Ed Snowden Inspired This Chinese Lawyer to Challenge Beijing's Digital Spying

When Edward Snowden managed to dodge a U.S. extradition request by fleeing Hong Kong for Moscow over the weekend, the New York Times spoke of China scoring a "tactical victory" in its faceoff with the United States.

But on June 25, Chinese officials were confronted with what appears to be the first public legal challenge arising from the Snowden affair. Xie Yanyi, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer, announced that the NSA leaker had inspired him to ask the Ministry of Public Security, China's main security agency, to disclose "information on methods used by Chinese authorities to conduct surveillance on Chinese citizens," according to the NGO Human Rights in China. "From a civil rights angle, China's monitoring of the Internet and cell phones is a very big problem," Xie said by telephone in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Xie, citing China's constitution and regulations on "open government information," believes that he is legally entitled to learn "the detailed measures" Beijing uses to prevent privacy violations; whether the Ministry of Public Security "has obtained approval and supervision from the National People's Congress," China's rubber-stamp legislature, "when conducting surveillance;" the parties "legally and politically responsible" for "approving Internet surveillance methods;" and the "remedies for surveillance activities resulting from abuse of official power," according to his petition.

Still, Xie's not sure what he thinks about Snowden, who is currently thought to be holed up in a Moscow airport waiting room. "It's positive that he raised" cybersecurity issues, "but to what cost?" he asked.

Like Snowden, Xie is used to being the underdog. In 2003, he sued former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, an almost unheard of act in a country where the Communist Party controls the courts and top officials operate outside the rule of law. When Jiang stepped down from the presidency in 2003, he "violated the constitution," Xie says, by not relinquishing his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, China's top military body, until September 2004. "Him staying on was illegal," Xie told me. (Xie was unable to get a Chinese court to hear the case.) 

Many parts of China's legal code, including the regulations and constitutional guarantees Xie is invoking, are surprisingly liberal-- the problem is they are too often ignored. Regardless of what Snowden's leaks reveal about the state of surveillance in the United States, the machinations of Chinese government ministries remain far more opaque. Xie probably has the same chance of receiving a positive response from the Ministry of Public Security as Snowden does of receiving amnesty from Obama.

Xie, however, is optimistic about his case. "I have this expectation that they will actually publicize it," he said. "Yes, maybe there will be a gap [between what he's asking for and what officials will reveal], "but if they actually do publicize this information, it's good for everyone. They can uphold China's image." And Xie says he's not worried about his own situation, though I wish I heard more confidence in his voice. "There's a Chinese saying," he said, "that the benevolent person can be free from concern."

Courtesy Xie's Boxun blog


What the DOMA Decision Could Mean for Immigrants and Military Families

With a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection guarantee. The ruling means that married same-sex couples will now be entitled to the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples.

One of the main beneficiaries of the decision will be the estimated 36,000 binational same-sex couples living in the United States as well as countless more forced to live outside the country because, under DOMA, gay Americans could not sponsor their husbands or wives for citizenship, even if they had been married in one of the 12 states -- plus the District of Columbia -- where same-sex marriage is legal.

On a political level, the decision could also smooth the way for the immigration reform bill making its way through Congress. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in particular, has been pushing for the inclusion of specific language in the bill giving equal protection to immigrants in same-sex marriages. "I can't look at one Vermont couple and say, 'OK, we can take care of you,' but another couple, 'We have to discriminate against you,'" he recently told the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.

But key Republican supporters of the bill, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, threatened to walk away from the legislation if the gay marriage language were added. And Democratic same-sex marriage supporters like Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin ended up voting against Leahy's amendment in order to keep their fragile coalition together, angering some gay rights groups. The Supreme Court's decision will take the heat off a little bit, enabling Barack Obama's administration to extend immigration benefits to same-sex couples without action from Congress.

This isn't a perfect fix. As ABC's Abby Phillip writes, "relying solely on the court to strike down DOMA could mean that a future administration could reverse Obama's actions when it comes to immigration law." However, given the larger political and legal trends in the country, it's hard to imagine a future administration taking that step or the court upholding its right to.

Another less-discussed beneficiary of today's decision will be same-sex military families. Even after the end of its "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy, the U.S. military still did not recognize same-sex marriages because of DOMA.

In January, I wrote about the case of Army Sgt. Donna Johnson, who was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol in Khost, Afghanistan, last year. Johnson married her partner, Tracy Dice, in Washington, D.C., shortly after the repeal of DADT in 2011. But Dice was still not recognized as Johnson's spouse by the Department of Defense, meaning she was not among those first informed of her wife's death -- she read about it on the Internet -- and was not eligible for the survivor benefits, counseling, or honors usually given to the husbands and wives of deceased service members. If not for an intervention by Johnson's mother, Dice would not have been allowed to accompany her wife's casket upon its arrival in the United States.

Johnson was the first known gay, married service member killed after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but almost certainly won't be the last. Here's hoping that after today, their husbands and wives will be treated with a bit more respect.

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