On Monday, the Justice Department announced that it had charged five members of the Chinese military's now-notorious Unit 61398 for alleged economic cyber-espionage against U.S  companies.

The charges appear to be an unprecedented act against a foreign government, and the initial Chinese response shows fury. Not long after the charges were announced, China's Foreign Ministry released a statement that condemned the charges, arguing that the U.S. accusations were "purely fictitious" and "extremely absurd."

Outside of simple denials, however, the Chinese defense reveals a key detail: The different perspective that China has on the National Security Agency (NSA) activities revealed last year by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It's an illustrative example of how Beijing may be able to justify its cyber-espionage as a minor crime when compared with the actions taken by the United States' intelligence community.

The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima breaks down the significance of the Justice Department’s decision to charge the Chinese military with cyber-espionage against American companies. (Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)

Allegations of Chinese state-directed cyber-espionage made front-page headlines a little over a year ago, when U.S. security firm Mandiant published a 60-page study that linked China's military to cyberattacks on commercial targets in the United States. At the time, China's Foreign Ministry denied any official involvement in cyber-espionage, adding that “hacking attacks are transnational and anonymous."

Just a few months later, the United States was rocked by its own allegations regarding online surveillance. In June, The Washington Post and other outlets began reporting on the documents released by Snowden.

Snowden's revelations became a topic of interest in China, where many microbloggers argued that they showed the United States' sanctimonious attitude on cybersecurity.  "Snowden's exposure has upgraded our understanding of cyberspace, especially cyber attacks from the US, which is probably a much sharper weapon than its traditional military force," the state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial. "This weapon has demonstrated the US' hypocrisy and arrogance."

Monday's statement appeared to make direct reference to Snowden's revelation again. "It is a fact known to all that relevant US institutions have long been involved in large-scale and organized cyber theft as well as wiretapping and surveillance activities against foreign political leaders, companies and individuals," the statement read. "China is a victim of severe US cyber theft, wiretapping and surveillance activities. Large amounts of publicly disclosed information show that relevant US institutions have been conducting cyber intrusion, wiretapping and surveillance activities against Chinese government departments, institutions, companies, universities and individuals."

For Washington, the two cases belong in separate categories — foreign intelligence gathering versus state-sponsored economic espionage — with the key difference being that the intelligence gathered by the NSA is not passed on to private companies, while Beijing's alleged espionage is collected with the specific intention of passing it on. To date, the NSA has denied any involvement in economic cyber-espionage. Beijing appears to see that detail as irrelevant.

“The difference between stealing intelligence and company secrets is lost on the Chinese,” Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Post. “Both are considered fair game and an essential means to accelerate China’s reemergence as a great power.”

China's position may seem duplicitous, but it also appears to reflect a genuine sense of insecurity. In February, China announced that President Xi Jinping would personally head up a new government body overseeing the nation's cybersecurity in what appeared to be a response to domestic criticisms of Chinese vulnerability. Those criticisms are somewhat understandable: It was recently reported that the NSA had infiltrated Chinese tech company Huawei Technologies  to see whether it could be spying for the Chinese state and other countries, and the NSA's alleged China hacking unit, known as the Office of Tailored Access Operations according to a Foreign Policy article by Matthew M. Aid, is reported to have "successfully penetrated" Chinese computers and telecoms industries for at least 15 years.

China and the United States had been trying to address these issues with the Sino-U.S. Cyber Working Group, established in April 2013. That group may be the first casualty of Monday's charges: China's statement ends by saying that Beijing is suspending the group's activity.