Snowden’s Hong Kong Escape: Behind the Role That Beijing Played

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Vincent Yu / AP

A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden, who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on June 23, 2013

Wherever Edward Snowden is now — according to WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson it is in a “safe” if secret location; according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a transit zone in Moscow’s airport — it is clear that his disappearance, however temporary, is causing enormous anxiety to his U.S. pursuers. Ecuador, where the fugitive National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower has officially requested asylum, is his most likely final destination. But among the many questions being asked is to what extent did Hong Kong, where Snowden had been in hiding for a month before his departure, help him escape? And to what degree was Hong Kong’s sovereign power Beijing behind the decision to allow Snowden to board Aeroflot flight SU213 on Sunday, leaving the city’s famous lights far behind him in his quest for a new life?

stern rebuke given by White House spokesman Jay Carney suggests that the U.S. is holding Hong Kong accountable and that Snowden’s safe passage out of the territory will have political repercussions. “This was a deliberate choice by the [Hong Kong] government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant,” he said, “and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.” On Tuesday in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying retorted: “The U.S. side has no reason to call into question the Hong Kong government’s handling of affairs according to law.”

(MORE: On the Run to Moscow, Edward Snowden Keeps Americans Guessing)

The Hong Kong government has said that it had no legal reason to prevent Snowden from boarding his flight to Sheremetyevo Airport. It released a statement on Sunday, after Snowden had taken off, saying that said the extradition request received from the U.S. “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.” Hong Kong officials say their American counterparts were notified of this early last Friday morning, giving the U.S. Department of Justice a full day to rectify the paperwork. Though the U.S. maintains it provided all the necessary facts, on Tuesday Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen told reporters that there was a discrepancy between U.S. and Hong Kong records over Snowden’s full name and that his department never received Snowden’s passport number, which it had requested. Yuen said there was thus no basis for detaining Snowden. While this may seem like an overreliance on formalities — the identity of the man being sought was, after all, not in doubt — it will prompt a wry grin of recognition from anybody familiar with Hong Kong’s rigid insistence on correct, consistent documentation. This is a city where checks are not honored, or agreements invalidated, precisely because of a missing initial.

But was Snowden’s exit from Hong Kong permitted purely because of this technicality, or was it simply mandated by Beijing, disregarding Hong Kong’s much vaunted legal autonomy? (The territory is a Special Administrative Region of China and as such enjoys a much greater degree of freedom.) Opinions are divided. “Public statements indicate Beijing has been careful not to appear to be meddling in Hong Kong’s decisionmaking,” says Zha Daojiong, a professor of Peking University’s School of International Studies. Martin Lee, a Hong Kong barrister and democracy activist, thinks otherwise. He sees Beijing’s influence from “beginning to end” and says this was “clearly a political matter.”

(MORE: Russian Hospitality: Why Snowden Picked Moscow as His Transit Point)

Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA contractor, first burst onto the world stage when he revealed to the Guardian and Washington Post large-scale phone and Internet surveillance by the U.S. government. Washington issued formal charges against him last Friday, his 30th birthday, for engaging in unauthorized communication of national-defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence — both crimes under America’s Espionage Act — as well as theft of government property. All three offenses carry maximum sentences of 10 years imprisonment.

The 1996 extradition treaty signed between Hong Kong and the U.S. maintains that there must be comparable charges in both jurisdictions. Michael DeGolyer, a professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, notes that Hong Kong’s privacy laws are different from the U.S.’s and so there may have been an argument for refusing extradition. “Theft of state secrets is a very touchy charge [here],” says DeGolyer, who points out that in 2003 half-a-million people — more than 7% of the population — marched against legislation that would have introduced a similar offense in the territory.

(MORE: U.S. Government ‘Disappointed’ Hong Kong Let Snowden Leave, Asks Russia to Extradite Him)

Still, Hong Kong hardly has a reputation for obstinacy when it comes to exercising surrender requests. In 2004, Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi was placed upon a secret rendition flight from Hong Kong to Tripoli, in an operation allegedly planned and executed by the U.K., U.S. and Libyan governments. Al-Saadi claims he was first flown on an Egyptian aircraft to Bangkok and then transferred to his homeland. Some suspect that a similar solution — sending Snowden to a third country where he was not at immediate peril, with the proviso that he would then be moved to the U.S. — could have been negotiated, thereby avoiding the explicit violation of any nonreturn application and saving face on all sides. Snowden may have well realized this or been warned of it by his Hong Kong counsel, barrister Robert Tibbo and solicitors Albert Ho and Jonathan Man — the latter is also involved in preparing a lawsuit against the Hong Kong authorities on behalf of al-Saadi. That, and the fear of a protracted legal battle, could have prompted a decision to flee.

It’s not that Snowden was entirely unwelcome in Hong Kong. Beijing must have quietly enjoyed the delicious irony of having a Western “dissident” — as state-run news site China.org.cn described him — seeking sanctuary in a territory belonging to the communist state. His revelations of U.S. spying on Hong Kong and Chinese computer systems also punctured any moral superiority Washington had been able to maintain in its ongoing cybersecurity war with Beijing. The Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post was told by Snowden that U.S. spies were hacking into Chinese mobile-phone companies to steal text messages and attacking servers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, prompting protests and cries of American hypocrisy in mainland China.

(MORE: With Apparent Help From WikiLeaks, Snowden Leaves Hong Kong)

But while there was schadenfreude at U.S. embarrassment over the revelations, Beijing didn’t want Snowden to stick around too long — a situation that could have easily drawn ongoing attention to its own questionable record on human rights and privacy. For that reason, Beijing was “quite happy to let Snowden go” says Joseph Cheng, a China watcher at City University of Hong Kong.

Ho, Snowden’s legal adviser, believes that the matter “was decided by Beijing.” The American, Ho tells TIME, “came to Hong Kong because he believes Hong Kong has good rule of law, but he did not realize how complicated entering the court process would be. He felt that the situation was getting complicated, and therefore changed his view.” Whether Beijing’s discomfort or Hong Kong’s desire to avoid a messy extradition ultimately held sway, both had their reasons for wanting the whistle-blower to disappear. And Snowden was only too happy to oblige.

— With reporting by Jennifer Cheng / Hong Kong

MORE: Edward Snowden, NSA Whistle-Blower, Wins Unusual Sympathizers in Latin America

41 comments
paulgeorges
paulgeorges

   The Trojans have lost  after 10 years of war not outdoors on their walls but within  because of a certain horse   themselves they have brought in their city (Boston bombing) . Even a child knows this story more 2000 years old !   It's only an excuse for espionage all azimuths (economic, political, industrial, technological ...) 

percymay
percymay

The election (twice) of Obama as US President shows the decline of America  as a superpower.

The Americans chose a President who is incompetent, arrogant, and weak.

When little Hong Kong and Ecuador can snub the US, the American giant can only be pitied.

lovepeacelove3
lovepeacelove3

The USA is no longer a Super power, China and Russia know this, the only people who do not realize this are the USA people. China can  break the USA economy very easily and the USA knows this as well. Putin and China laughed at John Kerry's threats to turn over Snowden. Snowden told the truth the USA Government lied

Even Israel admitted that the USA is not a SuperPower anymore

The United States of America is no longer a Superpower, it used to be, but it can no longer claim such, and what’s more, the entire world knows it.  (Such is the case, even if Americans refuse to admit it; nay, much because Americans are incapable of viewing it.) defense industry expert Mordechai Ben-Menachem) 

The USA will beccome a Police State in the name of "terrorism" ...Fear is what Hitler used to Create his Police State and that is what the USA is doing

http://youtu.be/JlODvQBBkaQ

senseless
senseless

It never ceases to surprise me how rediculous some americans react about their own country and people.For once I would love to see how the anti American haters would do when placed in countries where there is no freedom, no opinions, no choices, no handouts, no jobs, no hope .I am from such a country and I HAVE TO SAY GOD BLESS AMERICA, IT IS BY FAR ONE OF THE BEST PLACES IN THIS WORLD TO LIVE IN, Even the street people have a chance here,how can you live if you are so oppressed by a greedy government where only a select few flourishes..THE TRATOR IS NO HERO,honestly if he were Chinese and did what snowden did, they would hunt him like a dog and boil his skin, so would the Russians as a matter of fact.I SAY IF THE GOVERNMENT LISTENS TO CONVERSATIONS LET THEM, IF IT KEEPS THE MAJORITY SAFE, WHY NOT...IT IS NO DIFFERENT THAN SCREENINGS AT AIRPORTS.People have taken privacy and rights to such a level that it is abusive.snowden is A TRATOR, HIS ACTIONS HAVE HURT THIS COUNTRY,THERE IS NOTHING HEROIC IN WHAT HE DID, IT WAS NOT FOR THE GOOD OF THIS COUNTRY.I SPY ON MY TEENAGERS SO I KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON ,I LOVE MY KIDS AND WILL DO WHATEVER I CAN TO KEEP THEM SAFE,I WOULD NEVER BETRAY THEM  BY BROADCASTING TO THE WORLD THEIR DOWNFALLS RATHER I WOULD WORK TO HELP THEM IMPROVE. snoden is a two minute wanna be fool who has hurt AMERICA.

BillPayne
BillPayne

Snowden may be part of legion against NSA?  Google 'new mexico 97 cv 266' for details.  Puzzle Palace author James Bamford exposed NSA's spy sting on Iran.

Pgrewe1800
Pgrewe1800

The world is getting back to the arrogant American bully! Freedom in America is overrated. I grew up partly in the US and in Switzerland, a country that has, in my opinion and that of several recent studies, more freedom and opportunities than the US. Don't comment if you've never lived abroad - you don't know, you're brainwashed.

Man-of-steel
Man-of-steel

"What we did was completely legal", says US, HK, China, Russia, Cuba, Ecuador,...

thecrud
thecrud

I picked up a dispenser it said made in China I put it back down.

My friend said by not buying that you hired an American.

eetom
eetom

What do you do with a hot potato you are holding?  Pass it on, stupid.

What do you do when a Chinese spy escapes to US and seeks asylum?  Let us wait and see.

罗

You don't know China, the people here seldom have their own ideas of freedom, and often the government think we we'll say what say what.This is you americans are difficult to accept.

                                                                                          I am a Chinese,and i like free

StephenDing
StephenDing

well, I'm sensing that conspiracy theorists are going to say that China was behind it all. let's go

duduong
duduong

HK is not part of the sovereign US. Its government has full discretion on how fast it wants to process paperwork. Since 75% of HK citizens support Snowden, why is it a surprise that the government lacks the enthusiasm to go against public opinion, particularly if the US own request spelled Snowden's name incorrectly?

Of course the State Department will go all hawkish to cover up its own incompetence. The White House also desperately wants to shift the attention from its own wrongdoing to the story of chasing the whistle blower. 

The big bad wolf can huff and puff all it wants; this little piggy's house is backed by the world's public opinion.


curt3rd
curt3rd

Youre and idiot.   China can not break the U.S. economy.  Even if they could,  they would not because we are their biggest trading partner.  If the U.S. economy falls so does China economy.

They (Cina and Russia) thumb their nose at the U.S. because they are not scared of Obama.  They know he is full of empty threats.  Putin wouldnt try this crap if we had a President with a backbone.

duduong
duduong

@lovepeacelove3

I just look up "Fascism" in the dictionary:

Fascism: A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.

We don't have a dictator yet no matter what Fox news says, and the socioeconomic controls are not there either although this may gradually change, but read the media reports and some comments here and elsewhere and you have to agree that the other criteria have been met already.

lovepeacelove3
lovepeacelove3

Your post is NONSENSE,

The USA has changed and real Americans know this, The Patriot Act is really an illegal documentation that eliminates the USA constitution.

A fancy name like "Patriot Act" may sounud good  but it means A NEW USA were you are a slave all because of the Boogieman out there coming to get you..  

Terrorism is a boogieman Buzz word that allows the Governmnet to remove the USA constitution and this is how Hitler started.

1. The USA torures just like China and Russia: A leaker revealed this and was put in JAIL by the good ole USA

2. The USA has been responsible fro more murders (From War) than any other Modern Nation.

3. Snowden is a hero and a real American

4. Your Blind Patriotism is sicking and dangerous.

senseless
senseless

@Pgrewe1800 

I AM FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY AND YOU ARE SO STUPID SORRY I COULD NOT SAY THIS IN A MORE DIGNIFIED TERM

stubson
stubson

@Pgrewe1800Thank goodness there is another de Tocqueville;e to give us insight into America. As for Switzerland, life must be great there. It comes with all the courage to stand up and be neutral. Must be nice to benefit from others that do the heavy lifting. Spend some time in China and Russia. Oh I forgot ..you're brainwashed and it must be hanging out to dry.

stubson
stubson

@Pgrewe1800Thank goodness there is another de Tocqueville;e to give us insight into America. As for Switzerland, life must be great there. It comes with all the courage to stand up and be neutral. Must be nice to benefit from others that do the heavy lifting. Spend some time in China and Russia you arrogant twit. Oh I forgot ..you're brainwashed and its hanging out to dry.

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

@ Strength is a very special thing but can  last only if you remain normal   i.e   never believe to be above others,learn from others, learn its strengths and weaknesses,and not to deny its dark side of his own story, have the pleasure of learning and not remain deaf to  a beautifull music even strange , odd to his own ears,a foreign music one or not. A beautiful music to his ears knows no  nationality no boundary .It's the same for an idea ,a book........

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

@ Difficult for USA to criticize China when themself spy all earth including friends.But does USA have really friends or do they want to control "friends" ?

duduong
duduong

@ 

I can tell you from my personal experience that three most-often exercised freedom/rights in the US these days are:

1. to be stupid; (My government would not lie to me.)

2. to be hypocritical; (It is not wrong when the US does it.)

3. to lie without shame. (We don't do X. X = torture, secret taping, hacking, assassination, etc.)

duduong
duduong

@StephenDing 

They already did. Just go to NY Times, but you will find neither a shred of evidence nor any logic in it. Apparently, some WH insider asked them to spread some rumors, and they just happily complied.

MikeWilliams
MikeWilliams

@duduong There was also the issue that the crimes he was convicted for (under the patriot act) had no similar laws in HK that could be related to, so the HK government couldn't lawfully extradite Snowden anyway. 

duduong
duduong

There is now more detail from HK government. Apparently, the State Department misspelled Snowden's name as Edward James Snowden. The correct name is Edward Joseph Snowden.

BringbacktheoldUSA
BringbacktheoldUSA

@curt3rd @curt3rd  ARE YOU ON DRUGS OFCOURSE  China can and WILL BREAK the USA economy 

Are you Aware that the USA is licking China'a boots? 

1. The US is the world’s biggest debtor. The biggest creditors are China and Japan, followed by the oil exporting countries in the Middle East. With each passing day, the value of the US$ toilet paper is worth less and less.

2. China has already signed a deal with Japan, Brazil and Australia to basically collapse the US dollar. 

3 the Chinese owned $1.16 trillion in US debt (US government treasury bonds). 

4. Japan owns $1.11 trillion and the OPEC nations, $261 billion. In the last few years, China has been lowering their purchases of US debt and replacing it with other assets


5. China, Japan, Russia, Iran, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Chile, UAE, India, and South Africa are bypassing the dollar and creating bi-lateral trade warfare.

What if now the Chinese, instead of dropping the debt bomb, create enough bi-lateral trade agreements to avoid the US dollar altogether with foreigners? In fact China, among other countries, has already done this by trading with the Chinese Yuan instead of the US dollar

6. CHINA, RUSSIA AND JAPAN ARE NOT FRIENDS OF THE USA, THE USA HAS NOT POWER TO INFLUENCE ANYTHING..BUSH LICKED CHINA BOOTS ALSO. 

curt3rd
curt3rd

Wow, I laughed really loud at that comment.  Especially liked  "It comes with all the courage to stand up and be neutral"

Pgrewe1800
Pgrewe1800

@stubson @Pgrewe1800 Like I was saying "Don't comment if you've never lived abroad - you don't know, you're brainwashed." Thank you

senseless
senseless

@paulgeorges @ USA HAS FRIENDS WHEN THE FRIENDS CAN LINE THEIR POCKETS WITH OUR MONEY AND RESOURCES.  DO YOU THINK CHINA OR RUSSIA HAS SPIES OR DO THEY JUST SIT BACK AND POINT THE FINGER WHEN A SNITCH LIKE snowden RUNS HIS MOUTH.....EVERYBODY HAS SPIES, LIKE IT OR NOT



senseless
senseless

@duduong @ 

WHAT THE HELL, DO YOU THINK IT IS ANY DIFFERENT IN OTHER COUNTRIES..AT LEAST IN AMERICA YOU CAN AT LEAST HAVE AN OPINION YOU ASS

curt3rd
curt3rd

No, the biggest creditors of American debt is U.S.induvisuals and institutions.  China and Japan combined only hold 2.4 percent of Americas debt.   Take you meds

senseless
senseless

@MikeWilliams @senseless @Pgrewe1800 WHEN LAST DID YOU LIVE IN CHINA...IF YOU WOULDNT MIND THEN GO THERE AND STAY.

AS A CHINESE CITIZEN I SAY IT STINKS...MY FAMILY WERE SO POOR WE HAD TO WORK LIKE DOGS AND EAT SCRAPS TO LIVE,WE COULD NOT AFFORD TO GET AN EDUCATION AND WE HAD NO HOPE FOR CHANGE..DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO KNOW THAT IF YOU ARE BORNED INTO SUCH POVERTY THAT YOU WILL NEVER EVER HAVE A DIFFERENT OUTCOME..THANK GOD FOR MY AMERICAN WIFE AND AMERICA...DONT TELL ME YOU WOULDNT MIND UNTILL YOU HAVE ACTUALLY LIVED THERE


senseless
senseless

@duduong @senseless @ Can you tell me which country has a perfect government

Be proactive in being a part of the solution not stirring the crap.

duduong
duduong

@senseless @duduong @ 

As far as I know, people of the other countries do not do items 1 & 2.

Don't you get my point? There is freedom here, but the freedom is so abused and wasted. You think the country is in the right path? I think not. If I don't speak up, then I would be an accomplice to everything wrong here. "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." --- Martin Luther King