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America's 'Us Vs Them' Hypocrisy in China Cyber Charges

The US is trying to frame itself as the "good" kind of mass surveillance apparatus, compared to China. It's a cheap trick.
Photo via AP

As diplomatic tensions intensify over the US's first ever cyber-espionage charges against members of the Chinese military, anyone who has paid even the most cursory glance to NSA revelations in the last year is well aware of the pot-kettle-black situation at play.

We know, based on leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the US spy agency ostensibly dedicated to national security and counter-terror work has engaged in corporate espionage, including the surveillance of business leaders in ally European states, snooping on Brazilian oil firm Petrobras, and targeting Chinese telecom corporation Huawei (the very sort of activity of which the Justice Department has accused the Chinese).


There is another layer of this hypocrisy that seems worthy of note. One of the US institutions that was listed in the filing as targeted by Chinese military hackers was the United Steel Workers Union. A strange apparition indeed, probably not seen since before World War I, to see the US government go to bat for an American union (and the steel strikers of 1919 must be turning in their graves).

The US insistence on a difference in behaviors — especially one with a moral basis — smacks as a face-saving gesture in the wake of the NSA leaks fallout.

Of course, both China and the US have either denied spying allegations (China has called the charges "absurd"), or provided paper-thin pretexts in the name of that ever-available vindication of "security," in response to claims about cyber-wrongdoing. What we learn about "security" through these revelations is an open secret: "National security" is as much about upholding global economic advantage as it is preventing terror attacks.

The nuance of the DoJ's move here is to name it a false equivalence to compare Chinese cyber-espionage and US spying. The claim is that the US holds the moral upperhand because while surveillance is carried out for economic advantage, it is never in the service of a specific corporation. It's a loose claim indeed and certainly devoid of ethical impact.

For one, the ways in which corporations and the state are intertwined in the US functions differently in China. At base, both the US and China have been spying in the name of corporate advantage. As such, the US insistence on a difference in behaviors — especially one with a moral basis — smacks as a face-saving gesture in the wake of the NSA leaks fallout. By bringing criminal charges against Chinese military hackers, replete with old-school "Wanted" posters, the US subtly asserts that its apparatus-totalized surveillance is the good kind, in the name of state and safety, while framing Chinese hackers as the greedy, corporate baddies. It's a cheap trick and we shouldn't fall for it.

The context of cyberwar is contemporary, but the geopolitical framework — diplomatic brinkmanship, undergirded by a battle for economic hegemony — is as old as any empire (and certainly any modern superpower). It is a politics not only colored by hypocrisy but defined by it; an "us versus them" dynamic, which demands that both sides behave as badly as each other.

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