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Why It's Okay for the Chinese to Spy on Us

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JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

Buried in a chilling New York Times article about how the National Security Agency has bugged up to 100,000 computers worldwide is a curious discussion about how, in a summit meeting in California last June, President Obama tried to convince the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, that there's a difference between what the NSA is doing and the Chinese practice of inserting surveillance software into American computers.

Obama's point, apparently, is that it's legitimate to conduct surveillance for national security reasons -- for which purpose the NSA has set up two covert "data centers" in China -- but not in order to steal intellectual property rights.

So let me get this straight: We're giving the Chinese permission to spy on the American government, just not on American corporations? Though I'm not at all sure, that's certainly what it sounds like. Or maybe, spying is okay, just so long as it's accompanied by a more-or-less convincing justification citing national security. In any event, distinguishing between the NSA computer bugging and the Chinese computer bugging sure looks like splitting hairs to me, and the Chinese are apparently confused as well. And the reason for their confusion, the article purports, is that they believe that promoting Chinese industry is central to their national security.

Well, maybe it is. From their point of view, conditioned by decades of communism, the U.S. government is set up primarily to aid capitalists in their exploitation of the working man. And when Obama shows such an untoward concern for the intellectual property rights of American corporations, this no doubt serves to confirm the Chinese in their opinion. Given that, why shouldn't the Chinese aid their capitalists too?

The Chinese bugging of American computers is, of course, unjustified, but condemning the Chinese surveillance program while at the same time engaging in an unconvincing justification of the N.S.A. program is a feat of acrobatics for which the less-than-nimble Obama seems particularly ill-suited. I don't know if the Chinese have a saying comparable to the old saw of the pot-calling-the-kettle-black, but one can well imagine Xi Jinping, upon listening to the tortuous Obama rigmarole, chuckling to himself as he thinks, "Who are you to tell me anything? You're the one who got caught."