Hong Kong has a celebrated place in history as a safe haven for revolutionaries: Sun Yat-sen, Ho Chi Minh and José Rizal spent time here fine-tuning ideological positions, formulating strategies and gathering support. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former CIA employee who has chosen our city as a base from which to unmask the American secret security community's alleged excesses, does not intend to overthrow a regime, but he is driven by the same zeal for change. He has put his faith in our freedoms, reputation and rule of law. As the US ponders what to do about the whistle-blower, we have to be acutely aware that the world is watching our government's every move.
Snowden's campaign does not directly involve Hong Kong. It is centred on the US National Security Agency and its secret surveillance programme. Documents he passed on to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers detailing how his country pries into the digital communications of citizens, Americans and otherwise, are eye-opening; every activity can be observed, it would seem. The US government views revealing such information as a grave crime and it pushes for long prison sentences for offenders.
That reality has sent Snowden fleeing to our shores; he has been in hiding since May 20 in a hotel, from which he revealed his identity and cause on Sunday. His fight, he says, is about protecting internet freedoms, privacy, and basic liberties. Hong Kong, he contends, upholds these fundamental rights and its government is independent-minded. Beijing's sovereignty also likely comes into his calculations.
The timing of his going public is interesting: within hours of the end of the first summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at which greater co-operation was the focus. The US has had an extradition treaty with Hong Kong since 1996 and rarely in that time have American requests to hand over suspects been rejected. There is a provision, though, for a denial of political cases and Snowden could easily argue that his is in this category. Ultimately, though, Beijing is in charge of Hong Kong's foreign policy and it has the final say.
Much is at stake for the Sino-American relationship and Hong Kong's reputation. Our respect for rights and freedoms and our judicial system are our strengths; they are why so many companies decide to be based here. As Snowden's case unfolds, we need to be mindful of our city's place and role in history.