Editorials and columns in state newspapers said the speculation, some of which aired during U.S. television talk shows on Sunday, was designed to manipulate public opinion and fend off international criticism of the surveillance.
“Sheer nonsense,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press briefing Monday, saying that the notion Snowden may have spied for Beijing was “totally groundless.”
“The United States should take the concerns and demands of the international community and the public over this issue seriously, and give a necessary explanation,” Hua said.
Snowden went to Hong Kong last month after leaking to Britain’s Guardian secrets about NSA surveillance programs.
Asked whether he thought Snowden had been spying for China all along, former Vice-President Dick Cheney told Fox News Sunday he was “deeply suspicious,” given the choice of China as a bolt-hole.
“That's not a place where you ordinarily want to go if you’re interested in freedom, and liberty and so forth. So, it raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this.”
Cheney also voiced concern that Snowden might release further information to the Chinese, perhaps in return for asylum.
“I am very, very worried that he still has additional information that he hasn’t released yet, that the Chinese would welcome the opportunity and probably willing to provide immunity for him or sanctuary for him, if you will, in exchange for what he presumably knows or doesn’t know.”
(The Guardian has since released further revelations based on information provided by Snowden, including Monday’s reports saying Britain’s NSA equivalent, the GCHQ, had spied on foreign delegates during G20 meetings in 2009, and that NSA agents had intercepted then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s communications while he was in Britain that same year.)
Also on Sunday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) wondered during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union why Snowden had made preparations over a period of months to go to China.
“I think you have to ask a lot of hard questions. You know, why did he make preparations to go to China for months? Why did he grab information that was well beyond the bounds of what he said he was disclosing for the purposes of privacy protection?”
Rogers disputed Snowden’s claim to be a whistleblower.
“A whistleblower comes to the appropriate authorities with appropriate classifications so that we can investigate any possible claim. He didn’t do that. He grabbed up information. He made preparations to go to China, and then he collected it up, bolted to China, and then decided he was going to disclose very sensitive national security information – including, by the way, that benefits the Chinese and other adversaries when it comes to intelligence relationships.”
In an online question-and-answer session published by the Guardian on Monday, Snowden denied suggestions that he had collaborated with China, saying flatly, “I have had no contact with the Chinese government.”
“This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the U.S. media has a kneejerk ‘RED CHINA!’ reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC [People’s Republic of China], and is intended to distract from the issue of U.S. government misconduct,” he said.
‘Public relations warfare’
Whatever his motivation for choosing Hong Kong, Snowden’s decision to lie low in the Chinese territory is putting new strains on an already uneasy China-U.S. relationship – and giving Beijing the opportunity to turn the tables.
The revelation that the NSA has been mining data from the servers of major Internet companies as part of its counterterrorism mission has been seized upon by a China vexed by U.S. accusations of large-scale Chinese cyber snooping and theft of secret data, including some relating to weapons programs.
“For the past few months, the U.S. has been viciously accusing China and other nations of cyberespionage, yet Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed that it is the U.S. that has been engaging in a monstrous spying program on people all over the world,” Chen Weihua, deputy editor of the state-run China Daily, wrote in a column.
“Washington must be grinding its teeth because Snowden's revelations have almost overturned the image of the U.S. as the defender of a free Internet,” the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an editorial on Monday.
“After losing this image, which has been abused by the US government to boss others around, there is no way it won’t want Snowden to be extradited.”
In another editorial, published Tuesday, Global Times said American politicians were suggesting that Snowden had been cooperating with China in a bid to deflect attention away from the surveillance revelations.
“Transforming public anger toward the U.S. government into resentment of the Chinese government will aid Washington at this time,” it said. “Washington excels at public relations warfare via the media.”
In its news columns, China Daily cited an “expert on U.S. studies,” Da Wei, as saying that while the U.S. had in the past “spared no effort in hyping Internet attacks,” it was now demonstrating double standards and faced an embarrassing dilemma as a result of Snowden’s revelations.
Chinese media frequently quote academic experts in such cases, but they are often not independent analysts. Da Wei is attached to the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, which according to the independent intelligence analysis firm, Stratfor falls under China’s ministry of state security.