Blowing whistles and chanting “NSA Has No Say,” protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon in support of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has been staying in the city since admitting to one of the most significant leaks of government secrets in U.S. history. Snowden’s case has emerged for many in the territory, which is a Special Administrative Region of China, as a litmus test of what they feel is the city’s eroding autonomy under Beijing.
Against this backdrop, protesters — organizers said there were 900, while police estimated the crowd at 300 — challenged Hong Kong officials to resist Beijing and show that Snowden’s professed faith in the territory’s “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” will not prove misplaced.
Claudia Mo, a pro-democratic Legislative Council member, accused the U.S. of hypocrisy at the rally: “What Mr. Snowden was trying to do was tell the world that we do have a Big Brother called the United States of America that’s supposed to be the champion of democracy, but has been conducting blanket surveillance on a global scale.” Addressing rumors that Snowden is already in negotiations for a deal with the Chinese government, Mo said it would run contrary to the leaker’s belief in individual liberty, as it would be pitting “one Big Brother against another Big Brother” — a reference to China’s own large-scale cybersurveillance network.
Rebecca Tanda, 19, an American undergraduate studying urban studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong — which Snowden claimed was one of the U.S. government’s hacking targets in an interview with the South China Morning Post, said she is concerned about an erosion of individual freedom. “Most people who haven’t come out today are saying: I don’t care if the government is spying on me. It’s not a road you want to go down on, because eventually all your personal liberties will be gone.”
To politicians and activists in Hong Kong, Snowden’s fate is a chance to gauge just how much leeway Beijing will allow the city. Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that gives Hong Kong considerable autonomy, including a free press and an independent judiciary. By and large, Beijing has stuck to those terms, but many Hong Kong citizens feel that China is increasing its interference in local affairs. Among the points of contention: Beijing wants Hong Kong to enact antisubversion laws that exist on the mainland and teach “national education” — a euphemism for Communist Party propaganda to many Hong Kong parents — in local schools. China also wants to control the pace of democracy in Hong Kong, stating that candidates for the first open election for the Chief Executive in 2017 must be vetted.
A retired woman at the rally, who only gave her last name Chung, said she was disappointed that Leung Chun-ying, the city’s Chief Executive or head of government, said “no comment” seven times in an interview with Bloomberg Television in response to questions about Snowden. “It really shows that Hong Kong is just Beijing’s puppet.” Placards at the rally derided Leung as “Mr. No Comment.”
Whatever the official turnout at the rally, it was a paltry number compared with the nearly 500,000 who participated in the city’s inaugural July 1 march in 2003 against the antisubversion bill, Article 23 — considered Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy march since 1989. The public furor forced government ministers to shelve the legislation, a victory against perceived encroachment by Beijing’s “invisible hand.”
That march has become an annual event, where citizens’ long-suffering demands for universal suffrage and vindication of Tiananmen victims find their full voice. It would not be surprising if Snowden’s cause finds much more robust support then.
— With reporting by Charlie Campbell / Hong Kong