Wednesday, June 26, 2013


(first published in the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST,  June 26, 2013)

Philip Cunningham says the snoops who doubled as doormen and dorm mates now seem old school         

Part of the folklore of being a foreign student in China in the 1980s was that Big Brother was watching, all the time. Very few people had first-hand knowledge, fewer even had proof, but the discomfort, if not fear, was pervasive.
A foreign student in China could easily get the impression that the country was one big spy machine, based on documented tales of abuse that came out of the Cultural Revolution and other score-settling periods, and undocumented, anecdotal tales from more tranquil times - such as "I told my wife on the phone the refrigerator in the hotel room wasn't working and, 10 minutes later, housekeeping came up to fix it"; this sort of story.
The longer one was in China, the more the anecdotal "evidence" piled up, but it was hard to get the big picture. Foreign students would gather in their dorm after curfew and speculate about who the local snoops were: the doorman, or dorm monitor, for example.
My understanding, then, as now, was that the phone was the weak link. To make a call, one had to go through a switchboard, which was as good as a "snitchboard". Public phones were manned by nosy attendants.
Sometimes the blanket of watchfulness was almost edifying, as if the system was benevolent, looking after the public good, protecting people from themselves.
The son of a well-known associate of Mao Zedong would sometimes visit my dorm room at Beijing Normal University to practise English and share a cup of coffee, which I brewed on an electric hot pot I kept hidden, because such appliances were not allowed in the dorm. To reciprocate, he invited me to a private lunch with friends in a suite in the government-run Beijing Hotel, which had a reputation for tight surveillance. As we chatted, our conversation was interrupted by the startling appearance of a rat that scurried across the room.
To see a roomful of former Red Guards trying, and failing, to trap and kill the rat brought to mind Cultural Revolution zealotry. But what really seemed to hark back to that spooky era was the announcement, about a week later, that a nationwide anti-rat campaign was being put into affect. My dorm, like others across the country, was searched, and the hot pot that I kept hidden was confiscated.
During the hectic upheaval of 1989, the spectre of Big Brother took a back seat to Mr Science and Democracy, Lady Liberty and other more charismatic guests, during which time I heard expressions of solidarity from the very gatekeepers in dorms and hotels who I previously had reason to assume were snitching.
Living with surveillance does tend to alter one's behaviour, swinging between paranoia and anger at the stealthy watchers, and a shoulder-shrugging dismissal of its cost, along the lines of "if you are not doing anything wrong, there's nothing to hide". Still, it rankled then and it rankles now, especially with the revelations that the whole planet has become something of a panopticon for US and British authorities.

As a freelance journalist subject to intermittent surveillance by both Chinese and Western security services, I often asked people presumably in the know (diplomats, attachés, statesmen, academics and intelligence officials) about the extent of surveillance on both sides. The answers were vague, but I did get the sense that the kind of spying I had worried about as a student and journalist in China was chump change. There were things going on at a level that insiders could only begin to hint at.
Interestingly, none of them shared with me the outrage of being spied on by nannies, doorkeepers and phone operators, which surprised me at the time but which I better understand now. Not only did those in the know know that the US was spying, too, but spying in ways so pervasive as to make China's human intelligence efforts seem laughably old school, almost quaint.
What was also curious was that those with access to the most voluminous information about China seemed to adopt a pro-China stance in public. Indeed, Ezra Vogel's most recent book about Deng Xiaoping takes a surprisingly orthodox line. I also found this to be the case while conducting research at Harvard, where Jiang Zemin during his 1997 visit was so cosseted by Vogel that standard university question and answer was prohibited. That year, I drank sherry with the likes of China's spy chief Xiong Guangkai as a guest of Vogel and his former boss at the National Intelligence Council, Joseph Nye.
Vogel once told me that covering China for US intelligence is like being a professor with a thousand research assistants and the world's biggest database to draw from. Nye was more reticent about his intelligence work, other than to say, "Ezra is my eyes and ears for both Japan and China". Nye, who until recently was accusing foreign cyberterrorists of sending "electrons across borders", has in the light of recent scandals acknowledged that there are "electrons going both ways".
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Eyes and ears on China prove more pervasive than the spies in our midst

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Information highway or spy-way?


Updated: 2013-06-18 07:58
By Philip J. Cunningham ( China Daily)

Preventing the information highway from becoming the information spy-way is in the interests of people around the world.
The creeping intrusions of Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants, whose business model is predicated on reading people's e-mails and scanning the intimate lives of others in order to mine metadata for profit, has long been a concern to many. But the extent to which the US government has infiltrated Silicon Valley is only beginning to become clear.
US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the breathtaking scale of US government spying and the murky but documented collusion between intelligence agencies and the Silicon Valley signal a paradigm shift in public awareness. The spying and snooping is not just about ad clicks and crass commercialism, it's a political onslaught, an assault on civil liberties and an affront on human rights around the globe.
The National Security Agency has an insatiable appetite for other people's data, especially foreigners. Why else would former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton sully her diplomatic efforts with a crusade to make the world safe for Facebook? Why else did US supremacists and their fellow travelers and useful fools in the tech industry cry for Google when it stumbled in China? It was a fool's errand and it failed. China was, and remains, fully within its rights as a sovereign nation to say, "Get out, Google, take a walk, Facebook, we don't want any Trojan horses here."
When it comes to spying on US citizens, the NSA, offers a tiny fig-leaf of legal protection called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, although it still collects their private information anyway, for future reference. But the NSA doesn't even pretend to care about the privacy rights of the other 95 percent of the world's population. It's open season on all non-US citizens all the time.
The democratic ideals of the US' founding fathers are something to be proud of, but there's nothing to be proud of in this brave new world of spying, secrecy and skullduggery.
US President Barack Obama, who is proving to be an enabler of an out-of-control security state, has done nothing in his five years as president to restrict or reign in the spying juggernaut. If anything, he has done the opposite and accelerated the erosion of privacy rights and civil liberties.
Remember how US contractors bugged China's presidential jet in 2002? It seems so redundant and low-tech compared to the panopticon snooping capabilities of the present. Still, it would be hard to blame Chinese customs inspectors should they want to carefully examine the souvenir pine bench bestowed upon the Chinese president by his American counterpart at Sunnylands just in case there are any unusual "knots" in it.
The US government's pretension to the moral high ground has been obliterated by the dynamite revelation that the US is running the biggest spy operation in the history of the world without adequate safeguards, accountability or any respect for privacy and civil rights.
What kind of human rights-minded government thinks it's okay to submit its people and others to the unblinking X-ray gaze of computer-enhanced espionage around the clock? What kind of democratic government colludes with big business to collect as much data as it can on its citizens, and the citizens of other countries, and then use and abuse that data under a cloak of secrecy?
The US and China are hurtling down the information highway at breakneck speed. New rules of the road need to be established for the protection of all. World peace and prosperity depend on it. That's why both sides need to work on a new narrative, not only one that accords equal respect to both parties, but one that accords profound respect to their respective citizens. Both countries have formidable security systems and advanced computer resources. It is the responsibility of both countries to balance freedom and security in a way that keeps the peace while protecting citizens' rights and human dignity.

Monday, June 17, 2013


(first published in the South China Morning Post, June 17, 2013)

Philip Cunningham says the exposure of the dark undercurrents of the American security state has fuelled outrage at its double standards, but will it force a needed change of course?

Sales of George Orwell's works are said to be enjoying a small boom ever since the National Security Agency spy story broke, suggesting that, in confusing times, people still find solace in aphorisms and essays, fiction and fantasy, seeking to get a better grip on the uncharted and unclear dangers of the present.

America is going through a rough patch, engaged in a contentious national debate about how best to balance freedom with security, and how to handle secrecy with accountability. It's a time of excess, a time in which the word "traitor" will be brandished at those who dare to blow the whistle on wrongdoings or challenge the sacred cows of a smug, elitist security state.
The current era of governmental overreach, fired up by false notions of patriotism, may, in retrospect, be regarded as an aberration akin to that of the fear-mongering McCarthyism that dimmed the lights in the land illuminated by the torch of Miss Liberty. It, too, will pass.
China has known rough times, times far rougher than anything the relatively privileged young nation of America has had to face, but in recent years, the tide has begun to turn. The two nations are closer to parity than ever before, not just because America is at war and in decline, but because China is at peace and on the rise.
America may be the wealthiest nation in the world, but most of the wealth is greedily held in the hands of a few, while public expenditure is mostly funded by the taxes paid by people of lower and middle income. The US administration cries poverty when it comes to fixing America's 18,000 broken bridges and pot-holed highways, but it extorts from the taxpayer funds for a bottomless purse when it comes to blowing up bridges and replacing them in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's a time of high-dudgeon hypocrisy, when the world's most formidable hacking state, bar none, chides others for doing what it does on a larger scale; when the world's most aggressive interventionist regime with an awesome network of military bases spanning the globe rains bombs on relatively defenceless countries, to exert its will and a warped vision of the American way.
What NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden seems to be telling us is that the American security state is guilty of excess yet unable to correct itself. Policy has broken free of democratic safeguards and is racing out of control. The ship of state is listing dangerously and someone has to blow the whistle.
"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act," is a quote oft attributed to Orwell, though, in a truly Orwellian twist, it is not exactly clear where it comes from. In any case, it fits Snowden aptly, for the only thing remotely revolutionary about him is his willingness to tell the truth.
Far from being a firebrand, he comes across as an ordinary, conservative, soft-spoken tech guy whose extraordinary access to the clandestine activities of the world's most powerful nation alerted him to dangers hidden from public view, dangers that threaten to destroy a much-beloved free way of life. He sees semi-submerged icebergs ahead but no one on the Titanic wants to believe him, least of all the captain and the crew.
It wasn't always this bad and there is still time to right the course, if Washington snaps out of its self-induced, self-perpetuating anti-terror trance, stops hiding behind an invisibility cloak of secrecy wrapped in excessive self-regard, and starts getting back to basics like science and democracy.
Look at the news in the past week. While the Obama administration was trying to justify its war on whistle-blowers, abuse of secrecy and expansive surveillance, China launched a brand new Shenzhou rocket sending three astronauts into space; the kind of thing the US did peerlessly in its prime, but seems incapable of doing nowadays. When Americans get blasted into space, it's as guests on Russia's Soyuz space capsule.
It's as if the US gave up on Nasa and replaced it with NSA, jettisoning the promotion of science and exploration of space in exchange for a turning inward into a dark and convoluted world of endless eavesdropping.
One of the small, ironic revelations that has come out of the NSA whistle-blower scandal is that a thoughtful and earnest high school dropout like Snowden has proved himself a better judge of basic American constitutional rights and common decency than a Harvard University-educated lawyer turned president. Barack Obama needs to drop the pretence that the US has the high moral ground in arguments about hacking, surveillance, government monitoring of citizens or even civil rights.
Any such pretensions have been obliterated by the dynamite revelations that the US is running the biggest spy operation in the history of the world without adequate safeguards, accountability, respect for privacy and civil rights.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon

Tuesday, June 11, 2013



US whistle-blower Edward Snowden finds haven in Hong Kong, but for how long?

Philip Cunningham says fate of US dissident Edward Snowden may depend on Beijing

Tuesday, 11 June, 2013 [UPDATED: 8:54AM]

A video grab courtesy of The Guardian newspaper showing former CIA employee Edward Snowden during an exclusive interview. Photo: EPA

Philip Cunningham

While Barack Obama played golf on an estate in California, a young man named Edward Snowden emerged from hiding in Hong Kong to tell the world how the US was at risk of becoming a surveillance state at odds with its own better nature. As a former intelligence insider, Snowden knows he cannot escape the electronic dragnet of the National Security Agency for long.
Then there is Glenn Greenwald, a US lawyer and constitutional rights activist who Snowden shared information with. Greenwald writes for The Guardian, a connection which helped propel this story to stratospheric heights. If Snowden's situation brings to mind Bradley Manning, who was thrown into the brig and is likely to get a long jail sentence, then Greenwald's situation has echoes of Julian Assange, who used The Guardian to publicise the WikiLeaks material, only to find himself subject to an ongoing political witch-hunt.
Greenwald and Snowden's Hong Kong-based interviews have been broadcast around the world in the same way that controversial China stories get aired, via satellite link from freewheeling Hong Kong.
As a freelance journalist covering the Tiananmen demonstrations in Beijing in 1989, I remember the great relief I felt upon arriving in Hong Kong just a few days after the bloody crackdown. Despite the noise and crowds, it was wonderful to be in a city with a vigorous tradition of press freedom and free information flow.
Thus it somehow seems appropriate that today, now fully under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong finds itself a safe haven again, welcoming a new kind of dissident: an American at odds with the US security state.
In an interview with Greenwald, Snowden explains his bold action, saying he could not "in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building".
There is much to ponder in the substance of the leaks about NSA snooping, the gist of which appears to be reliable and accurate. What is uncertain is the juridical fate for Snowden. To some he is a traitor and snitch, to others a hero and truth-teller.
Already, congressman Peter King and other neo-nationalists in the US are calling the exposé a disgrace. He is particularly riled that Snowden chose to go to Hong Kong, which, King says, "puts us at the mercy of China".
If so, let China be merciful in the same way the US has received Chinese dissidents with open arms.
Will he be handed over as a token gift to seal the deal of the elite powwow at Sunnylands? Or will he find protection in slowly democratising China, safe from the long reach of US law?
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


  • (published in the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, June 5, 2013)

  • Philip Cunningham says if the petulant - and predictable - war of words between China and the US over June 4 is any indication, it's unlikely this week's summit will see any breakthrough
  • 88eda06a99b25616c3dcdd172bdfd9aa.jpg
Illustration: Craig Stephens

On the eve of the much-anticipated Sunnylands summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, government mouthpieces in the US and China had a brief but revealing spat. Not surprisingly, given the mutual penchant to spin the truth for political reasons, each side smugly portrayed itself as being in the right and the other in the wrong. Furthermore, each side reverted to type, the US as the holier-than-thou finger-wagger, China as the self-styled victim of conspiratorial slander.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki's statement that "the 24th anniversary of the violent suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on June 4 prompts the United States to remember this tragic loss of innocent lives" might seem a reasonable statement at first glance, but it's full of holes. Who is remembering what? The "United States"?

The power of the message gets lost in the hypocrisy of the pot calling the kettle black

Let's assume it's the collective wisdom of the State Department talking. It has a team of spinmeisters who present the world in a way that is intended to be highly favourable to US interests. Its information-manipulation teams skilfully ignore, downplay or whitewash the "inconvenient truths" when it is politically expedient to do so, and June 4 is made quick work of, if not thrown under the memory bus, when other bilateral issues rise to the fore, whether it be trade, terrorist concerns or a presidential visit to Beijing.
The government of China has a lot to answer for in regard to the brutal crackdown of June 4, 1989. Especially to its own people. But it does not take marching orders from, nor does it have to answer to, the US State Department.
A smart response would have been to study the message, but ignore the messenger. Instead, the response was petulant if not borderline hysterical. "We urge the US side to discard political prejudice, correctly treat China's development, immediately rectify its wrongdoings and stop interfering in China's internal affairs so as not to sabotage China-US relations," said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei .
China is far from being the only country that reflexively cringes when the US pretends to hold the high moral ground. Fatigue from the finger-wagging is understandable if one considers how craven and corrupt the source of the latest sanctimonious outburst is. The US State Department is the diplomatic organ of a powerful war machine that has rained millions of bombs on innocent people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries since Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon first conspired to cover up their crimes through an opportunistic political realignment in 1972.
"We renew our call for the Chinese government to end harassment of those who participated in the protests and fully account for those killed, detained, or missing," said the US State Department. This is a reasonable statement, of the sort that is, and should be, raised on a regular basis by non-governmental organisations, journalists and concerned individuals. But the power of the message gets lost in the hypocrisy of the pot calling the kettle black.
"A clear conclusion has already been made concerning the political turmoil that happened in the late 1980s," said China's foreign ministry. This is a lie. The debate continues to rage within. Far from being clear, and far from having achieved a conclusion, Beijing's official line is a wobbly work of obfuscation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs might like to bluff and convey the sense that its current "talking points" are the last word on the matter, but that's just a double deception - lying to oneself in order to sound more convincing to others. The controversy of June 4 is unresolved and the massacre that took place that day remains unrecognised and unmourned. It is not over.
Sunnylands is an opulent and elitist estate hidden from public view, the kind of place where heads of state can enjoy the perks of high office without having to put on a White House (the people's house) show for the hoi polloi. The sleek, discreet estate has a checkered political history; it was mostly a refuge for right-wing luminaries who enjoyed the political support of media magnate Walter Annenberg, but one visitor stood out. Nixon retreated to Sunnylands after being ignominiously forced out of office under the threat of impeachment. The fung shui of Sunnylands is unknown, but in political terms it's a haunted retreat for the elite.
This is not a problem for Xi; after all, Nixon is still hailed as a "statesman" in China, and his right-hand man, Henry Kissinger, is still at the top of Beijing's VIP list. And it's probably not a problem for Obama either, whose eagerness to be chummy with predecessor George W. Bush suggests that the defining spirit of America's most exclusive club - current and former residents of the White House - is more about self-regard, egotism and intoxication with power, than principles and historical questions of right and wrong.
If the bilateral pow-wow at the opulent, yet politically spooked, Sunnylands estate produces a few faux "down-to-earth" sleeves-up photo ops, but no tangible truth-telling between the world's two prime powers, it should come as no surprise.
The US and China are not only increasingly on a par in terms of economic power, but are also coming to resemble one another more in terms of spin power and information control when it comes to the question of where the truth lies.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon



 5 Jun 2013 

The sacrifices we make for the promise of wealth
  • by Philip J Cunningham

There's a tragicomic story about the power of money to corrupt absolutely. A billionaire comes back home from exile to share the wealth and exact revenge. Purse strings are pulled even before the billionaire's triumphant return, to ensure the people suffer and languish until their once-scorned saviour returns.
During the fanfare that accompanies the return of the billionaire, it transpires that a billion will be gifted to the community, but there is one odious condition. The well-known individual who caused the billionaire to lose face and scurry out of town in disgrace must be executed.
At first no one agrees, the idea is too cruel and whimsical to think about, but eventually it starts to sink in. People start to buy things they cannot afford, money starts to flow, or rather more ominously, credit is extended to individuals on the understanding the devil's deal will be done.
Naturally there are those who disagree, but one by one friends, family and neighbours are bought off. What's the life of one person compared to the prosperity of an entire community? The doomed man is transformed into an obstacle standing between the people and the huge sum of money promised.
A schoolteacher, fearful that money is changing the way people think, tries to broker a humane solution, but the billionaire is not swayed by humanitarian considerations and the deal remains unchanged _ the community will get the cash only if it sacrifices the said individual.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of The Visit, a play written by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1956, originally published as Der Besuch der alten Dame.
Durrenmatt used dark humour to illustrate the ravages of capitalism and the way a seemingly civilised society could be eroded by the power of money. In this short, concise work, long popular among students of the German language, Durrenmatt imagines a world where people betray one another and discard their ideals out of unenlightened self-interest.
Everything can be bought or sold, even justice itself. One by one, the villagers fall victim to greed, setting the scene for the billionaire's revenge. There's even a balcony scene, befitting of Shakespeare, where the billionaire triumphantly looks down on the town full of fools.
One interesting twist of the story is its play on gender. The billionaire is a woman, not just any woman, but a woman who suffered the injustice of being driven out of town on charges of being a prostitute. As a billionaire, she returns to reclaim her reputation with an unrelenting mean streak and a manipulative vengeance, and in doing so, becomes a much worse person than a poor, broken woman forced to sell her body.
Throughout the tale, the promise of wealth is so compelling that personal and collective dignity are willingly sacrificed. The billionaire named Claire appears magnanimous at first, founding and funding "hospitals, charitable institutes, art projects, libraries, nurseries and schools". She even buys back the lives of men sentenced to death, not for the humanity of it, but to acquire loyal personal servants who will help her carry out her plan to convince the villagers to kill the hapless Albert, the man she identifies as her nemesis.
It takes but a few spare lines of dialogue to express the essence of corruption:
"I have no need of you at the moment," she tells the policeman. "But I think there may be work for you by and by. Tell me, do you know how to close an eye?"
"How else could I get along in my profession?" the policeman answers.
"You might practise closing both," she says.
(The policeman bows).
The community's willing executioners overturn the law banning capital punishment. They even go through the formality of vote  --the result is in favour of taking the money -showing how democracy dysfunctions under the spell of populist schemes predicated on greed.
As if this weren't bleak enough, the author mocks the press, too. Journalists cover the vote and money handout in droves, but get the story backwards, portraying the victimiser as good and the victim as lucky. The doomed Alfred is killed out of view and it takes just one corrupt doctor to convince the easily placated press that he died of a heart attack, a lie they accept unquestioningly while being treated to refreshments.
The play is didactic but not without real world parallels. Many ancient societies practised human sacrifice in the vain hope of ensuring the prosperity of the community. In more modern times, there are far too many examples of ordinary people, driven by fear and greed, who sell out and betray stigmatised individuals in the vain hope of self-advancement and saving themselves.
One need only think of otherwise upstanding European citizens who looked the other way as Jews were loaded onto trains or those opportunists in Stalin's thrall who sought advantage in denouncing others, or Khmer Rouge who thought the madness would stop after they killed people wearing glasses, or craven Maoists publicly denouncing and voluntarily beating to death landlords, capitalists and other hapless individuals in the vain hope of pleasing the penultimate leader.
In 1964, The Visit was made into a movie of the same name, starring Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman. Despite superb acting, the storyline of the film is somewhat hampered by Bergman's benevolent beauty - she seems too naturally gracious to play such a wicked character - and the "happy" ending, unfaithful to the book, reeks of Hollywood crowd-pleasing.
But Bergman herself was ostracised from Hollywood for many years because of a sex scandal, so the film was not without resonance with her own life. And the "happy" ending has a demonic twist of its own; Claire spares the man's life on the condition that he live with the people who, out of greed, condemned him to death. Is that not punishment enough?

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.