Edward Snowden and the NSA Leaks: What Does It All Look Like From China?

Why revelations of government surveillance leave Chinese people feeling cool toward the United States.


Ng Han Guan/AP

It's well known by now that former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong after leaking information about the NSA's surveillance activities. With Americans increasingly aware of the role that Chinese cyberspace can play in gauging citizen sentiment there, significant ink has already been spilled exploring what Chinese Web users think of the latest revelations.

But to understand Chinese reactions to Snowden, and similar events that implicate the United States' reputation and its so-called "soft power," it's necessary to understand the role Meiguo -- the Chinese word for the U.S., literally meaning "beautiful country" -- plays as an idea in Chinese civil and online society. Meiguo's chief significance is as a marker by which Chinese development and reform can be measured.

This does not mean that the U.S. is always at the top of the Chinese collective mind. While there was certainly some revealing chatter about Snowden and PRISM on the Chinese Internet, even the most popular posts garnered only a few hundred re-tweets, and at no point did any related keyword or post trend.

If Chinese reaction to Snowden's leak is significant, it is because it contributes in a small way to an increasingly nuanced view of America and its politics. Debates about the U.S. drone program, for example, take place among followers of international politics on China's Weibo just as they do on Twitter. While some Chinese have lauded what they call Snowden's "heroism" as an example of American citizens' "civil awareness," others in Chinese cyberspace have begun to ask whether Meiguo is still deserving of its erstwhile status as a benchmark.

One microblogger from the city of Tianjin has already reached a conclusion. He wrote, "The entire world knows that America's foreign policy is awful. In China, only a few young people and members of the 'Lead-the-way Party' are under the illusion that America can bring the Chinese people and the rest of the world democracy and happiness."

So what is the "Lead-the-way Party?" It's a phrase fraught with double meanings that underscores the ambivalence many Chinese feel toward the U.S. The origins of the phrase, courtesy of Baidu Baike, China's version of Wikipedia:

Generally thought to have originated from the sarcastic remark, 'If foreigners invade, I'll help the foreigners by leading the way.' A typical case occurred in 2010 when the U.S. and South Korea conducted multiple military exercises in the Yellow Sea. When a U.S. aircraft carrier was going to enter the Yellow Sea, some people online said that if the U.S. military invaded China, they would 'lead the way.' This self-identification, like 'pi min [slang roughly meaning 'fartizen,' or 'nobody']' is self-mocking, and is mostly invoked to let off steam; it has also been used by some 'patriotic' netizens as a stand-in for hanjian [meaning traitor] to mock those who oppose the current state of government and society, and who admire the people of Western countries.

Much like the term Meiguo, the "Lead-the-way Party" serves a rhetorical purpose in a larger debate about China's future. As the Chinese Internet has developed into a robust forum for public discussion, many Chinese have developed a more nuanced understanding of the U.S., one that defies any clear categorization as pure enemy or pure exemplar. Meiguo and the "Lead-the-way Party" no longer serve the purpose they once did.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.