Last Seen in Hong Kong: Edward Snowden Slips Away

Journalists fanned out across Hong Kong's luxury hotels, hoping to score an interview or even catch a glimpse of the now famous leaker. But Edward Snowden was nowhere to be found, leading many to wonder if he's even still in the territory

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Bobby Yip / REUTERS

The Kowloon waterfront, opposite of Hong Kong Island, on June 11, 2013

On Monday, Hong Kong journalists fanned out across the city looking for any trace of the man in the Guardian video, Edward Snowden. And while they seemed to get very close, the 29-year-old evaded any notice. His precise location is once again a mystery.

News that Snowden was in Hong Kong immediately generated a surge of interest among the city’s freewheeling press. Hong Kong was handed back to China from the U.K. in 1997, but it remains semiautonomous, maintaining a separate court system and enjoying greater press freedom than in mainland China. Initially, the bulk of attention was focused on the W hotel in Kowloon, where Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and his colleague Ewen MacAskill were reportedly staying. But there was no sign of their high-profile source nearby. Greenwald fielded questions from the media in the lobby but would not disclose Snowden’s whereabouts.

(MORE: Edward Snowden Comes Forward as NSA Whistle-Blower, Surfaces in Hong Kong)

During his “coming-out” interview, Snowden stated that the U.S. embassy was “just down the road,” implying he was staying in the Admiralty or Central districts of Hong Kong Island. The adjective plush, used in the Guardian profile to describe the hotel where he stayed, suggested a five- or four-star establishment, and TIME visited nine hotels on both sides of Victoria Harbor where bemused concierges shrugged at the now infamous name. But there was another clue in the interview — not in the video or text, but in the curious extra photo halfway down the page. The close-cropped film did not reveal much room detail, but this image captured a distinctive white headboard and spherical lamp. A quick search confirmed speculation that it might be the Mira hotel, located not far from where the journalists were staying.

Staff members at the hotel’s reception desk confirmed to TIME that Snowden had been a guest, but said that he checked out shortly after noon on Monday. One exclaimed, “Wow, no way!” upon hearing allegations that this guest had allegedly leaked U.S. state secrets. Another staff member quickly stepped in, complaining that guest privacy was being infringed. By the late afternoon, the lobby and exterior of the Mira hotel was peppered with reporters. But Snowden seemed to have slipped away.

(PHOTOS: What’s Next for Snowden: 10 Notorious Leakers and How They Fared)

Twitter was soon buzzing with questions and wild speculation: Is Snowden a Chinese spy? Is he even still in Hong Kong? Has he already left for Iceland, his stated preference for sanctuary? After all, there are flights on Finnair between Hong Kong and Reykjavik, albeit with a stopover in Helsinki. Some Twitter users jested that the famed Rubber Duck might make a good hiding place (except that the giant yellow inflatable is ironically now en route to the U.S.). One post brought a particular smile to the faces of weary journalists: “This must be the most elaborate way to break up with your girlfriend.”

The international-media frenzy brought representatives from the London TimesDaily Telegraph and many others to the city. Despite the global interest, veteran local reporters say the media scrum was smaller than equivalent pursuits of local celebrities. Still, photographs of Snowden graced the city’s front pages on Tuesday. The Apple Daily weighed in with a curious animation of the hunt.

Hong Kong journalists and bloggers, who often warn of encroaching censorship from China, have largely hailed Snowden as a hero to be protected. The Beijing-friendly newspaper Wen Wei Po used the case as an example of American “hypocrisy, tyranny and selfishness” on the subject on human rights. Ming Pao urged Hong Kong to demonstrate that it remains a fair place with the rule of law and a high level of autonomy from Beijing. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong issued a statement saying it would “watch closely” how the city handles the case, particularly focusing on “any pressure from authorities both in Washington and Beijing.”

(MORE: Four Things to Know About Surveillance Leaker Edward Snowden)

The reaction in mainland China seemed relatively muted. The China Daily carried the story but massaged Snowden’s Guardian quotes to remove criticism of the People’s Republic. The Global Times, the tabloid run under the auspices of Chinese Communist Party, published a playful cartoon that portrayed the iconic U.S. bald eagle within the Great Seal as a spy. One user of China’s Twitter-like Weibo service described Snowden as “a true defender of human rights” while another warned of “a conspiracy to stir up the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland.”

Despite the wealth of media interest, the trail appears to have gone cold. Laura Poitras, the third byline on the Guardian scoop, told Salon that she was still working in Hong Kong and there were more revelations to come. But she refused to comment on whether she knew where Snowden was, or if she had even maintained contact with him.

Snowden’s fate remains unclear. Although he is currently free to leave the territory, this may well change if the U.S. files charges. His visa is likely to be up by Aug. 18, and Hong Kong is not a cheap place to lie low. He will have to emerge before long. By then, the reporters with notebooks may be replaced by police holding arrest warrants.

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing.

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