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.
A few thoughts:
- The issue is less the direct analogy of Xie to Snowden (they don’t really have much in common, given that the latter isn’t leaking anything), than the symbolic meaning of Snowden; if his example provides a rhetorically compelling opening for dissent against the Chinese national security state, then all the better.
- As some have suggested, the Chinese decision to approach Snowden and his revelations with caution rather than celebration may have been based in concern that Snowden’s example would cause external action against or internal dissent within the national security bureaucracy. Snowden was, potentially, more of a problem than an opportunity.
- A broader question involves how states balance concerns about legitimization of authority against the desire to use NGOs (or even poorly defined networks of individuals and NGOs) against other states. Will states interpret future Snowdens as opportunities to poke each other in the eye, or will they see such actors as a general threat to state authority and security? Even phrasing it in those terms egregiously simplifies reality, as states have always engaged in such a balancing act with respect to what they allow (or encourage) non-state actors to do.