Hong Kong may not be safe haven for whistleblower
US members of Congress call for extradition
Supporters gather at a small rally in support of National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden in Manhattan’s Union Square yesterday. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Whistleblower Edward Snowden chose a Hong Kong hotel room as a hiding place because he believes he is unlikely to be extradited from there to the US, but the former colony may not be much of a safe haven for the 29-year-old technician.
Mr Snowden has been in Hong Kong since May 20th, and said he chose the territory because of its “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”. He believed the territory is one of the few places in the world that could and would resist the dictates of the US government.
Since it was returned by the UK to China in 1997, Hong Kong has a separate legal system and greater freedoms than Chinese enjoy on the mainland, but its destiny is completely linked to China. It has a limited electoral system which favours Beijing’s candidates.
While there is a great tradition of exercising the right of protest in Hong Kong, as the recent rally on the anniversary of the June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China on democracy activists showed, this has its limitations.
Two years ago Wang Dan and Wu’er Kaixi, two leading figures in the student-led protests in 1989, were refused entry to Hong Kong to attend the funeral of Szeto Wah, a founder of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
What sets Hong Kong apart from China is its functioning rule of law, and this could make it more, not less, likely that Mr Snowden will be extradited if the US requests such a move on criminal grounds.
China does not have an extradition agreement with the US, but given that President Xi Jinping has just completed a successful summit with his US counterpart, he is unlikely to risk ties over this issue.
There is a US-Hong Hong extradition treaty, signed in 1997 shortly before the handover, which contains an exception clause, meaning Hong Kong would not have to hand over someone for extradition whose motives were believed to be political.
There is some speculation that Mr Snowden is planning to defect to mainland China, and his possession of vital security information would make him very appealing to the Beijing authorities.
The most likely scenario is that Beijing will not want to get involved as the political headache is potentially too great, both in terms of relations with Washington and with Hong Kong.
What is more likely is that Hong Kong will follow the course allowed in its extradition legislation. It will do this because to maintain its position as a regional financial hub it needs to show that the rule of law prevails in the territory.