The front pages of Chinese state media were covered Thursday with the allegations of ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden, who says the U.S. government has been hacking computers in China for years.
Snowden is currently holed up in Hong Kong after leaking top-secret documents that exposed surveillance programs carried out by the National Security Agency, where he had also worked as a contractor.
The 29-year-old on Wednesday told a newspaper in Hong Kong that he plans to stay in the former British colony and fight efforts to bring him back to the U.S. for criminal proceedings.
Speaking with the English-language South China Morning Post
, Snowden said the NSA has been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. He said targets include public officials, businesses and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"We hack network backbones - like huge Internet routers, basically - that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," said Snowden.
He said the NSA has undertaken over 61,000 hacking operations globally, including hundreds in China and Hong Kong. U.S. officials have not yet commented on the accusations.
Leaks put US in 'awkward position'
Snowden's claims were the top story on most of China's major news outlets Thursday, including on the front page of the Chinese-language version of the Communist Party-controlled Global Times
The official China Daily
also prominently featured a piece quoting Chinese analysts who said Snowden's revelations are "certain to stain Washington's overseas image and test developing Sino-U.S. ties."
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The exposure of the Internet surveillance program puts the U.S. in the "awkward position of having to explain itself to its citizens and the world," according to Li Haidong, a researcher of American studies at China Foreign Affairs University.
"For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyber espionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government," Li told the paper.
Beijing could use leaks as propaganda win?
Until now, Chinese officials and newspapers on the mainland had stayed relatively quiet on the issue. But its increased prominence Thursday suggests Beijing is willing to use Snowden's revelations of the U.S. surveillance programs as a propaganda victory.
The development could particularly complicate Washington's efforts to hold China accountable for alleged widespread Chinese cyber espionage and theft against U.S. targets. It could also provide ammunition for Beijing to defend its own massive domestic surveillance efforts.
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The U.S. spy programs have already been criticized by some privacy and civil rights advocates in China, including dissident artist Ai Weiwei, one of the most prominent critics of China's extensive system of online censorship.
In a Tuesday opinion piece in The Guardian
, Ai said the U.S. initiatives are "abusively using government powers to interfere in individuals' privacy."
"There is no guarantee that China, the U.S. or any other government will not use the information falsely or wrongly. I think especially that a nation like the U.S., which is technically advanced, should not take advantage of its power. It encourages other nations," said Ai.
The documents Snowden leaked provided information on how the NSA collects and monitors telephone records and and Internet content. Washington officials, who have confirmed the programs, have said they are not being misused and are necessary to stop terrorist attacks.