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The massive US global surveillance program revealed by a former CIA whistle-blower in Hong Kong is certain to stain Washington's overseas image and test developing Sino-US ties, analysts said.
Li Haidong, a researcher of American studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said the United States is now stuck in the awkward position of having to explain itself to its citizens and the world following the exposure of Washington's vast Internet snooping program.
"For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US is the unbridled power of the government," Li said.
Zhang Tuosheng, a researcher at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, said that despite controversies, cybersecurity is still proving to be a new realm for cooperation between China and the US, especially in the wake of this surveillance controversy.
"Beijing and Washington, instead of criticizing each other while hiding their own problems, should work together to facilitate a series of well-observed regulations," Zhang said.
Edward Snowden, 29, an employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked information to the media about PRISM, a top secret program of the US National Security Agency that collects and analyzes data from Internet users around the world.
According to news reports, the NSA and FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine major US internet firms, such as Apple and Google, extracting video chats, photos, e-mails, documents, connection logs and other information that enables analysts to track foreign targets.
Snowden traveled from Hawaii to Hong Kong on May 20 with a cache of secrets harvested from NSA servers, according to the Guardian newspaper.
News about the government surveillance program has triggered heated debate about privacy and civil liberty in the US. Some lawmakers and civil liberty groups have urged the Obama administration to lift the veil of secrecy.
However, the government defended the program by saying it keeps the country safe from terrorists. A senior US intelligence official said on Monday that there were no plans to scrap the program that, despite the backlash, continues to receive widespread if cautious support within the US Congress.
Zhang said that Washington should dump its practice of seeking "absolute safety" for itself while potentially damaging the interests of other nations in the process.
Many outside the US were outraged by the breadth and secrecy of the operation. The European Union demanded assurances from the US on Tuesday that Europeans' rights are not being infringed upon by massive US surveillance programs.
Concerns over Snowden's safety also arose. The former technician was reportedly staying in Hong Kong, away from Washington's pursuit, but his whereabouts became unclear late Monday afternoon after the hotel where he had stayed said he was no longer registered there.
There was speculation in the US about the prospect of Snowden being extradited from Hong Kong to the US, given the extradition treaty that entered into force in 1998.
A petition to the White House has been started to seek a presidential pardon, with more than 60,000 people signing by Wednesday.
The petition said: "Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs."
Despite the uncertainty, Hong Kong supporters of Snowden have organized a protest march to pass in front of the US consulate on Saturday afternoon.
On Tuesday, Russia offered to consider an asylum request from the whistle-blower.
"If such an appeal is made, it will be considered. We'll act according to the facts," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a Russian newspaper.
Observers said how the case is handled could pose a challenge to the burgeoning goodwill between Beijing and Washington given that Snowden is in Chinese territory and the Sino-US relationship is constantly soured on cybersecurity.
"The successful handling of the case would be referred to as an influential precedent between the two countries, since there has been a lack of international regulations in the area of global Internet security," Zhang said.
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AFP contributed to this story.
(China Daily 06/13/2013 page1)