Thursday February 27, 2020


June 21, 2013

In the past few months, cybersecurity has emerged as one of the most contentious areas in U.S.-China relations. At the recent Sunnylands Summit, President Obama tried to convince Chinese president Xi Jinping that cybersecurity is a top concern of the U.S. administration. The U.S. and China also recently agreed to set up a working group to discuss cybersecurity, with the first meeting to take place in July. Yet perhaps the most consequential factor in the cybersecurity debate came not from diplomatic overtures, but from a previously unknown individual: Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S.’s National Security Agency.

At first, Snowden’s story seemed to have little to do with U.S.-China relations. His reports to journalist from The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed the existence of top-secret surveillance methods used by the NSA, including collecting metadata from phone companies and tech giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Yet when it was announced that Snowden had fled to Hong Kong, his actions suddenly threw a wrench in U.S.-China relations. While in Hong Kong, Snowden revealed the existence of NSA hacking initiatives focused on Chinese targets, including universities, businesses, and hospitals. His accusations immediately gained the attention of the official Chinese media, which had remained silent up to that point.

While the Chinese government has been restrained in its official statements so far, the significance of Snowden’s proclamation is immediately evident. China has long rebutted U.S. accusations of hacking with both flat denials and subtle counter-accusations: stating that China is a victim of attacks without explicitly holding the U.S. government responsible. Now Snowden has brought U.S. hacking activities into the global conversation, all without Beijing having to take the risk of making such claims itself.

In a way, Snowden’s revelation parallels the Mandiant report released in February of 2013. The report by the Mandiant Intelligence Center publically revealed the existence of a comprehensive cyber campaign mounted by the Chinese government. The U.S. government, while not having to take responsibility for the initial disclosure, nonetheless took advantage of the widespread public outrage to demand that China change its behavior. Now the Chinese government is benefiting from a similar public unveiling of U.S. hacking activities. As a result, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, claimed that one of the greatest harms Snowden had done to America was giving “Beijing something it couldn’t achieve on its own: moral equivalence.”

In fact, Snowden’s rationale for leaking the information sounds similar to Obama administration’s rhetoric. In both cases, cyber attacks and hacking attempts on military targets are seen as inevitable, even expected. However, Snowden claimed the NSA was also hacking into “civilian infrastructure such as universities, hospitals, and private businesses.” He added, “These naked, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target.” Since the Mandiant Report, the Obama administration has also drawn a line between cyber attacks on military and civilian targets. U.S. officials have repeatedly accused China of crossing that line. According to Snowden’s claims, the U.S. itself engages in the same behavior.

Putting aside the diplomatic ramifications of Snowden’s fate, or even the damage control and spin jobs being practiced by both the U.S. and Chinese governments, there is a larger issue at play here. The internet is a truly global platform for communications, trade, and, increasingly, military activity. Borders are difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. Yet there are no formal international agreements on lawful cyber behavior, including how to handle hacking activities and internet surveillance. The rise of potential threats from non-national actors such as terrorist groups has only complicated global attempts to balance privacy, freedom, and security. Currently, each country is attempting to define its own norms and to decide how to enforce them.

If the revelations by Snowden and Mandiant reveal the reigning norms for cyber activities within the U.S. and Chinese governments, it may be that America and China’s stances on cyber issues are closer than either might have thought. The question remains, however, whether either country is willing to allow the other to continue to engage in such behavior. With this in mind, the upcoming working group on cybersecurity has some very interesting issues to discuss.


For more information on Edward Snowden and the responses in the U.S. and China, please see the following news sources:

BBC“China media: G8 summit”

China Daily“Snowden spying claims rejected”

Chinafile“What’s Right or Wrong with This Chinese Stance on Edward Snowden”

Global Times“Extraditing Snowden an unwise decision”

The Guardian“Edward Snowden Q&A”

The Guardian“Edward Snowden’s leaks are a grave threat to US national security” (editorial by John Bolton)

New York Times“N.S.A. Leaker Denies Giving Secrets to China”

The New Yorker “Snowden’s Chinese Fans”

South China Morning Post“Edward Snowden: US government has been hacking Hong Kong and China for years”

Wall Street Journal“Dismay, Anger in China After Allegations About U.S. Hacking”

Washington Post“In Hong Kong, pressure mounts on government to protect Snowden”

Washington Post“Snowden’s U.S. hacking claim captures Chinese attention”


For Chinese language commentary on Edward Snwoden, please see the following news sources:

Phoenix 凤凰“阮次山:斯诺登令奥巴马政府雪上加霜”

International Daily News 国际日报“史诺登:我不是中国间谍”

MSN新闻“陸官媒:引渡史諾登 陸將蒙羞”

People’s Daily 人民网“美间谍活动非罕事 但“棱镜”折射出3个重要问题”

People’s Daily 人民网“中方驳斥’斯诺登间谍说'”

Xinhua 新华: “斯诺登:几乎没有美情报部门不能获得的私人信息

Global Times 环球网“美国秘密机构被曝“网络攻击中国”达15年”


Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi and Yichi Zhang.