Chinese Web Users React to U.S. National Security Agency Surveillance Program

The online reactions to the PRISM incident, in which the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been revealed to conduct a far-ranging surveillance program affecting many both in the U.S. and abroad, have been as fascinating as the event itself. And that’s not just true of American netizens.

While the subject has yet to become a “hot topic” on China’s Weibo platform, the comments that are there reflect users’ hopes and disappointments for the American and Chinese governments. Just as some cynical American pundits were not surprised about the NSA’s access to Internet records, neither were some Chinese Web users. One microblogger on the Sina Weibo platform remarked, “This isn’t such a big deal; Internet inspection is a new field for all governments. They are all testing the water to see how it works.”

Wikimedia Commons
The logo of PRISM, a clandestine national security electronic surveillance program operated by the U.S. National Security Agency since 2007.

Few Chinese are commenting on PRISM and Snowden at present; most of those chiming in can fairly be described as techies and political junkies. Comments generally revealed familiarity with U.S. politics. Weibo user CNKK-Sky joked, “Compared to what we have here, PRISM is nothing!”Another microblogger, @da7now在漫游, posted in English: “I guess the Chinese government is not the only one to have a thing with the Internet. Google ‘prism,’ a U.S. government’s [sic] system that collects users’ information from the Internet.” Weibo user @薄雾和晨光 expressed concern for the Obama administration: “The IRS, Benghazi, PRISM…Obama is going to suffer so bad, the media’s probably rejoicing right now.”

Sina Tech started an online poll that asked, “Can [a government] intrude upon personal privacy in the name of security?” Readers could choose between two options:

“Yes, a country’s security is the most important thing. China has to insure internal security as well!”

“Never, the point of a country is to protect everyone. If a country intrudes on personal interests in this way, why would one need a country?”

Some users like @saoako connected this incident to a debate on broader issues: “Personal information freedom has been ‘democratized’!!! The NSA’s spyware has been exposed; our country has also been served by the Boundless Informant [sic].” The post included a link and a graph showing how China ‘enjoys’ the same level of treatment by Boundless Informant, a spyware system, as the United States.

Weibo user @Cedaray-Bai linked this issue to recent bilateral discussions on cybersecurity, writing:

American politicians seem to have secretly allowed the NSA to monitor foreign Internet activity. This sort of action will allow domestic high-tech companies to gain an advantage! Since America mentioned cyber-security first at the recent ‘Sunnylands Summit,’ this discussion will no doubt escalate and play out in all different types of business issues. This does not necessarily bode well for the United States.

A post by @赵赛坡 even hinted there might be a bright side to the widely despised Great Firewall: “Does China’s act of blocking these websites mean that China’s government is being responsible for their people?”

While some Weibo users wondered about how their own privacy may have been compromised, others seemed more concerned with China’s top-level security issues.This picture of China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan using an iPhone 5 to take a picture made the rounds on Weibo before being censored (via Weibo/Fair Use)

Weibo user 精神病医院洲哥 posted a picture of Peng Liyuan, Xi Jinping’s wife, and wrote: “All information sent by Apple products could be inspected by the NSA. First Lady, you should change phones!” Internet entrepreneur @飞象网项立刚 posted: “I read FT’s article [arguing that] Sister Peng should change her cellphone. The issue of security has very little to with ideology; every country should be careful about it…The NSA spent US$2 billion on a data center to collect information from iPhones.” Ms. Peng has been a wide subject of Weibo chatter, and many users made this connection.

Weibo user @SugarCHH expressed his disappointment in Google’s internet services:

I am no longer that fond of Google, especially after PRISM, if the FBI and NSA’s notice about ‘inspecting users other than Americans’ is true. Think about how much of our private information has been sold by Google. America only has around 300 million people, but even if Google’s China search service only amounts to a few percent points, that would be a lot of netizens. Furthermore, some people use all of the services Google provides. I have been betrayed.

Receiving the ‘Hero’: Edward Snowden

Weibo reactions to the revelation of the PRISM whistle-blower, Edgar Snowdon, also varied. By Monday evening, Sina News had already translated the Guardian interview of Snowden into Chinese. An MIT graduate and expat living in America, @傅杰运was inspired by Snowden’s principles:

After reading the whistleblower Edward Snowden’s interview, I admire him. I think many Chinese people have become very cynical and no longer think that principles and ideals matter anymore. But this world still has many people who believe that ‘Life is dear, love is dearer. Both can be given up for freedom.’ They are the real heroes deserve our respect.”

Another Chinese expat, living in Sweden, wrote:

When Western democracy is threatened by interest groups, there are always people within the system who will volunteer to muckrake, like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange… The torch of Wikileaks has been carried on, that’s great. May our government escort him to Iceland; don’t extradite the ‘escapees from the north’ [ North Korean refugees] and then extradite ‘escapees from America.’

Some users have jokingly noted that American dissidents may soon seek asylum in China, just as Chinese citizens like Chen Guangcheng have sought protection in the United States.

Weibo user @别也被注册了 wrote, “Snowden is unexpectedly in Hong Kong, does this mean that Western democracy fighters will soon come hide in my county in the near future? This should happen, our country should establish a fund in order to train foreign defecting pioneers, and help them get a Nobel Prize!”

Another Weibo user, @haipai22, made some long-term predictions about the state of liberty in America:

When the PATRIOT act was passed, liberalism could not defeat it. Now, PRISM could help liberals defeat it ex post. Where there are people, there will be people trying to infringe upon individual liberty in the name of efficiency. Some people may say, for the benefit of the group, you should die. Americans have not become that extreme yet. But maybe in the long run, with the state of technology at present… that extreme make take form.