30-year-old American Edward Snowden, a contract employee at the National Security Agency, is the whistleblower behind significant revelations that surfaced in June 2013 about the US government's top secret, extensive domestic surveillance programmes. Snowden flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii in May 2013, and supplied confidential US government documents to media outlets including the Guardian.
The bigger issue in Snowden case
Handing over fugitive US whistle-blower Edward Snowden to face justice at home would appear consistent with the stance that dissent is a domestic affair. But all things are not equal. For a start, Snowden, now in hiding in Hong Kong, would get more protection under the law than a Chinese citizen who put himself in a similar predicament. And human-rights advocates would still have concerns about handing over Snowden. The US does not have a spotless record, as we are reminded by the alleged cruel mistreatment of American soldier Bradley Manning, now being court-martialled for leaking secrets.
State media commentaries may offer clues to China's approach. As we report today Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily observes that the Chinese are always reluctant to become involved in other people's "mess". The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid under the People's Daily, says Hong Kong can play a leading role in resolving the incident without being told what to do by Beijing or Washington, and that extradition to the US now seems "inconceivable". Analysts tend to see both articles as suggesting Beijing does not want to get involved.
Even before the US shows its hand by laying charges or seeking Snowden's return, or he seeks asylum, the question of what China should do is the subject of lively public debate because, under "one country, two systems", it retains foreign relations powers. If extradition proceedings are launched they could take years before the courts. Given the independence of our judiciary, it would be hoped Beijing did not feel compelled to become involved, for the sake of trust in two systems.
Snowden has explained that concerns about safe passage led him to flee to Hong Kong, with its rule of law and respect for human rights, rather than direct to Iceland, where he wants to seek asylum. In light of this, and despite China's understandable reluctance to get involved, the best way forward for Beijing - and Hong Kong - could be to help Snowden resettle in a third country prepared to grant asylum. It remains to be seen how that would play out for Sino-US relations. But the bigger issue is cybersecurity, which was raised at the recent summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama. Whatever one's views on Snowden, his actions have opened the way for wider discussions the world must have on cybersurveillance and security and the rules of the game.