Edward Snowden Shouldn't Have Gone to Hong Kong

While the territory does have free speech and political dissent, it's still very much a part of China.


Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the NSA leaks, is photographed leaving his hotel in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu/AP)Yesterday, an American defense contractor named Edward Snowden identified himself as the man responsible for leaking sensitive material to The Guardian, stating unequivocally that he wanted to inform Americans of the country's vast, secretive government surveillance program. Snowden, who was based in Hawaii, has now taken up residence at a hotel in Hong Kong, a destination he chose for its "spirited connection to free speech and the right of political dissent."

In a comment about the case published this morning, my colleague James Fallows brought up a salient point about Hong Kong: it isn't a sovereign country, and remains very much a part of the People's Republic of China -- a country which notably lacks free speech or any right of political dissent. And while Hong Kong has a different currency, political structure, and legal system from the mainland, divisions between the two are actually far murkier than Snowden's explanation indicates.

In 1997, when sovereignty over Hong Kong transferred from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China, the two countries agreed that the status quo in the territory would remain unchanged for the next 50 years. Under the Basic Law, which went into effect the day of the handover, Beijing is responsible for Hong Kong's national defense and foreign policy, while Hong Kong retains control over basically everything else.

But in the case of Edward Snowden, which is likely to involve an extradition request by the United States, the Basic Law is less clear. Hong Kong, unlike China, has an extradition arrangement with the United States. But China has the right to intercede in an extradition request if Beijing has an interest in "defense or foreign affairs." In other words, if China wants to detain Snowden as a useful intelligence asset, Hong Kong couldn't legally do much about it. And that illustrates an important part of Hong Kong's current situation: its free speech and political dissent really only go as far as Beijing lets it.

So what's going to happen to Snowden?

Hong Kong nearly always cooperates with the United States on extradition requests, and has signaled that it intends to do so in Snowden's case, if Washington wants it. Once this happens, China can then decide to either halt Snowden's extradition and seize him as an intelligence asset, or simply stay out of the matter and let Hong Kong take care of it. The risk of the latter course of action is this: China risks losing a potentially valuable source of information about a major geopolitical competitor. But the risks of the former are greater, for two main reasons.

First, even though Snowden's revelations have embarrassed the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Obama Administration -- which has accused his leaks of being "damaging" -- it's unclear whether Snowden was senior enough to have access to truly valuable information. Beijing's intelligence apparatus probably already knows Washington uses sweeping surveillance techniques for gathering data. Why risk an international incident with the United States in order to obtain information China already has, or can find out easily?

Second, Snowden's revelations come on the heels of the recent summit between the leaders of China and the United States, an event which culminated in a pledge for friendlier relations between the two countries. By staying out of a matter that is essentially a domestic concern of the United States, China would act in this spirit as well as remain consistent with its own policy of non-interference.

Snowden has made it clear that he doesn't intend to stay in Hong Kong for the long-term; he has said he'd like to move to a country like Iceland, a place noted for its transparent government. But will Iceland offer Snowden asylum? According to University of Pennsylvania law professor Jacques deLisle, this is unlikely: countries seldom offer asylum to those who attempt to defect via a third country, and Iceland likely has reason not to anger the United States by taking in Snowden.

These possibilities aside, it's become increasingly clear that Snowden's decision to go to Hong Kong was a serious miscalculation. The idiosyncratic territory may in some ways be a libertarian paradise of free speech, robust media, and low taxes, but is in no way independent of China. If Snowden's ultimate goal were to damage the United States government as much as possible, then going to a Chinese territory would make some sense. But this obviously isn't what he wanted; in The Guardian interview, Snowden disagreed with Glenn Greenwald's characterization of China as an "enemy" of the United States by stressing the healthy trade relationship between the two countries. Aiding China -- whose record of state surveillance and abrogation of civil liberties is inarguably worse than the United States -- would go against the entire moral foundation of Snowden's decision to leak the NSA secrets.