Edward Snowden's Leaks May Actually Strengthen U.S.-China Relations

With the issue of cyber-snooping out in the open, Beijing and Washington are now on a more equal footing.
A Chinese protests outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong on July 9, 2013. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

The reason why both Americans and Chinese have become so nostalgic for the great Nixon/Kissinger-Mao Zedong/Zhou Enlai breakthrough in 1972 is because that was the last time that Sino-U.S. relations experienced a dramatic breakthrough. Now, most policy wonks on both sides sense we need another jolt to kick the way we interact into a higher gear, but nobody quite knows how to accomplish that.

"The Prism-gate affair is itself like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet security of the country concerned."

When he met Obama recently at Sunnylands, Chinese President Xi Jinping lofted the idea of a "new great power relationship." But then, the cyber security issue that the Obama administration had already put on the front burner -- especially the cyber theft of private corporate intellectual property -- got written even larger by l'affaire Snowden. This gave Chinese nationalists a nice opportunity to mount a high horse and even the score up a bit, as Ministry of Defense spokesman, Yang Yujun, did when he defiantly proclaimed, "The Prism-gate affair is itself like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet security of the country concerned" which by "making baseless accusations against other countries shows double standards and will be no help for peace and security in cyberspace." To many, the incident came as a real setback to any hopes for a major new diplomatic breakthrough.

And yet, there could be a bright side to this story. With the world's only superpower -- to which China has long looked with a complex mix of admiration and envy mixed with resentment and animosity -- now unexpectedly forced to eat a super-sized portion of humble pie, and the Chinese enjoying a rare moment of schadenfreude, the playing field may have suddenly leveled a bit. That's important because, even though there is a real difference between the motives for and the kinds of surveillance that each country engages in, if there has been one thing that has galled Chinese in their relations with the West and Japan, it is the enduring presumption of their inequality, an imbalance that has deep roots growing out of their history of decline while being imperialized and exploited by foreigners. It has been Beijing's insistence on this notion that the Great Powers somehow still look down on them that has continued to make Beijing's relations with Washington so often fraught. But suddenly here was America also knee-deep in mud, thus creating a moment of cryptic equivalence that felt irresistibly sweet to many Chinese. As Romans 3:23 reminds us Americans, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." A patriotic Chinese doesn't have to be a churchgoer to enjoy such a moment.

The foreign predation, exploitation, and occupation during the 19th and 20th centuries which characterized China's fall from grace allowed the Chinese Communist Party to spin an elaborate and convincing ideological narrative of national victimization. For an empire once able to assume superiority without a second thought, to have declined so precipitously and ignominiously that by the early 1900s it had come to be known as "the sick man of Asia" represented an agonizing fall. From the first Opium War (1838-42) and the endless string of "unequal treaties" subsequently forced on it by the Great Powers, what most rankled China's political elite -- Nationalist and Communist alike -- was the deficit of respect and equality afforded them. A popular expression of the pre-1949 period was, "be backward and get beaten," (louhou aidai, 落後挨打), suggesting how Chinese then saw their hapless plight. Indeed, all of Mao's chest pounding and brutality, as well as Deng's later down-to-earth pragmatism, can be seen as an urgent, although sometimes misguided, effort to "rejuvenate" (fuxing, 复兴) their country, to somehow claw their way back from poverty and backwardness to what they longingly referred to as "wealth and power" (fuqiang, 富強) so that the Great Powers could no longer bully them.

Orville Schell and John Delury

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. John Delury is an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea.

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