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.
Whistle-blower's flight from Hong Kong 'may strain Sino-US ties'
Analysts suggest fallout on relations will be minimal despite Washington's obvious anger
The dramatic flight of US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden from Hong Kong may put the Sino-US relationship under strain in the near term, but is unlikely to affect bilateral ties in the long run, analysts say.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that Hong Kong's decision to allow Snowden to depart was "a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship".
Yesterday's overseas edition of the official People's Daily said Beijing could not accept "this kind of dissatisfaction and opposition" from the United States.
However, experts believe the war of words will quickly pass, and that neither country will want to see ties deteriorate, especially in view of the goodwill built up at the summit between President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama earlier this month.
"Americans were just talking tough; I don't think they would make any substantial move to make the Sino-US ties suffer," said Zhuang Jianzhong, deputy director of the Centre for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiaotong University.
"Washington might have high expectations on Beijing over Snowden after the Xi-Obama summit, but the way the saga turned out disappointed them."
Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University's school of international relations, said it was not surprising that Washington would issue such a stern warning, but the impact on Sino-US ties would be limited.
On one hand, the White House statement was a piece of posturing directed at its domestic audience, Jin said. "Washington was trying to show it is taking a tough stance over Snowden in a bid to deter any potential follower", he added.
On the other hand, Washington was somewhat disappointed by Beijing, as it thought China would have more consideration for US interests after the Xi-Obama summit.
"Washington is right now gripped in fits of anger, but further punishment is not likely and Beijing won't take the statement too seriously either," Jin said.
Oliver Bräuner, researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said he did not see any immediate measures that Washington could take to hit back at Beijing for allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong, even though it would poison the atmosphere between the two sides.
"I think that there is some genuine anger on the US side. The fact that Snowden chose a [Chinese] territory, even if it is the one with the highest degree of civil and political liberties, added insult to injury to his actions that many in the US regard as treason," Bräuner said.
The fact that Snowden has left Hong Kong also meant that "the focus of American discontent should slowly shift away from Hong Kong and China, towards any of Snowden's future destinations", he added.
Professor Shi Yinhong, director of Centre on American Studies at Renmin University of China, said the White House statement, with its unusually harsh wording, was already a punishment for Hong Kong and China, and it was highly unlikely the US would take further action.
Xinhua was also sounding conciliatory in a commentary piece.
"Both Beijing and Washington fully know that an isolated case should not be allowed to hurt one of the most critical relationships in the world," the state news agency said.
"It is in the interest of both countries to keep the positive momentum in bilateral relations."
Additional reporting by Stephen Chen