What Hong Kong's Remarkable Statement on Edward Snowden Says About the Territory

By defying the United States over the extradition of its most famous exile, a normally-placid Hong Kong reveals an assertiveness that may one day be problematic for China.
snowdenleavesbanner.jpgEdward Snowden departed Hong Kong this morning after endearing himself to many in the territory. (Vincent Yu/AP)

The already tense Edward Snowden situation got a lot more interesting this morning, as the man responsible for leaking secret NSA documents departed Hong Kong for Moscow and  formally requested asylum from Ecuador. As the world waits to see what happens next, it's worth taking a look at the fascinating statement released by the Hong Kong government explaining why, exactly, the territory didn't try to stop Snowden from leaving. Here's the full text of the statement:

Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today (June 23) on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.

The US Government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR Government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden. Since the documents provided by the US Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR Government has requested the US Government to provide additional information so that the Department of Justice could consider whether the US Government's request can meet the relevant legal conditions. As the HKSAR Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.

The HKSAR Government has already informed the US Government of Mr Snowden's departure.

Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.

There appear to be two possibilities in regards to what actually happened. One is that Hong Kong never intended to extradite Snowden to the United States in the first place and concocted this non-compliance story as a face-saving gesture, a theory suggested by Amy Davidson of the New Yorker. The second possibility is that the story is actually true: The United States botched the extradition procedure over a logistical matter and Hong Kong had no choice but to let Snowden board his flight to Moscow.

Whichever scenario is true, it's difficult to interpret this statement as anything other than an artfully worded "screw you" to the United States. Hong Kong understandably isn't pleased with Snowden's revelations of U.S. spying in the territory, as the last paragraph of the statement indicates. But still -- this defiance of the United States, with which Hong Kong had negotiated an extradition treaty, is extraordinary and somewhat unexpected.

So why is Hong Kong doing this? One reason is this: Edward Snowden's arrival in Hong Kong highlighted a burgeoning sense of identity in the territory, which has become increasingly wary of Chinese interference in its political life. For Snowden, Hong Kong's relative independence was its chief selling point: the former defense contractor praised the territory for its tradition of free speech and expressed a willingness to put his fate in the hands of Hong Kong's independent judiciary. And while the territory's leaders waited for the United States to request extradition, many hundreds of its citizens gathered downtown to rally in support of Snowden -- and Hong Kong's autonomy. With a major protest scheduled for July 1st -- the 16th anniversary of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China -- Hong Kong's leaders are understandably wary of inflaming an already tense political atmosphere.

Then, of course, there's China, which has mostly held its tongue during Snowden's Hong Kong exile. The nationalistic newspaper Global Times published an editorial today expressing satisfaction with the whole situation and wishing Snowden well. Beijing is no doubt pleased with how everything has turned out. But in the long term, Hong Kong's growing sense of political identity is an issue that will keep China's Communist leaders awake at night. Today's defiance of the United States is tomorrow's with a nearer, more closely connected, neighbor.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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