When Edward Snowden managed to dodge a U.S. extradition request by fleeing Hong Kong for Moscow over the weekend, the New York Times spoke of China scoring a "tactical victory" in its faceoff with the United States.
But on June 25, Chinese officials were confronted with what appears to be the first public legal challenge arising from the Snowden affair. Xie Yanyi, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer, announced that the NSA leaker had inspired him to ask the Ministry of Public Security, China’s main security agency, to disclose "information on methods used by Chinese authorities to conduct surveillance on Chinese citizens," according to the NGO Human Rights in China. "From a civil rights angle, China’s monitoring of the Internet and cell phones is a very big problem," Xie said by telephone in an interview with Foreign Policy.
Xie, citing China’s constitution and regulations on "open government information," believes that he is legally entitled to learn "the detailed measures" Beijing uses to prevent privacy violations; whether the Ministry of Public Security "has obtained approval and supervision from the National People’s Congress," China’s rubber-stamp legislature, "when conducting surveillance;" the parties "legally and politically responsible" for "approving Internet surveillance methods;" and the "remedies for surveillance activities resulting from abuse of official power," according to his petition.
Still, Xie’s not sure what he thinks about Snowden, who is currently thought to be holed up in a Moscow airport waiting room. "It’s positive that he raised" cybersecurity issues, "but to what cost?" he asked.
Like Snowden, Xie is used to being the underdog. In 2003, he sued former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, an almost unheard of act in a country where the Communist Party controls the courts and top officials operate outside the rule of law. When Jiang stepped down from the presidency in 2003, he "violated the constitution," Xie says, by not relinquishing his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military body, until September 2004. "Him staying on was illegal," Xie told me. (Xie was unable to get a Chinese court to hear the case.)
Many parts of China’s legal code, including the regulations and constitutional guarantees Xie is invoking, are surprisingly liberal– the problem is they are too often ignored. Regardless of what Snowden’s leaks reveal about the state of surveillance in the United States, the machinations of Chinese government ministries remain far more opaque. Xie probably has the same chance of receiving a positive response from the Ministry of Public Security as Snowden does of receiving amnesty from Obama.
Xie, however, is optimistic about his case. "I have this expectation that they will actually publicize it," he said. "Yes, maybe there will be a gap [between what he’s asking for and what officials will reveal], "but if they actually do publicize this information, it’s good for everyone. They can uphold China’s image." And Xie says he’s not worried about his own situation, though I wish I heard more confidence in his voice. "There’s a Chinese saying," he said, "that the benevolent person can be free from concern."