HONG KONG —For days the reaction in mainland China to the presence in this city of Edward Snowden, who has confessed to leaking information about secret U.S. surveillance programs, was almost total indifference. Now, with his claim that the U.S. government has been hacking Chinese institutions for years, he has the country’s attention.
Snowden’s latest comments, from an interview posted late Wednesday on the Web site of the South China Morning Post, were a hot topic on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and they landed on the front page of the Global Times, a state-run tabloid with a populist bent.
Users of Weibo published more than 200,000 posts related to Snowden on Thursday.
“The U.S. has been hyping the Chinese hacking the U.S. It’s like one thief calls another a thief,” said one user named Hexie Mingde. “How shameless.”
An editorial in the Global Times echoed the same sentiment.
“The United States has been always keen on putting itself on a high moral ground and accusing others,” said the editorial. “We should see clearly both the real side and hypocritical side of the United States. We cannot be stupid and naive.”
The allegations from the 29-year-old former contractor line up with a frequent argument made by leadership in Beijing that the United States has little standing to criticize China for cyberattacks since it tries to break into Chinese institutions, as well. Snowden said Wednesday that Hong Kong was also being targeted by Americans.
The United States is expected to formally request the city’s assistance in its investigation of Snowden’s leaks.
His decision to talk about U.S. espionage operations in other countries marked an apparent turn from earlier statements that his primary motive was to expose his government’s abuse of civil liberties. The South China Morning Post said Snowden had showed them “unverified documents” corroborating his claims about U.S. cyberattacks against China and Hong Kong.
Ken Lieberthal, a China expert who was a top aide to President Bill Clinton, said there is a major difference between typical cyber-espionage in which countries try to learn about each other’s military operations, for instance, and the cyberattacks on American companies coming from China.
The former, he said, is widely understood to be practiced by many countries—and is not what President Obama has been discussing with China. Instead, Lieberthal said, the administration’s concern centers on cyberattacks on U.S. industry that result in the loss of valuable intellectual property.
“There’s a difference between normal espionage and commercial espionage,” said Lieberthal. The fact that Snowden did not make the distinction, he said, “either shows his ignorance, or he’s trying to up his value [with his hosts].”
The Chinese government did not comment on Snowden Thursday, instead repeating statements similar to those made by President Xi Jinping at his recent meeting with Obama in California.
“We’ve noticed the relevant reporting, but so far I have no further information to offer,” said a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a press conference in Beijing. “The Chinese government takes the cybersecurity issue very seriously and is a firm supporter of cybersecurity.”
The spokesperson added, “We hope both sides can calm down and look at each other’s problems objectively, enhancing mutual understanding through dialogue and communication, strengthen cooperation, and make joint effort to build a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyberspace.”
Experts said Beijing would likely continue to let Hong Kong handle the situation because of the existing extradition treaty between the semiautonomous city and the United States. Chinese leaders may also be wary of doing anything to imperil efforts to patch up their relationship with Washington, especially so soon after Xi’s visit.
“It’s not big enough to cause any impact in overall strategy in the U.S.-China relationship,” said Liu Feitao, a research fellow in the Department of American Studies at the China Institute of International Studies. “However, looking back, it makes America’s constant accusations about China’s cyberattacks lose its basis.”
Liu added, “China has no intention to use such an incident to make a fuss, and I think it’s very unlikely Beijing will offer protection to Snowden.”
Liu Liu and Ricky Li contributed to this report from Beijing.