China has several options on Edward Snowden
BEIJING — With Edward Snowden in Hong Kong dribbling out morsels on U.S. cyber surveillance activities to the media, Chinese authorities have several choices for dealing with him.
Their options include offering asylum to the former U.S. contractor, who says he leaked National Security Agency secrets and is expected to face criminal charges; interrogating him; or urging him to leave.
So far, officials in Beijing look to be playing it cool by doing nothing — and that, several experts said Friday, is perhaps the savviest thing they could do.
With some U.S. lawmakers calling Snowden, 29, a traitor and raising questions about whether he has a relationship with a foreign government, any moves by Beijing to contact Snowden could inflame tension with Washington just days after a summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Given that it’s unclear whether Snowden has information that would be particularly valuable to the Chinese — and whether he’d be willing to share it if he did — it’s a risk Beijing may not yet be ready to take.
At the same time, any immediate effort by Beijing to grant Snowden permanent haven or urge him to depart for another locale could raise hackles in Hong Kong.
Although the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, it retains its own Western-based legal system and enjoys greater civil liberties than the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents see the Snowden affair as a test of whether Beijing will honor its commitment to the “one country, two systems” policy or interfere before any legal process has been given a chance to play out.
Snowden, who revealed himself Sunday as the primary source of unauthorized disclosures of highly classified U.S. telephone and Internet surveillance systems, remains free in Hong Kong, where U.S. visitors are customarily allowed to stay 90 days.
Hong Kong authorities are unlikely to arrest him, experts said, until Washington makes a formal extradition request, or until he overstays his 90-day tourist visa or is found to be in violation of Hong Kong law. At that time, they could detain him — and confiscate any belongings, potentially including his computer files — while they determine his fate.
“This is a win-win for China,” said David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “I don’t see them losing at this point, the fact that he’s here, running away from the United States with all this information ... whether he goes back or whether he goes free. I don’t see this as bad for China.”
Ideally for officials in Beijing, Zweig said, “if they don’t have to get involved and Hong Kong arrests him, and they get the computer, they win.”
Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, said the Chinese government would be happy to see the case drag on and embarrass the U.S.
“It is a setback for people who want the U.S. to restrain China in its abuse of Internet freedom,” he said.
Snowden’s whereabouts in Hong Kong remained unclear Friday, and there was no indication that he had retained legal counsel.
He told the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, this week that among the targets of NSA hacking in the territory was Chinese University of Hong Kong, home to the Hong Kong Internet Exchange, a network backbone through which Web traffic in the city passes.
Several legal specialists said they believed Snowden’s continuing disclosures to the media could complicate his case.
Professor Simon N.M. Young, director of the Center for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, said that if Snowden disclosed hacking that was based on information provided in confidence by China or Hong Kong to the U.S. government, he could be in violation of Hong Kong’s Official Secrets Ordinance.
Nevertheless, even if Snowden is detained by Hong Kong police, he will not be obligated to speak with Chinese intelligence authorities, Young said.
“We have a very strong protection to the right to silence in Hong Kong,” Young said. “If there are visitors at the jail, he can just say no.”
Zweig said Snowden would have at least two reasons — one practical, one moral — not to talk to the Chinese: First, it could complicate his case if he was extradited to the U.S., and second, he would be discussing matters with a government that “are not such great guys on this issue.”
“They spy on their people, and not just to get terrorists ... (but) just for straight repression,” he said.
Snowden has told local media that he intends to stay in Hong Kong and fight the U.S. in court. His options are unclear. The British government has warned airlines around the world not to let Snowden fly to Britian, the Associated Press reported Friday.
The longer Snowden remains in limbo in Hong Kong, though, the louder calls may grow for officials there and in Beijing to take a more active stance on the case.
The Global Times, a Communist Party-affiliated newspaper, noted in an editorial Friday that “Snowden is a ‘card’ that China never expected” to be dealt and that China is “neither adept at nor used to playing it.”
But the publication urged Beijing authorities not only to “explicitly demand a reasonable explanation from the U.S. government” about the alleged hacking but also to “acquire more solid information from Snowden if he has it, and use it as evidence to negotiate with the U.S.”
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Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council said it would meet next week to look into issues raised by Snowden’s disclosures. Lawmakers plan to ask officials how they plan to react to any requests from the U.S. regarding Snowden.
One member of the council, Claudia Mo Man-ching, publicly took Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to task over his reluctance to comment on the Snowden case, telling the South China Morning Post he has “no guts and no backbone” and suggesting he is merely waiting for orders from Beijing on how to handle Snowden.
A coalition of democratic and human rights groups planned to march Saturday on the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. The rally is not only a show of support for Snowden, organizers said, but also a protest against U.S. surveillance activities and a critique of what they see as the chief executive’s failure to forcefully assert the primacy of Hong Kong’s legal system in handling the case.
(Staff writer Barbara Demick and Tommy Yang of The Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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