— On its homepage on Wednesday, amid articles about Chinese astronauts, holiday celebrations, and Chinese territorial disputes, the website of the nationalistic Chinese newspaper Global Times featured a screenshot from the White House’s We The People petition portal. The image shows a petition calling on President Barack Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, because he is a "national hero." The tabloid’s accompanying article summarizes the story but neglects to mention that Snowden hid out in Hong Kong for weeks (he may still be here).
The Global Times‘ coverage mirrors how the NSA story is playing in the Chinese press. Yes, it’s front-page news, but the revelations about America’s surveillance programs are not receiving the same amount of digital ink as, say, China’s space launch on Tuesday. And yes, the NSA coverage is critical and even a bit satirical. Back in May, the We the People website received a lot press after the launch of a petition seeking justice for a long-unsolved Chinese poisoning case. "If you can’t trust your own government … how about appealing to the White House?" read the opening of a Bloomberg Businessweek story about the campaign. Snowden’s leaks, which expose how the U.S. government has been spying on the American people, does hurt that narrative (a fact the Global Times was likely aware of in covering the NSA story).
But like many other Chinese articles written about the surveillance revelations, the Global Times article borrows heavily from U.S. sources. The popular portal NetEase featured an article titled, "Britain’s The Guardian Newspaper: More Programs About American NSA Control Will Be Revealed," while the news portal Sohu picked up the news that Snowden’s alleged girlfriend Lindsay Mills felt "lost and alone."
This is, of course, in part because the Western press has done virtually all the reporting on the story. But Chinese newspapers also tend to quote directly from foreign media when a Chinese angle is deemed too sensitive. Indeed, what angle could the papers take that wouldn’t make China look bad? The country has a far more extensive security apparatus than the United States does (most Chinese papers are ignoring the angle of Snowden spending time in Hong Kong — a much freer place than the mainland). Homing in on that very theme on Tuesday, dissident artist Ai Weiwei argued in the Guardian that the "United States is behaving like China" — a country he says almost entirely lacks privacy. "That is why China is far behind the world in important respects: even though it has become so rich, it trails behind in terms of passion, imagination and creativity," he adds.
As Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter wrote on Tuesday, "Why hype a story that serves to remind Chinese Internet users that the surveillance to which they’ve become accustomed is so much worse than what Americans experience?"