A massive government backed state campaign of cyber espionage, with little accountability and almost limitless personnel and funds, which is regarded as a fundamental attack on hard won liberties and fundamental values. One would have expected concerns in this area to top of the list of issues President Obama would raise with President Xi Jinping when they met for their one-off summit in California over the weekend.
Domestic issues however overtook events. With extraordinary timing, a whistleblower working with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) a document showing similar things were being done – but by the American government against its own citizens. Suddenly the discussion between the U.S. and China on the long standing issue of cyber-espionage became even more complicated than it already was.
Some years ago, an official in the UK government airily told me that Chinese activity in the cyber area was “off the scale.” It would be interesting to see if they were willing to revise this opinion in view of the current information we have. The simple fact is that when Xi and Obama met, they both shared a big dirty secret, although now a pretty open one. Despite them following one of the first rules when accused of infidelity – deny, deny and then deny again – everyone has plenty of reason to believe both governments are deeply engaged in creative ways of exploiting the internet, and very little assurance that they are able to restrain themselves. This gift is too good.
In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov maps out the ambiguous moral space of the internet. Yes, it is an amazing enabler of greater transparency as liberals love. But everyone has secrets. And the governments of any country can see an amazing new field in which, by consent, people release an enormous amount of information. Citizens can be empowered by the internet, but circumscribed by its shadowy forces. We have no excuses to surrender our vigilance even in this “new world” of connectivity and virtual free space.
For China, the internet is having profound social impact. Propagandists like Liu Yunshan, in charge of macro-information on the standing committee, show only hazy understanding of the new dynamics being created by social media in their country. They are grappling with a framework which allows them access to the positive things the internet gives them, but sees off the negatives. One of the wiser moves the Party might now consider it has made was to keep Facebook, Twitter and other US companies out of China and try to make their own versions of these popular sites instead. Beyond debates about freedom of expression, there is the hard issue of why you would allow your citizens to hand over so much information to foreign companies who have, at best, highly ambiguous relations with their host government. Best keep these things in house. China may well have saved us from a world wholly subject to the tyranny of Facebook!
The internet in China is, in many ways, a wonderful map of contention in society. It brings to the fore fissures, splits and forms of diversity we never used to see. The bland statement that China is 1.3 billion people lined up behind one particular view point was always suspicious. Now we have the proof. China is like a carnival of opinions. The internet maps this wonderful diversity.
And finally, the internet poses deep questions to both the U.S. and China, with their profoundly different polities, about the role of freedom versus stability and resistance to extremists groups, about how far they can covertly seek to break into each other’s spaces and use the internet’s penetrative abilities with malign intent. There are no good guys in this struggle. And the most remarkable thing about the revelations of the last few days is that, yes, we were right to worry about the ways in which forces of surveillance and invasiveness were swirling around us all. They were. But not from one source, or one dominant country, nor even from outside. It is time to move on from the complacent moans about one power like China being the bad guy in all of this. It is now becoming clearer that it was way, way, way more complicated than that.