Snowden's case will test 'one country, two systems'

Alice Wu says the execution of 'one country, two systems' may soon face its toughest test, if and when the Snowden case goes to court

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 4:23am

Technological advances have rendered borders meaningless when it comes to trade, pollution, diseases and spying; airspace and territorial waters have little relevance in these matters. Former CIA operative Edward Snowden is causing storms that are short-circuiting political power grids in the US and elsewhere.

Welcome to the Orwellian world of omnipresent government surveillance by broadband. By coming here, Snowden has placed Hong Kong in the middle of this storm surge. The principle of "one country, two systems" has just been given an unlikely face - Snowden's.

He inadvertently became its walking ad through his faith in the city's legal system and "spirited commitment to free speech and the right to political dissent". That sums up Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and the essence of "one country, two systems".

For Hongkongers, our understanding of it has mostly revolved around arguments over one element usurping the other. Many wars of words were fought over whether this Deng Xiaoping construct had been diced and sliced for political convenience. Now, Snowden may present the greatest challenge to its adherence. It is time to re-examine what it means at least. Can "one country" and "two systems" really coexist? Some called it ingenious. Many called it an experiment, and no one could tell how it would fare.

Is Snowden's faith in our legal system misplaced? No, in the sense that legal proceedings that are bound now to take place if he remains here will follow a due process. But, yes, if he assumed that the courts have the final say, because they don't in cases of surrendering fugitive offenders.

As Simon Young, a professor of comparative and public law at the University of Hong Kong, has pointed out, though there have been many cases of extradition from Hong Kong to the US, one involving such "political sensitivity" is rare. "There will be many legal issues to be tested," he told this newspaper.

Beijing does have the final say in cases of "surrender of fugitive offenders", under the extradition treaty signed between Hong Kong and the US. Speculation that Beijing will not intervene is merely that. If it does end up issuing a directive to the chief executive, would it be "ruining", as many have said, "one country, two systems"?

That is a tough question to answer. The treaty signed between Hong Kong and the United States acknowledged the sovereign power responsible for Hong Kong's foreign affairs. "A high degree of autonomy" is not "sovereignty"; it is within Beijing's right to issue a directive.

No one knows where the Snowden story will take us, or whether he has misplaced his faith. But one thing is for sure: "one country, two systems" is more than just words from Deng. Snowden's case has shown its execution can be messy and complicated. But it is precisely this messy complexity that allows Hong Kong to enter into agreements otherwise only available between sovereign powers. In that sense, it is because of it that Hong Kong can enjoy its high degree of autonomy.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA