations.
After Edward Snowden left Hong Kong unhindered last week, the angered Americans at first threatened this would have "negative consequences" on relations between the two superpowers. Snowden’s departure had delivered a blow to "mutual confidence," the Americans declared.
The reproach must have seemed strange to Chinese ears -- after all, what this whistleblower revealed was U.S. espionage on a vast scale that included spying on China’s networks. Last Tuesday, Beijing’s People’s Daily called the U.S. a "crazy meddler" in other countries’ networks.
Snowden achieved something unusual: He not only gave a surprised Beijing an instant propaganda tool over Washington but one that the Chinese government should be able to milk for years. The People’s Daily is the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, and behind all the pretended outrage, the Schadenfreude was unmistakable. The United States had turned itself from supposed human rights model into a "manipulator" of the Internet it drives.
Snowden's fearlessness, the paper said, had "ripped away Washington’s mask of hypocrisy."
Otherwise a certain amount of reserve about the Snowden case was making itself felt in Beijing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had an unruffled reaction to the American reproaches: the criticism was unfounded, a spokeswoman said, and Hong Kong had "acted according to the law."
And the government news agency Xinhua, that had earlier lashed out at the United States as the "biggest villain of our era" was now calling for level-headedness and cooperation: China and the U.S. should "sit down and talk about mutual mistrust."
Beijing can afford to be laid back about this -- because the winner in the drama is China.
Not many people doubt that it was Beijing’s decision to let Snowden go. "Hong Kong‘s government had virtually no say in this," said Snowden’s lawyer Albert Ho. "It was instructed not to detain him at the airport."
Contrary to what the Americans are assuming, it appears that it was not China’s intention to give maximum offense to the United States. Giving Snowden up to them was never really an option for a government that for years has been making the point that it can say “no” to Washington. But it chose to make short shrift of the situation, rather than opt for the long-term poisoning of the climate between it and the United States that an open-ended stay by Snowden in Chinese territory would have brought on.
The "H" word
Anyway, Snowden had already delivered up enough gifts to China. “Hypocrite” in association with the United States was one of the most used words over the last few days on the country’s social networks. And even if some users like blogger Wen Yunchao praised Snowden as a hero and expressed the hope that he would have a Chinese imitator who would "shine light on China’s "Great Firewall"," Snowden’s revelations are having the opposite effect: the country’s unpopular censors are actually getting some kudos.
Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, is one of the architects of the censorship wall whose cunning control mechanisms keep the web at bay for Chinese users and prevent them from accessing sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Because of this work, when speaking in public he has had shoes thrown at him by young Chinese. But now he can say he always knew it. Last year he even warned in interviews against using foreign equipment in telecommunications. All of a sudden some Chinese are seeing the blocking of access to Facebook and others as “protection of our citizens from the grip of foreign powers.”
“China protects its citizens,” another user opined after the first PRISM revelations two weeks ago.
China has by far the most closely monitored Internet in the world. In March, Reporters Without Borders noted that 69 bloggers had been jailed. Now state media like the Beijing Global Times are saying that the country will under no circumstances become "the biggest fish in America's net" and that a major priority is "building up Internet security," a task it says has unfortunately until now been limited to a certain degree "by Western public opinion."
That sounds like even more closed doors – and less business – for western software and telecommunications companies. The share prices of Chinese Internet security companies have shot up. The National Business Daily reported that Chinese telecom provider Unicom had, last year already, secretly switched all Cisco-made routers in a network node in Wuxi to Chinese-made equipment.
All of a sudden the American suspicions with regard to Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei appear in a whole new light: Some Washington insiders, writes China observer Bill Bishop in his newsletter Sinocism, fear that China’s government could start using Huawei the way Washington uses the NSA.