A popular Communist Party-backed newspaper urged China's leadership to milk a former U.S. contractor for more information rather than send him home, saying his revelations about secret American surveillance programs concern China's national interest.
Friday's Global Times editorial follows Snowden's allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency hacked 61,000 targets, including hundreds in Hong Kong and mainland China, in an interview published in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
Snowden revealed last weekend he was the source of a major leak of top-secret information on NSA surveillance, saying he was uncovering wrongdoing. He spoke to reporters from an undisclosed location in the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong, a choice that raised questions about whether and how Washington would seek his return for possible prosecution.
The Global Times said in the editorial, which ran in the paper's Chinese- and English-language editions, that Snowden could offer intelligence that would help China update its understanding of cyberspace and improve its position in negotiations with Washington.
"Snowden took the initiative to expose the U.S. government's attacks on Hong Kong and the mainland's Internet networks. This concerns China's national interest," the commentary said. "Maybe he has more evidence. The Chinese government should let him speak out and according to whether the information is public, use it as evidence to negotiate with the United States openly or in private."
The paper said that the Chinese government should not only consider Beijing's relations with the United States but also the opinion of its domestic public, which the paper said would be unhappy if Snowden were sent back.
"We have realized the United States' aggressiveness in cyberspace, we have realized that nine Internet companies have assisted the U.S. government in intelligence outsourcing," said the paper known for a nationalist stance. "We have realized their hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, and we have realized their ruthlessness in doing what they please with no regard for other people."
"China is a rising power, and it deserves corresponding respect from the United States," it said.
True public sentiment on the issue in China is hard to gauge given the lack of scientifically conducted opinion polls, but Chinese leaders and senior officials have said that in the Internet age they feel increasingly under pressure from public opinion. By whipping up public sentiment on an issue like this, the paper could be putting Beijing in a bind.
Some experts have said China is unlikely to use Snowden against the United States given its recent efforts to foster a new, closer working relationship between the countries' two leaders, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, who met for informal talks in California last weekend.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has taken a cautious stance in commenting on the surveillance leaks. In a routine briefing on Thursday, spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to repeated questions about whether American authorities have sought Snowden's return to the U.S. by saying that China had "no relevant information to share."
Hua reiterated China's stance that the country is a victim of cyberattacks and said Beijing remained keen to cooperate with the United States on cybersecurity, though she implied that the U.S. might want to refrain from portraying China as a major perpetrator.
"We also think that the adoption of double standards would bring no benefit to the settlement of the relevant issue," Hua said.