World famous whistleblower Edward Snowden breaks cover in Hong Kong
Fate of US web spying whistle-blower Edward Snowden unclear after he comes out of hiding and gives governments a major diplomatic headache
Speculation is rife over the fate of US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who announced his presence in Hong Kong after passing to the media classified documents about a top-secret US surveillance programme.
Snowden, 29, who is behind possibly the biggest intelligence leak in US history, came out of hiding in Hong Kong - a city he said he chose because of its "commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent".
A former CIA technical assistant and a current employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden claimed he single-handedly exposed the Prism programme, under which the US government secretly collected information online from private user accounts operated by Facebook, Google, Apple and other internet giants.
Snowden's astonishing confession sparked a media frenzy yesterday in the city, and posed a headache for both the Beijing and Hong Kong governments.
His disclosures came as the presidents of China and US are trying to cultivate a strong relationship based on mutual trust and with Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying currently visiting New York.
A meeting between Leung and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, originally planned for yesterday, had to be "rescheduled" as a result of the Snowden media storm. It is understood that the request for a postponement was made by the mayor's office and agreed to by the Hong Kong side.
Snowden is thought to have boarded a flight from the US to Hong Kong on May 20 and to have remained in the city since.
"I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom. Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China," he said in an interview here with British newspaper The Guardian.
Staff at the Mira Hong Kong hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui confirmed he had stayed there but had since checked out.
No criminal charges have so far been pressed against Snowden, although he believes the US government will try to charge him with treason. He said he would "ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimisation of global privacy".
Hong Kong has a 1998 extradition treaty with the US but could refuse to hand him over if Beijing believes its national interests will be compromised, according to the city's law.
The case will test the warming Sino-US relationship.
Clayton Dube, of the University of Southern California's US-China Institute, said: "One option will be to say this is the example of our co-operation on cybersecurity," he said. "It might mean that the Hong Kong authorities, with the support of the Chinese government, facilitate American access to this individual."
Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong said Beijing would be more concerned with how the incident impacts on China's international image.
"The incident puts the US into an embarrassing position," he said. "But China will not want to face any kind of embarrassment ... and stir up trouble."