If you were on the run from the U.S. government, where would you choose to lay low? For PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden, the answer is Hong Kong. Many are trying to figure out why.
The 29-year-old revealed large-scale surveillance of Internet user data by the National Security Agency, in a program known as PRISM, during an interview with the Guardian newspaper — and has been holed-up in a comfortable hotel in the Chinese Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong for the past three weeks. The city undoubtedly has the “strong tradition of free speech” that Snowden asserts, but with its autonomy being gradually eroded, Hong Kong is hardly the most obvious beacon of freedom. Even if it were, there must be major doubt that Beijing would approve of the Hong Kong authorities offering Snowden a safe haven. It may frequently spar with Washington on a range of issues, but China has little to gain in blocking attempts to extradite a man swiftly soaring to the top of its rival superpower’s “most wanted” list.
Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, landed in Hong Kong on May 20. He subsequently revealed reams of classified information on the controversial and classified PRISM program, garnered from a government office in Hawaii. The revelations came just as new Chinese President Xi Jinping met Barack Obama for the first time over the weekend. The treatment of former intelligence officer Bradley Manning, kept in solitary confinement for much of his three years’ detention before finally coming to trial last week, as well as the ongoing pursuit of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, indicate that the White House is unlikely to go easy on attempts to bring Snowden back to U.S. soil.
Republicans have already called for his speedy repatriation to answer various charges, which could include treason and (à la Manning) aiding the enemy. Hong Kong and the U.S. maintain a bilateral extradition treaty signed in 1997. There are special exceptions for political crimes, but human-rights activists point to past extraditions from the territory apparently driven by pressure from Washington, most notoriously that of Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi, who in 2004 was placed upon a secret rendition flight from Hong Kong to Tripoli, allegedly planned and executed by the U.K., U.S. and Libyan governments. (He is currently taking legal action after being tortured by the Gaddafi regime.) Some commentaries, like one written by James Fallows in the Atlantic, paint Hong Kong as a political cipher, acting at the beck and call of Beijing’s communist administration as well as obliging Western powers.
However, local experts emphasize Hong Kong’s legal independence. Professor Simon Young, director of Hong Kong University’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law, says he “doesn’t see any chance” that Beijing could assume jurisdiction of any proceedings relevant to the Snowden case. “Although Hong Kong is not bound by the Refugee Convention, a recent decision from our Court of Final Appeal held that the Hong Kong government must independently assess whether an individual’s refugee claim is well founded,” he tells TIME. In other words, all persons landing in Hong Kong with a bona fide claim to refugee status will not be returned to a place where they may be persecuted.
Whether bringing charges against Snowden for revealing seemingly unconstitutional surveillance operations amounts to “persecution” will, of course, be a matter of intense debate. Currently, the UNHCR’s office in Hong Kong considers refugee claims and the Hong Kong government respects the U.N. agency’s decisions on refugee status, says Kelley Loper of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre. The U.S. treatment of Manning raised concerns with the U.N.’s torture expert and could make it less likely that Snowden will be extradited to face similar punishment. In addition, Ronny Tong, a Hong Kong Legislative Council member, tells TIME that Snowden could only be extradited if there were a local law equivalent to that he allegedly violated in the U.S.
The U.S. and Hong Kong authorities are not averse to cooperating on legal matters, as Kim Dotcom, the notorious Internet guru, discovered after founding his controversial file-sharing Megaupload.com website while living in the territory. He tweeted support for Snowden on Monday and urged the Hong Kong government “to be remembered as a place of good” by granting asylum and protection. Dotcom’s own experiences, however, do not augur well; his office was raided by 100 Hong Kong customs officials working with the FBI in 2011, and his assets were frozen. He then fled to New Zealand and is now fighting extradition to the U.S.
How long Snowden plans to remain in Hong Kong is unclear. He mentioned in his Guardian interview that he might eventually seek sanctuary in Iceland, praising “shared values” regarding Internet freedom. This begs the question why he is now gazing morosely at a well-thumbed room-service menu some 6,000 miles away. Initial noises from within the Reykjavík government, which previously offered sanctuary to WikiLeaks, indicate that it will at least hear Snowden’s case. Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir and Smari McCarthy, executive director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, issued a joint statement saying that “we feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability” and are “already working on detailing the legal protocols required to apply for asylum.”
However, whether a small and economically fragile nation like Iceland, which has much to gain from maintaining cordial relations with the world’s largest economy, will stick its neck out remains doubtful. Moreover, there are procedural issues; the Icelandic embassy in Beijing told the South China Morning Post that nobody could claim asylum until they were actually inside the country. “The terrible thing is [Snowden] is worried about his family, that they’ll be victimized,” Ewen MacAskill, one of the Guardian journalists who interviewed Snowden, told CNN. “He’s basically cut off from family.”
Snowden will have to make a move soon. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, he was almost certainly issued the standard 90-day tourist visa for U.S.-passport holders. This means he has until Aug. 18 to leave the territory or make some kind of diplomatic appeal. The local authorities are under no obligation to act until they receive an arrest warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice. This is surely just a matter of time, given that a criminal investigation was already under way on Sunday. And for now, the entire U.S. security and intelligence apparatus in Hong Kong will have its eyes glued on all the exits.
— With reporting by Jennifer Cheng and Anjani Trivedi / Hong Kong