Edward Snowden: China's Useful Idiot?

The NSA leaker wanted to expose American surveillance and state secrecy. But by fleeing to Hong Kong, he's unintentionally helped a country whose record on both is far worse.
snowdencomputer.jpgEdward Snowden spoke with the public today via an online chat hosted by The Guardian. (Kin Cheung/AP)
In the week since he publicly identified himself as the source of classified information regarding NSA cyber-snooping programs, Edward Snowden has framed his flight to Hong Kong as an act of patriotism. When asked earlier whether he was a hero or a traitor, Snowden insisted he was neither: "I am an American," he said. And today, in a public Q&A session organized by The Guardian, the former defense contractor's patriotism was even more explicit: when asked what he'd say to another would-be whistle-blower, Snowden simply said that "this country is worth dying for."

Ironically, then, the country that benefits most from Snowden's revelations isn't the United States but rather China, on whose sovereign territory he now resides. This rather unusual landing spot has elicited suggestions -- from the likes of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, among others -- that Snowden was in fact a Chinese double agent all along, an idea that clearly amuses him. When asked about this possibility during his Guardian chat, Snowden replied that if he were a Chinese spy, he'd be "living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."

Snowden claims to have had no contact with the Chinese government, but it's unclear how much this matters: Chinese intelligence are believed to occupy several floors of a building located near the hotel where Snowden first surfaced in Hong Kong, and, as Evan Osnos notes, it's likely Beijing has kept close watch of his whereabouts. China also has the right, under Hong Kong's Basic Law, to block any attempted extradition of Snowden in the interests of national security, a solution that the nationalist newspaper The Global Times has already advocated. According to a poll, China's population opposes Snowden's extradition by a significant margin, and the American has emerged as something of a folk hero in the country. 

Whatever China decides to do, Snowden's sudden appearance in Hong Kong is a major symbolic gift for a country that had been on the defensive about its own cyber-snooping program. When the U.S. security firm Mandiant announced that China's military practiced cyber-espionage of military and corporate secrets from an unmarked building in Shanghai, Beijing responded that the U.S. was guilty of this behavior, too -- and now, thanks to Snowden, we know they're right. Secondly, the irony that an American dissident chose to flee to a Chinese territory isn't lost on China, which has seen a number of its disgruntled citizens seek refuge in the United States. Whatever actual intelligence China gathers from Snowden, these gains are highly valuable.

In any case, Snowden doesn't seem all that concerned about China. When The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman asked him to address rumors that he'll exchange U.S. secrets with China in exchange for asylum, Snowden dismissed them as old-fashioned "red-baiting." Maybe so -- but it's difficult to escape the sense that Snowden has sacrificed his life and freedom for the benefit of China, a country whose record on issues like state surveillance seems to contradict the very principles Snowden supports. 

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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