How Badly Have Snowden’s Leaks Hurt U.S.-China Relations?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Matt Schiavenza:

In the understatement of the day, the United States is unhappy with the recent developments of the Edward Snowden situation. Just three days ago, Washington was in negotiations with Hong Kong to file a warrant for Snowden's arrest, a process which the U.S. hoped would lead to Snowden's eventual repatriation. Now, Snowden is sitting in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, presumably awaiting transit to his eventual destination. Though the U.S. doesn’t know where Snowden will end up, it’s widely assumed that he’ll settle in a country—like Ecuador—which will not willingly extradite him back to his homeland.

In the meantime, Washington has begun to lash out at those responsible for this debacle—namely the Chinese. As Beijing’s involvement in Snowden’s case becomes more clear, the U.S. government has accused China of damaging trust between the two countries, particularly after the successful conclusion to a recent summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama in California. Beijing, for its part, is tickled with how these events transpired. The Global Times, a state-owned newspaper known for its nationalistic stance, said that Washington was finally getting its comeuppance.

Before the U.S.-China blame game kicks into high gear, it’s worth considering how the Snowden affair looks from China, a country which has seen a fair number of its citizens seek political refuge in the United States. When the security firm Mandiant reported in February that China systematically hacked into American corporate and military secrets from an unmarked building in Shanghai, Beijing countered with accusations that the U.S. is just as guilty of cyber espionage. Now, thanks to Snowden’s NSA revelations, we know that this accusation is true.

Along these lines, the developments in Snowden’s case bring up an interesting thought experiment: What if Edward Snowden were Chinese? Comparisons between the U.S. and China are always fraught with problems, given the differences in the two countries’ political and legal systems. But is there much doubt that the U.S. media would have portrayed a Chinese Snowden as anything other than as a brave dissident? Moreover, the U.S. government would consider him a powerful intelligence asset and an enduring symbol of freedom, and the idea that Washington would willingly allow for his extradition back to China would be unthinkable. The United States has long considered itself (with much justification) as a haven for political exiles—it just isn’t used to having an exile of its own. It’s easy to understand why the Global Times—in words that surely represent Beijing’s official sentiment—think Washington’s pursuit of Snowden represents a double standard.

The question of fairness aside, wouldn’t it have just been simpler for China to step aside from the extradition process and let Snowden return to the United States? Not exactly. A long, drawn-out negotiation over Snowden’s extradition would have the potential of turning into a messy squabble between China and the U.S., one that could potentially be more damaging than Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden go. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, China expert Cheng Li cited the case of Fang Lizhi, a dissident whose one-year detention in Beijing’s U.S. Embassy, following his involvement in 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests, led to sustained tension between China and the U.S. The experience with Fang no doubt played a part in China’s decision last year to let Chen Guangcheng move to the United States after only a brief stay in the embassy.

With his flight to Moscow, Edward Snowden has suddenly become someone else's problem, and the U.S.-China relationship will likely go back, in practical terms, to where it was before. But the basic calculus between the two countries has changed: American accusations of Chinese wrongdoing will no longer have the same weight they once did. If Edward Snowden has one legacy, this is it.

—This commentary first appeared online at the The Atlantic's China Channel.