Friday, August 23, 2013

The Summer of Snowden and Egypt, and What It Means for China

[This post originally appeared at Asia Times Online on August 22, 2013 as "Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt".  I've expanded and clarified the original piece considerably, especially in material pertaining to Golden Shield and the Great Firewall, with the additions shown in red.  This piece may be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

The Summer of Snowden and Egypt has been an awkward one for the liberal democratic ideal and the rhetoric of ''universal values'' - and Beijing's inability to honor them - that have wrong-footed the People's Republic of China so thoroughly in recent years in the international arena.

Most recently, Egypt slid over to join Libya on the bloody bollocks side of the political ledger, as the liberal panacea for the ills of authoritarianism - millions of people in the streets voicing democratic slogans - was unapologetically and enthusiastically deployed to support a military coup against a democratically elected government and then initiate a bloody pogrom against Egypt's erstwhile rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been rather eye-popping attempts to reconcile the Egyptian jacquerie of 2013 with the optimistic vision that prevailed during the Arab Spring - and differentiate the events in Egypt from the ''bad'' massacre in Beijing in 1989. A writer at a national US magazine inadvertently illustrated the true crime of Tiananmen - its violation of the law of neoliberal democratic optics:
The Tiananmen Square massacre, on the other hand, defied its historical context; that same year, Communist regimes across Eastern Europe fell peacefully, and within two years the Soviet Union would also collapse. Though the Tiananmen Square massacre happened before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became, in retrospect, an outlier in the historical context of its era. And for this reason, the Chinese government's killing of its protesters seemed especially outrageous.
Tiananmen wasn't just a massacre; it was a crime against the zeitgeist!

Now that Egypt 2013 has apparently surpassed PRC 1989 on the massacre-o-meter, the Butchers of Beijing probably find it ironic that, while the PRC has been subjected to an increasingly anachronistic arms embargo by the West ever since Tiananmen, the Obama administration currently finds itself incapable of formally cutting off military aid to Egypt's new rulers. [1]

More to the point, the Egyptian precedent will provide plenty of ammunition to Chinese theorists who believe that the PRC formula of political stability and cautious reform by fiat pays more dividends than handing the future of the country over to let-'er-rip democracy.

The case is already being made in the pages of China's state media, as Global Times informs us:
A Chinese associate professor on Tuesday cautioned that developing countries should be vigilant against "democracy trap" in the wake of Egypt's deadly clashes.

The remarks by Ding Long, associate professor at the University of International Business and Economics, came in his article carried by the People's Daily on Tuesday. ...

Democratization of developing countries needs a preparatory phase, during which the development of the economy should be prioritized to strengthen social organizations and civil society, Ding noted.  
"Serious maladjustment of democracy may occur if developing countries indiscriminately imitate the Western democratic model," Ding warned. [2].
Self-serving advice by an authoritarian regime anxious to stay in power? Certainly.

Good advice for countries looking at the real dangers of democratic transition? Maybe.

There has been a lot of grim, informed attention paid by the China-watching media to President Xi Jinping's willingness to dash the hopes of liberal reformers with his relatively open determination to enforce the CCP's favored norms of political stability and organizational obedience, marked by a round-up of open society activists, lawyers, and even, from the other side of the fence, a Maoist activist eager to make the case for ex-Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai as he headed for trial. [3]

Xi has been remarkably active on the propaganda and ideology front. Other than the ''China Dream'', one of the first fruits of the 18th Party Congress was the ''mass line'' - in Xinhua's words, ''a guideline under which CPC officials and members are required to prioritize the interests of the people and persist in exercising power for them'' since ''the CPC is facing a more complicated situation in maintaining ties with the public, as rapid economic and social development has resulted in conflicts between different social groups'' and "therefore, the CPC needs to build systems and mechanisms to encourage its members to interact with the public and guarantee its mass line principle," (according to Gao Xinmin of the CCP Central Party School). [4]

At the same time, the CCP propaganda chiefs put out a sternly worded directive about the ''7 things not to discuss'', basically a laundry list of liberal concerns like ''Western constitutionalism'', ''universal values'', ''civil society'' (''opposition to opening and reform'' was also bullet-pointed, presumably to put devotees of Bo Xilai on notice). Xi removed any doubt that he stood behind the principle of party supremacy with an extensively reported speech to an ideological work conference that urged party members to be more pro-active in propaganda work, essentially promoting a vision of the CCP as the glue that will bind a fracturing Chinese society and worldview into a single instrument of national economic and social development. [5]

Good luck with that, one might say, given the imbalances and frictions within the Chinese economy and society and the Party's perhaps terminal unpopularity, thanks to its addiction to corruption, non-transparency, and impunity.

However, the Xi administration that took up the reins of power earlier this year is preparing to confront some significant challenges, which can perhaps best be met with a party apparatus rededicated to self-preservation through unity, and not afflicted and divided by liberal Chinese critics fixated on the CCP's myriad democratic shortcomings.

Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang recognize some serious structural threats to Chinese development as yields from the old export/infrastructure investment binge model dry up. The new regime has haltingly signaled its desire to transition to a consumer-driven model of economic growth, reform the hukou (household registration) system, curb the economic and loan-hogging dominance of the PRC's overbuilt state-owned enterprises and, perhaps, even deal with the dysfunctional model of local government funding through runaway land seizure and real estate development that is driving Chinese fiscal governance into a ditch - as soon as Bo Xilai has been safely consigned to the dustbin of history.

However, all these reforms - if Xi and Li have the nerve to carry them out - bring with them the prospect of social unrest. Access to credit will become more difficult, enterprises will topple, people will get thrown out of work, people coming out of school will have trouble finding jobs, officials and other millionaires will scheme to protect their dwindling bank balances or, try to stay out of jail or out of a grave as the next corruption investigation blows through town to distract and placate the unhappy masses during the wrenching transition ... and the central government and party regime will want to make sure that an anti-regime nexus of discontent, dissent, factionalism, and opportunism does not emerge to oppose the central government and its policies.

If social and institutional forces amplify the voices of dissent within Chinese society and even link street activists to disgruntled bosses and millionaires and generals - which is what happened in Egypt and, for that matter China in 1989 - and produce the ultimate catastrophe for CCP governance: an elite split bringing forth a new Gorbachev, Zhao Ziyang - or Bo Xilai.

To an authoritarian regime, increased control is an end in itself. However, the central government's hostility to political reform - and its eagerness to pour scorn on the ostentatious reverence paid by China's liberals to the PRC's (party written, People's Congress-rubber stamped, and never-voted-on) national constitution as a piece of political theater - may also signal that Xi Jinping is trying to seize the political and security high ground in order to anticipate and blunt resistance to his policies.

Since the PRC's ability to manage this transition is of considerable importance to both China and the world, and given the negative example of events in Egypt, perhaps a rethinking of the relationship between political and social reform will make its way onto the world's agenda if Xi and Li make a serious effort to pursue their reform quest.

If American liberal opinion still has limited heartburn digesting 1,000 corpses in Cairo as a speedbump on the road to democracy, it will probably have even less difficulty reconciling the Snowden revelations with its persistent critique of authoritarian Chinese security practices.

Nevertheless, the surveillance story has embarrassed several Western governments by dropping more shoes than a footloose caterpillar as the Guardian and Washington Post bookend the Obama administration's efforts at damage control with carefully escalated revelations.

The United States appears to have been reasonably, if not overwhelmingly, sedulous in avoiding the targeted collection of communications between ''US persons'' within the US. That's supposed to be the job of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the FBI is expected to clear a higher legal and evidentiary bar than the National Security Agency before it avails itself of the universal wiretapping backdoors mandated on US telecoms equipment by the CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) statute.

At the same time, it has become abundantly clear that the National Security Agency (NSA), whose statutory playground is non-US communications, can also listen to anybody anytime in the United States if the protections embodied in US laws and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts fail, thanks to accident, design, or the exercise of individual initiative, as they have apparently done in several cases.

Add to that the NSA's unquestioned ability to view traffic transiting the US or residing on the servers of US Internet service providers, e-mail providers, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! and the like.

Add to that the extensive access to traffic and information that doesn't touch the United States, thanks to the cooperation and information sharing provided by the ''Five Eyes'' - the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to the US.

And then there is apparently an extensive cross-border hacking operation to access digital resources from uncooperative jurisdictions like China and Russia.

A watershed was perhaps reached with the detention of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald (the Guardian reporter who broke the Snowden story), in the transit area of London's Heathrow Airport. It is difficult to conceive of a legally and strategically more ill-conceived sally than using an apparently bogus reading of British terrorism laws to detain Miranda and seize his electronics.

And it is difficult to conceive of an environment in which such a blunder could be committed, inviting unwelcome speculation that the surveillance and security apparatus is, despite government assurances, really out of control, drunk with its own sense of power and impunity, and given to the pursuit of arbitrary and illegal vendettas against individuals to whom it has taken a dislike.

Add it all up, and the Snowden revelations have, as a second-order result, painted privacy as a precarious privilege limited to US persons by a constitutionally restrained and perhaps less than enthusiastic US government, not a universal value affirmed to the world by the United States in its role as champion of freedom and free expression.

This has provoked some mental calisthenics by Chinese activists in their efforts to explain the qualitative difference between US and PRC surveillance. One dissident addressed a police search and confiscation of his ''probe hound'' - a device for detecting wireless eavesdropping - from his luggage while traveling in China:
[...]These things happened as the Edward Snowden revelations were attracting the world's attention. The Chinese government seemed gratified, even pleased. Look! The United States is no better than China, so let's all just stop the mutual carping.

But let's not jump to conclusions. How comparable are the cases? Is it conceivable that the United States would tell a citizen that he has no right to a probe hound? In China, the government can enter any space of any citizen anytime it wants. It is the ''counterespionage'' of citizens that is prohibited. [6]
In the wake of Bradley Manning's 35-year sentence for Wikleaking, it remains to be seen if the US State Department rolls out ''freedom to engage in counterespionage'' as a universal human right.

The fallout from two upcoming civil suits against US-based computer network equipment designer and supplier Cisco Systems will provide some perspective on how effectively the ''universal values'' critique of China's surveillance state survives the Snowden revelations.

The two suits, one filed in Maryland on behalf of democracy activist Du Daobin and other Chinese dissidents, the second in San Francisco by the Human Rights Law Foundation, an advocacy group friendly to the Falun Gong (FLG), a China-based spiritual practice group, on behalf of abused FLG practitioners, seek damages from Cisco's corporate head office for its alleged culpability in customizing machines supplied to the PRC's Golden Shield Project to assist China's Public Security Bureau in pursuing dissidents.

The two suits have been bubbling along for several months, but recently received a jolt of publicity as the Electronic Freedom Foundation filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Du Daobin case. [7]

The centerpiece of the Du Daobin case, at least in the public sphere, is the infamous Slide 57 from a Cisco internal briefing from 2002, which was rather belatedly leaked in 2010 and serves as Exhibit A to the complaint. In full, the slide reads:
The Golden Shield Project: Public Network Information Security Monitor System
Stop the network related crimes
Guarantee the security and services of the public network
Combat ''Falun Gong'' evil religion and other hostiles
[Note: Statement of Government goals from speech government official Li Runsen]
The regime's preoccupation with Falun Gong as a target of Golden Shield is confirmed by a 2007 public statement in the Chinese media (which the plaintiff's lawyers in the San Francisco case apparently seized upon for a rather tortured interpretation of ''struggle'' to link the PSB and the Golden Shield system and Cisco USA to brainwashing and other efforts to completely suppress the Falun Gong) that the Golden Shield Public Network Information Security Monitor System is ''an extremely important project to attack Internet crime and ensure the safety and service of the public network; in the struggle with the heterodox Falun Gong religious teaching and other hostile elements, it has already had an important effect. [8]

In slide 58, the presenter describes Cisco's opportunities relating to the overall Golden Shield project:
High starting point planning
High standard construction
Technical training
Security, operational maintenance
This does not appear to be terribly strong beer.

For perspective, the lengthy Cisco Powerpoint presentation described the state of play and potential Cisco opportunities throughout the Chinese public security apparatus. The Golden Shield was one significant area of PSB investment - a massive digitization and information systems integration program initiated in 1997 to bring the PRC's information systems and enforcement into the 21st century, and the ''Public Network Information Security Monitor System'' - responsible for the FLG and other hostiles - was one of six tasks within Golden Shield and is covered by one slide out of the 97 in the presentation.

Slide 57 could be spun as development of defensive measures against the proudly net-savvy and regime-unfriendly Falun Gong organization, not an aggressive campaign against innocent practitioners.

After all, the Internet was at the core of the FLG virtual community and its outreach, education, and growth strategy. E-mail had served as the instrument for mobilizing a vigil in front of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's headquarters in Beijing, in 1999 that excited the anxiety of the CCP and the determination of then Party leader Jiang Zemin to eradicate the group. In 2002, the year the Cisco slide was prepared, Falun Gong practitioners hijacked the transponder on an Asian communications satellite and beamed an FLG banner throughout China for 15 minutes.

Even today, the FLG prides itself on its Internet skills and, in 2010, it received a US$1.5 million grant from the US State Department for development of its Internet censorship evasion technologies, Freesurf and Ultranet. In its own submission, the plaintiffs declare that:
Prior to the implementation of the Golden Shield, it was impossible for the CCP or security authorities to effectively detect, identify, or track widespread Falun Gong activities online. [9]
Interestingly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also did not file an amicus brief on behalf of the case being pursued against Cisco in San Francisco (perhaps because the lawyers' determination to seek class action status for tortured FLG practitioners made that filing look more problematic), even though the Du Daobin case rests its case on the rather easily challenged assertion that Golden Shield's essential identity is as an instrument of repression of political dissent, apparently in order to spare the legal team the heavy lifting of linking Cisco to concrete instances of customization for the purpose of human rights violations. [10]

The EFF, although a highly effective and determined protector of digital rights, made the rather annoying flub of misspelling ''Falun Gong hostiles'' as ''Falun Gong hostilities'' throughout the brief. It also conflated Golden Shield - the Public Security Bureau's massive national internal surveillance, information aggregation, and data mining network targeting domestic crime and dissent, basically what would happen in the United States if the FBI had the capabilities of the NSA without any constitutional restraints - with ''The Great Firewall of China'' - the considerably smaller (but to Western journalists and West-friendly dissidents and content-hungry netizens absolutely infuriating) software regime imbedded in international gateway and regional routers to detect and block undesirable foreign content.


The Great Firewall is apparently not run as an exclusively Public Security Bureau operation.  As far as I can tell, it gets its marching orders from the State Internet Information Office under the State Council.  A PSB official is a vice director of the SIIO and undoubtedly has a decisive voice there, but I draw the implication that, in bureaucrat-speak, there are multiple party/media/propaganda equities involved in deciding what gets blocked, beyond the priorities of the PSB and its particular mission of tracking and trampling on crooks and dissidents whose on-line activities rise far enough above the level of embarrassment and irritation to be criminalized.

The publicly identified architect of the Great Firewall of China, Fang Binxing, was a telecoms functionary who until recently served as head of the Beijing Telecommunications University. Fang openly defended the government's right to restrict the flow of information and has maintained a rather hapless public persona, getting pelted with shoes and eggs during his rare public appearances and shutting down his Weibo account after it became a target of non-stop invective.

On the occasion of Fang's announcement of his retirement from his post at BTU in July of this year, rumored to be because of cancer, Radio Free Asia--whose website, one can safely say, certainly served as the object of Fang's unwelcome attentions--gave him a valedictory that included the comment from a Chinese blogger that "For someone to do as he did was simply monstrous...He's sick and hasn't died yet and he's already cursed at, he's got cancer and everybody celebrates his impending death. As a general matter, cursing a dead person is not virtuous, but in this case intellectuals and netizens are unanimous; no one will condemn such behavior."

I might point out that Li Runsen, the architect of Golden Shield--whose statement of the objectives of the Golden Shield Public Information Security Monitor System provided the content for Slide 57--  was a heavyweight in the Public Security Bureau and has now moved onto a profitable second career in the security/industrial complex as a director of the Shenzhen-based China Security and Surveillance Corporation.  As yet, apparently nobody has displayed the temerity to abuse Li on-line for equipping the authoritarian Chinese state with digital teeth and claws, let alone organize displays of egg and shoe-throwing at his rare public appearances. 

 Long story short, although persecuting political and religious dissidents is a significant mission both for Golden Shield and for its public network monitoring operation (which, according to slide 4 of the Cisco presentation, is handled by PSB Bureau 11 and implemented at the various local levels--here's the site for Yantai), it's not the only job and the PRC apparently invested 3.7 billion yuan (US$604 million) in Golden Shield to link together almost 2 million computers to do a lot of cop stuff as well. [11]


Therefore, simply linking Cisco to Golden Shield without demonstrating customization of software explicitly designed to pursue dissidents--which seems to be the approach in the Du Daobin case--may not be an evidentiary slam dunk.


The Falun Gong complaint, on the other hand, seems to be richer in smoking gun allegation of Cisco USA's culpability in modifying its equipment specifically and overtly for the purpose of hunting down Falun Gong practitioners:
71. Defendants marketed to Public Security officers that its security software was the ''only product capable of recognizing over 90% of Falun Gong pictorial information.''

72. To achieve such a high success rate, Defendants identified and analyzed Internet activity that is unique to Falun Gong practitioners and used this activity to create unique digital Falun Gong''signatures.'' These Falun Gong-specific signatures were incorporated by Defendants into security software upgrades at regular intervals to ensure Falun Gong activity was identified, blocked and tracked.
Cisco is expected to argue that, thanks to a corporation-friendly ruling by the Supreme Court concerning the ''Alien Torts Statue'' (which permits aliens to file civil suits for damages in US courts and serves as the legal basis for both actions), US corporations (as opposed to individuals) are not liable for overseas malfeasance unless a relevant ''US nexus'' (which was not clearly defined in the ruling) can be shown.

However, this is a civil, not a criminal case and, as O J Simpson can attest, the evidentiary bar for initiating and winning a civil case is considerably lower than for a criminal case. What exactly is a ''human rights violation'' and what is ''routine security practice'' is in the eyes of the beholder - the court - and not subject to the criminal standard of ''proof beyond a reasonable doubt''.

The EFF brief is littered with ''suggests'' and ''plausibles'' and, in the end, its news release declares that there is enough ambiguity to justify, not preclude, the court accepting the case and embarking on discovery:
Regardless of whether Cisco "merely" sold surveillance and censorship equipment to China or whether they customized this equipment to pinpoint dissidents, it's clear that the place to decide this issue is a court of law. The plaintiffs have a right to present their evidence and have a court rule on the legitimacy of their claims. [12]
If one or more of the cases goes to trial, perhaps enough damaging information will be shaken out of Cisco during the disclosure process to keep the legal ball rolling and even support other cases against US manufacturers or Chinese entities and individuals.

However, the PRC leadership, as it looks at the travails of Egypt and the single-minded US commitment to the surveillance regime, will probably decide it is better to avoid the Egyptian example of rapid democratic reform, embrace the US model of unrepentant expansion of its information collection and processing abilities, and see little incentive to alter its authoritarian behavior.


Notes:

1. See CNN report, August 20, 2013.
2. See Chinese professor warns of "democracy trap", Xinhua, August 20, 2013.
3. See Journalists, Lawyers Targeted as Xi Tightens ControlChina Digital Times, August 22, 2013.
4. CPC's "mass line" campaign not a short-term movement, News of The Communist Party of China, July 15, 2013.
5. See here.
6. When it Comes to Domestic Spying, US is no China, August 22, 2013.
7. See US District Court for the District of Maryland case filing hereThe EFF amicus brief is here.
8. See here.
9. See here.
10. See Daobin v. Cisco Cisco's Legal Legerdemain Continues, Ward & Ward PLLC.
11. See Xinhuanet.
12. Cisco and Abuses of Human Rights in China: Part 1, by Rainey Reitman, Electronic Frontier Foundation, August 22, 2011.

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