China's Snowden Dilemma

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden
Edward Joseph Snowden (born 1983) is an American technical contractor, whistleblower and former United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden released classified material on top-secret NSA programs including the PRISM surveillance program to the press. | Photo: | Edward Snowden, Cia, Press, Leak, Secret, Whistleblower,

Bejing could well leave Snowden's fate in Hong Kong's hands

A tourist visa to Hong Kong lasts 90 days. If mega-leaker Edward Snowden left Hawaii on May 1, as reported, he's already nearly half way to the next, fateful chapter of his life.

Could it really be in Hong Kong, where the Peoples Republic of China calls the shots in foreign affairs?

The former NSA contractor told the Guardian newspaper in a riveting video interview uploaded Sunday that he chose Hong Kong as a refuge because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent" and "Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China."

Snowden may have a clear idea of why he's sacrificing his life to his ideals, but his rosy idea of Hong Kong is way out of focus.

As The Atlantic's James Fallows noted, "It is part of China -- a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States.
It has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn't even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the 'one country, two systems' principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.
?Snowden also said he thinks that Hong Kong "would resist the dictates of the U.S. government," according to the Guardian.

But would Beijing?
True, Hong Kong could refuse to honor an extradition request from the United States, according a treaty it signed with Washington in 1997. Beijing even insisted on the provision, which seems ironic in the present circumstance.

But unless President Xi Jinping, just returned from a mini-summit in California this weekend, wants to stick a chop stick in President Obama's face and ignite the fury of a jingoistic Congress, he's going to find a way to get Snowden into the FBI's clutches.

"Both Hong Kong and China will be hoping Snowden moves on by mid-August, if not before," Zach Coleman, a Hong Kong-based freelancer, wrote in USA Today.

But whence?
The 29-year-old whistleblower told the Guardian newspaper he'd like to go to Iceland, with which he has "shared values." While still a hotbed of support for WikiLeaks, however, Iceland now has a new conservative government, which could be cool to Snowden's application for asylum.

Surely now Snowden has considered making a dash to Ecuador's Hong Kong consulate, but since Quito's London embassy is already hosting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, it may not be so thrilled to have another such headache on its hands.

Other possibilities for a safe haven include Cuba and Iran, which have diplomatic outposts in Hong Kong. But Snowden, whose patriotic motives in exposing the NSA's massive surveillance systems seem genuine, doesn't seem inclined to seek refuge among such avowed enemies of his country.

So back to China. No doubt some in its pugnacious gerontocracy are tempted to offer Snowden a podium in Beijing to elaborate on Washington's electronic spying.

But they couldn't make much use of him if he chose to resist. Spiriting him away under duress--unless its to hand him over to the U.S.--is really not an option.

"I don't think China is going to get involved in this," David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told Coleman. Other experts have said much the same.

But China is already involved, like it or not. So it well could decide, in the end, to make lemonade from the lemon, and let Hong Kong keep him.

"One country, two systems" has been China's refrain ever since it took back the territory from Britain in 1997--no matter how persistently it's tried to undermine Hong Kong's freedoms from day one.

So we may well hear the old refrain again, with a new cynical lilt.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:28 PM EST | More details


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