Edward Snowden

US in no position to blame Hong Kong over Snowden

Bernard Chan says it can't shirk its responsibility in the intelligence leak

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

As someone who went to high school and college in the US, I have American friends. Some think I have an inside track on intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden and his dramatic stay in Hong Kong. The truth is I do not. But I do know that Hong Kong and China were not the ones at fault. US officials who blame Hong Kong for letting Snowden leave, or politicians who say he was spying for China, should look closer to home for someone to blame.

It was the US, not Hong Kong, that decided to operate a global electronic spying operation, which even some Americans now believe is out of control. If Snowden is correct, that system collects data from our own local internet network. It was the US, not Hong Kong, that decided directly or via outsourcing to use the services of a young man who turned out to be disloyal. Hong Kong or China are not to blame for the US government's policy or recruitment decisions.

US officials could have faced up to the fact that they did not have the moral high ground this time

Nor can anyone be blamed for wanting to avoid a possible sensitive human rights case here in Hong Kong. The US would have piled pressure on us and on the central government to send him back. Local and international public opinion would have demanded that he be protected.

Indeed, the affair became a hot domestic issue. Some local people protested against the US for invading our privacy and threatening to persecute Snowden. Others, including some who often speak out on human rights issues here or on the mainland, went silent.

I am sure our courts would have upheld the rule of law but, either way, Hong Kong could have lost far more goodwill.

As several commentators have said, Snowden's departure might actually have been better for the US. In that case, US officials' criticism of Hong Kong was more a way to save face in front of their domestic audience. But the whole episode has damaged relations between Hong Kong and the US. Americans will see us - or China as a whole - as the place that let a traitor go. Hong Kong and people in the rest of China will see the US as the country that hacked into our internet data.

Indeed, people around the world are complaining about US surveillance activities revealed by Snowden. American authorities say the intelligence gathering is subject to legal safeguards and is aimed at preventing terrorism, and they may have a point. It is also true to say that other countries have their own surveillance operations. Nonetheless, the Snowden affair has damaged the image of the US, and it has come at a sensitive time in US-China relations. It is the last thing anyone needed just after President Xi Jinping's (and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's) US visit, and with issues like visa-free travel to the US for Hong Kong people under discussion.

Some people might see this episode as part of that big trend in international affairs: the decline of the US as the world's top power, and the rise of China in its place. I am not actually convinced about this. The US has problems, but its attraction to migrants and its past record tell us it could solve them. At the same time, China has demographic and other challenges of its own, and the arithmetic does not guarantee that it will surpass the US. In short, no one is in a position to be arrogant, and everyone should try to get along.

Unfortunately, the US response to Snowden's arrival in, and departure from, Hong Kong was insensitive. US officials could at least have accepted publicly that they saw why we don't like the idea of being hacked by them. They could at least have admitted some fault in using people who cannot be trusted. They could have faced up to the fact that - despite all their lecturing on human rights in the past - they did not have the moral high ground this time. Instead, they blamed Hong Kong and China.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council