National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden spoke out for the first time since disappearing from his Hong Kong hotel to hail the city’s residents and praise its legal institutions. Speaking exclusively to the South China Morning Post, the former CIA contractor, who revealed details of mass spying allegedly conducted by the U.S. government, said he wanted “the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate” and that he had “no reason to doubt your system.” But while the 29-year-old vowed to fight extradition to the U.S., new espionage allegations risk inviting trouble locally.
Snowden has been in hiding in Hong Kong since coming forward on Sunday as the source of classified material leaked to the Guardian and Washington Post. The U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating charges and will likely ask for the IT consultant to be surrendered for trial in his homeland. Snowden also made fresh allegations that the U.S. government had been hacking hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. Targets in the city apparently include the Chinese University of Hong Kong, public officials, businesses and students.
But experts warn that Snowden ought to seek legal advice before making any further allegations. Hong Kong has legislation that makes it an offense — punishable by a fine of about $65,000 and two years’ imprisonment — to make a “damaging disclosure” based on confidential information provided by the Hong Kong or Beijing governments. This broad definition could include anything that “would likely cause damage to the work of security and intelligence services,” explains Professor Simon Young, of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at Hong Kong University. It is still unclear what effect, if any, pending local charges would have on any application for asylum.
Snowden’s appeal through the local press on Thursday appears to be an attempt to buoy support in the territory. Hong Kong is fiercely proud of its quasi independence and has long served as a bastion for civil rights in greater China. Apart from the city’s legacy as a haven for political dissidents fleeing persecution, embattled Hong Kongers have more recently been actively fighting perceived encroachment into local affairs by Beijing. Although officially part of China, the Special Administrative Region enjoys a separate legal system and a fair amount of autonomy under “one country, two systems.” A rally in support of Snowden has been organized on Saturday in conjunction with various local groups.
Hong Kong–based political scientist Peter Chung tells TIME that Snowden is “right to find a place where there is a lot of support for the values he is trying to defend.” Although most people believe Hong Kong courts will abide by existing extradition agreements, the issue is being considered an appraisal of the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. “This incident will test the wisdom of both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments,” adds Chung. Leung has been facing criticism recently for seemingly kowtowing to the whims of Beijing.
The timing of Snowden’s revelations also appears to be deliberate. New Chinese President Xi Jinping met Barack Obama for the first time over the weekend, just hours before Snowden came forward as the source of damning allegations regarding the PRISM surveillance program. The two heads of state were due to discuss cybersecurity during the talks in California, as the White House alleges that a significant proportion of recent hacking attempts originate from inside the Middle Kingdom. Allegations that the U.S. is itself engaged in large-scale surveillance, both at home and abroad, could be damaging.
New sources have now emerged to independently corroborate the substance, if not the detail, of Snowden’s allegations. An article published in Foreign Policy quotes numerous anonymous sources within the NSA describing how the American Office of Tailored Access Operations has successfully penetrated computer and telecommunications systems in the People’s Republic of China for almost 15 years. Such revelations will certainly not help Obama convince Xi to weigh into the Snowden affair, especially as any involvement would be vehemently opposed in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the head of the NSA has defended the PRISM program by telling a U.S. Senate committee that it has helped prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks. Officials said last week the e-mail-surveillance program helped foil a 2009 Islamist-militant plot to bomb the New York City subway system. “Great harm has already been done by opening this up,” said NSA Director Keith Alexander. The issue continues to polarize public opinion with Snowden alternately being hailed as a hero and traitor.