HONG KONG—Is he cunning or crazy? Even Hong Kong’s own politicians and legal experts can’t agree whether NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s escape to the former British colony was a canny gamble or a shortsighted sprint. That debate may blossom into a defining test of Hong Kong’s vaunted “autonomy” from Communist China.
Snowden “shouldn’t delude himself that Hong Kong is a safe harbor” declared Regina Ip, a steely pro-Beijing legislator whose 2003 anti-sedition law proposal brought half a million Hong Kongers into the streets and forced her resignation as security secretary. The law was never passed, and Hong Kong retains much of the "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” that Snowden hailed in his Guardian interview.
Hong Kong’s streets and media are still abuzz with human rights campaigners, Falun Gong activists, Tibet advocates, Tiananmen crackdown commemorations, and other Beijing bêtes noires unimaginable just over the border in mainland China. Those who self-censor typically fear professional or personal blowback north of the old colonial boundary, not direct reprisals within Hong Kong itself.
“That Snowden chose Hong Kong means something to us,” said Charles Mok, an opposition legislator whose minority coalition advocates for fuller democracy and expanded civil rights. “For someone else to make that kind of statement about Hong Kong’s tolerance of dissent is a reminder that these things matter in the eyes of the international community.” Mok, whose signature issues include internet and speech freedoms, added that Hong Kong’s own surveillance framework might approach Snowden’s ideals more than America’s or mainland China’s.
A 2006 law finally codified surveillance procedures in this subtropical territory of seven million perched on the doorstep of the billion-strong People’s Republic. The ordinance’s scope, despite controversy, is dwarfed by the surveillance operations that Beijing runs inside the city. The Central Government Liaison Office reputedly devotes several floors to surveillance monitoring, its building in Western district even resembling a sinister cartoon-villain headquarters topped with a black glass orb. In contrast, Hong Kong’s surveillance laws “put power in the hands of Hong Kong judges who we know are not sympathetic to [Beijing] security services,” explained programmer and independent legal researcher Joseph Wang. “While [China] no doubt conducts some surveillance in HK, it is highly unlikely [to happen] with the cooperation of Hong Kong’s telecoms or judges.”
Those same judges will have the world’s eyes on them when the U.S. Justice Department files its expected extradition request via America’s palm-fringed consulate, a squat bunkerlike structure amid the skyscrapers lining Garden Road in Hong Kong’s downtown. While extradition proceedings are probable, the outcome is uncertain and the process fraught with complications.
Speaking to the press on Monday, lawyer and opposition legislator Ronny Tong explained that “stealing state secrets does not have an equivalent in Hong Kong law,” meaning U.S. prosecutors will have to pick their charges carefully to make effectual use of the 1996 US-Hong Kong extradition treaty. There is also the wild card of a political asylum plea: while rarely successful, these often tie up Hong Kong courts for years, and could land Snowden in a third, sympathetic, country.
Meanwhile, official Washington will be sizing up Beijing’s willingness to wade into the controversy, either publicly or covertly.
When handed back to Communist China in 1997, Hong Kong was guaranteed its own legal system, representative government, uncensored internet, independent border controls, currency, and other trappings of an autonomous city-state. But under Hong Kong’s “Basic Law,” or mini-constitution, Beijing’s rulers can intervene directly in military or diplomatic crises. In quieter times, China’s Communist Party wields subtle levers of economic and political influence, including sympathetic politicians in Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council.
Mainland China’s state-run media has stayed mute, while Hong Kong’s media split starkly along ideological lines: pro-Beijing papers have hyped China’s latest manned space mission and largely left Snowden alone. More centrist or opposition papers splashed his face above the fold with breathless headlines: C.I.A. TURNCOAT FLEES TO HONG KONG, UNLOADS WOK OF SECRETS screamed the pugnacious Apple Daily.
“I assume that Beijing has been in touch with the Chief Executive” said analyst Willie Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referring to CY Leung, Hong Kong’s top political leader and a de facto appointee of the Communist Party. “But I don’t think Beijing will have a high interest in interfering,” he continued, pointing to the awkwardness of drawing too much attention to the freshly minted civil liberties icon who has just pitched up at China’s doorstep. Any blatant moves by Beijing will likely trigger the type of backlash that cost Ip her job in 2003.
“If they do exercise influence, it will not be public” predicted lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, whose colorful rants against Beijing’s quietly tightening grip on Hong Kong’s media and civil service have led mainland authorities to routinely deny him entry at the border. “I hope Hong Kong does not extradite him; he did this for the peoples of whole world, for his own conscience.” While the courts remain viewed as independent, other government ministries—such as the Police and Immigration departments—are widely seen as deferential to Beijing’s wishes within the scope of Hong Kong’s own laws, sometimes refusing entry to prominent activists without explanation.
As of Wednesday, Hong Kong’s domestic opposition was gearing up for a weekend protest supporting Snowden’s actions and continued freedom. But Mok, an organizer, was ambivalent. “Ideologically, I would personally prefer if we sheltered him here. But no matter what happens, I hope the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary is maintained,” he says.
Snowden’s own contradictions are many: young and a high-school dropout yet entrusted with top-secret data and a lavish salary; hailing democratic values but acting unilaterally. Resurfacing in a South China Morning Post interview late Wednesday night, he pushed back against the doubters: “People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions...My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
Perhaps Snowden sees Hong Kong's paradoxes—on Chinese soil but able to stand for liberal values—as a fitting foil for his own.