It’s been a busy 48 hours in Sino-American relations. As Chinese President Xi Jinping left the California estate where he’d spent two days at an informal summit with President Barack Obama, Edward Snowden – the former NSA contractor who lifted the lid on the extent of the US government’s surveillance tactics – was about to reveal that he had been hiding out right here in Hong Kong for the past three weeks.
Yesterday, journalists were camped out around the city, stalking hotel lobbies where it was thought the 29-year-old American was staying. Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for London’s The Guardian newspaper, who broke the story and recorded the widely seen video interview with Snowden, was confronted by local news cameras at his hotel. Today, Hong Kongers continue to play their own game of whistleblower Where’s Wally? Snowden’s location remains unknown.
Regularly at the forefront of global financial news, Hong Kong hasn’t made headlines on the diplomatic front since the handover of the territory from Britain to China in 1997. But, Snowden’s decision to leave his former home in Hawaii and head to these shores has put this special administrative region in the spotlight.
In his recent video interview, Snowden shares his reasoning for coming to Hong Kong as being in part due to the “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” that people enjoy here. Indeed, the past few months have seen examples of both in this city of Seven million. From the 40-day dock workers’ strike to the thousands who braved torrential rainstorms in Victoria Park last week to honour the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong residents are certainly more free than their countrymen across the border. But how will this really play out in the case of Snowden?
The city is abuzz with speculation about what the authorities here will decide. While China and the US don’t have an extradition treaty, Hong Kong does have an agreement with Washington. And in the light of at least token cooperation between Xi and Obama following the weekend’s pow wow, would Beijing really want to get involved in the Snowden case if the US press charges?
While some figures on the American right have been quick to upgrade Snowden’s status from whistleblower to defector, many proponents of free speech in Hong Kong – who have seen the Bradley Manning case unfold – are calling for their government to offer Snowden a safe haven. And if the government does so, a new standard of freedom would be set for Hong Kong.
But, while the city operates under the “one country, two systems” policy with efficiency on a daily basis, Hong Kong ultimately falls under the rule of Beijing. And even if the government here made the unlikely decision to go against US wishes, China isn’t exactly the place you’d want to be as a cyber-security whistleblower.
Aisha Speirs in Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.