The Chinese and American flags. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
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Sun Tzu, the ancient author of The Art of War, must be throwing a rice wine party in his heavenly tomb in the wake of the shirtsleeves California love-in between President Obama and President Xi Jinping. “Know your enemy” was, it seems, the theme of the meeting. Beijing was very much aware of—and had furiously protested—Washington’s deep plunge into China’s computer networks over the past fifteen years via a secretive NSA unit, the Office of Tailored Access Operations (with the apt acronym TAO). Yet Xi merrily allowed Obama to pontificate on hacking and cyber-theft as if China were alone on such a stage.
Enter—with perfect timing—Edward Snowden, the spy who came in from Hawaii and who has been holed up in Hong Kong since May 20th. And cut to the wickedly straight-faced, no-commentary-needed take on Obama’s hacker army by Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s official press service. With America’s dark-side-of-the-moon surveillance programs like Prism suddenly in the global spotlight, the Chinese, long blistered by Washington’s charges about hacking American corporate and military websites, were polite enough. They didn’t even bother to mention that Prism was just another node in the Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020 dream of “full spectrum dominance.”
By revealing the existence of Prism (and other related surveillance programs), Snowden handed Beijing a roast duck banquet of a motive for sticking with cyber-surveillance. Especially after Snowden, a few days later, doubled down by unveiling what Xi, of course, already knew—that the National Security Agency had for years been relentlessly hacking both Hong Kong and mainland Chinese computer networks.
But the ultimate shark fin’s soup on China’s recent banquet card was an editorial in the Communist Party–controlled Global Times. “Snowden,” it acknowledged, “is a ‘card’ that China never expected,” adding that “China is neither adept at nor used to playing it.” Its recommendation: use the recent leaks “as evidence to negotiate with the US” It also offered a warning that “public opinion will turn against China’s central government and the Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region] government if they choose to send [Snowden] back.”
With a set of cyber-campaigns—from cyber-enabled economic theft and espionage to the possibility of future state-sanctioned cyber-attacks—evolving in the shadows, it’s hard to spin the sunny “new type of great power relationship” President Xi suggested for the US and China at the recent summit.