The saga of Edward Snowden, the source of leaks about the U.S. government’s Prism program, is precisely the sort of tale Hong Kong’s tabloid newspaper culture has always embraced: full of suspense, driven by personality and sure to bring people back to buy the next day’s edition. But while Hong Kong’s newspapers are busy combing the city for Snowden, mainland Chinese papers -- and the country’s usually scandal-loving social media -- are covering other stories.
What might account for the indifference?
To start with, for Chinese social-media users, surveillance of communications, electronic and otherwise, is a given. What might sound like a horrifying transgression of basic civil rights to an American comes off as a comparatively benign state of affairs to a young Chinese Internet user. Prism hasn’t trended on Chinese social media or search engines.
This is not unknown to the Communist Party-owned media, and it’s probably a reason they’ve avoided Prism over the last several days. Why hype a story that serves to remind Chinese Internet users that the surveillance to which they’ve become accustomed is so much worse than what Americans experience? Indeed, Chinese media -- and the Communist Party that controls it -- is unusually sensitive to unfavorable comparisons with other people and places, and none so much as Hong Kong.
The semi-autonomous city-state has been Chinese territory since 1997, but in recent years its residents have become increasingly alienated from the Communist Party and its influence on their affairs. Last week more than 50,000 mourners turned out for the annual vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In Beijing, it’s impossible to organize such a vigil, much less execute it.
Displays like those might just convince a prospective asylum-seeker that Hong Kong offers safety. Snowden told the Guardian that Hong Kong has “a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” There were plenty of voices eager to quibble with that assessment of Hong Kong’s freedoms. But not even the most jaded Hong Kong observer -- or hardened Beijing newspaper editor -- can deny that Hong Kong is less of a surveillance state, and freer, than its political master.
For Chinese newspaper editors, the choice is thus whether to downplay a good spy story happening just across the border or risk highlighting how Hong Kong citizens enjoy a freer political environment. Then again, the Snowden story has been widely available on China’s Internet since early Monday morning, and Internet users -- with some exceptions -- still don’t seem to care very much. This is really a story about a martyr for rights enjoyed by Americans, not Chinese.