Why isn't the Chinese press all over the AP phone-record scandal?

It seems like a story cooked up by a columnist for China's patriotic tabloid Global Times hoping to write about the problems with American democracy and press freedom: The U.S. Justice Department snoops on the Associated Press, and, without informing the news agency, obtains two months of reporters' and editors' phone records.

The AP called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," while the British newspaper the Guardian wrote that "the Obama administration has opened up a new front in its battle against media freedom."

And yet the response from the Chinese press has been surprisingly muted. An article entitled "The White House's Explanation for 'Eavesdropping' on the Associated Press Gets Refuted" on People's Online, a website affiliated with the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Dailycovers the revelations as a news story, writing that the U.S. media is "abuzz" and then explaining the facts of the case. China's state news agency Xinhua described the developments in a similar way to how Western news outlets are approaching the story (the IRS scandal has also received desultory coverage). The Global Times, a popular tabloid known for its nationalistic views and the most likely home for a strongly worded editorial deriding American press freedoms, instead published an uncharacteristically measured take on the debate between what is "allowed by law vs infringing upon press freedoms." 

So why is the Chinese media not jumping on this story to score points against a liberal press? (After all, a Russian Foreign Ministry official seized on the opportunity to express concern about U.S. officials attacking press freedom.) One reason is that it's such a damaging example of government encroachment on the media that the facts literally speak for themselves, and little embellishing or editorializing is needed.

But the Chinese public is also paying far more attention to developments in the contested waters near China than to U.S. scandals. On Thursday, for instance, the Philippine Coast Guard shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters 170 miles south of Taiwan. The killing and the Coast Guard's response -- "if somebody died, they deserve our sympathy but not an apology" -- infuriated Taiwanese and Chinese alike, and protests erupted in Taiwan. For the last few days, the Global Times has been running heavily promoted stories about the Philippines needing to apologize for the shooting as well as several features about Taiwan, which mostly functions independently as a nation but which China claims.

For much of the last two decades, relations between Taiwan and China were frosty at best. But since the signing of a landmark trade agreement in June 2010, the relationship has been warmer and more stable, and both sides seem to have tacitly agreed to shelve the sovereignty dispute for now. This has freed China to focus on its other island claims -- with Taiwan as an unlikely ally. China and Taiwan, for example, both agree that the Diaoyu Islands (which the Japanese, who call them the Senkakus, claim as well) belong to Taiwan."We have 99 percent the same view," but we don't agree on whether or not Taiwan is part of China, a Taiwanese diplomat told me.

One lesson from all of this: The Chinese media has more pressing concerns than taking potshots at the United States. 


Russian TV claims FSB intercepted American spy's phone calls

Ryan Fogle is having a very bad week. First the American diplomat in Moscow was arrested on charges of espionage while carrying a ludicrous collection of what might generously be called spy gear. Then Russian authorities expelled Fogle from the country. Now the country's state-run television is claiming that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) intercepted Fogle's telephone conversations with the Russian counterterrorism official he was trying to recruit. And if the reports are accurate -- a big if -- they certainly don't make the CIA look good.

The transcript, only a small part of which has been released, paints Fogle as a man in a rush: "I think it's worth meeting today," he allegedly told the Russian official. "It's not possible tomorrow, it's only possible today. Well, it's worth it, as I said, you can earn a million dollars a year and I have $100,000 with me, but it has to be now."

According to Russia's Channel One, the FSB intercepted two calls minutes before Fogle and his potential asset met at a park in Moscow. "Opposite you is the stairway to the park," Fogle allegedly told his target. "I see you. I'll be there."

From there, the humiliation only continued, as Fogle was wrestled to the ground by the man he was trying to recruit. The Russian intelligence official "was a combat officer who had taken part in counter-terrorists operations many times himself in the North Caucasus, and himself had very serious military training," an FSB officer told Channel One.

According to Channel One, the FSB had been tracking Fogle since his arrival in Moscow in early 2011. "By that time, Russian counter-intelligence had already possessed information about his affiliation to the CIA staff, and from the moment he arrived in Russia, he was put under the appropriate surveillance. We can now say that this is not the first act of espionage in which the American has taken a personal part," an FSB officer told the station.

If the reporting is to be believed, Fogle spent two years under surveillance and was naive enough to bring a large sum of money to a clandestine meeting without realizing that his prospective asset was about to burn him.

That staggering incompetence is enough to inspire some skepticism about the allegations. Beyond the motivation of making the United States look bad, Moscow could be sending a message to Washington about their counterterrorism cooperation in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing (on Wednesday, Russia's Kommersant claimed that Fogle was seeking intelligence on the marathon bombing suspects, who both have roots in the North Caucasus). On the other hand, this certainly wouldn't be the first time the CIA did something stupid.

(Thanks to Catherine A. Fitzpatrick at The Interpreter for translating the original Channel One story.)

-/AFP/Getty Images