Edward Snowden

Snowden conjures up the ghosts of our long-lost spooks

Hong Kong has not had a spy agency since Britain closed its Special Branch in 1995 and whisked secrets back to London before the handover

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 4:50am

The Snowden storm has revived memories of a mysterious agency in British-ruled Hong Kong: the Special Branch, or "SB", which operated within the Royal Hong Kong Police Force.

The whistle-blower's fate was literally up in the air yesterday after he boarded a commercial flight to Moscow en route to a third country, just hours after the US government charged him with espionage.

As he left Hong Kong, one of the big questions left unanswered was: did the Hong Kong government ever get in touch with him directly?

When pressed for details on the case last Friday, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gave a vague response that more would be revealed "at an appropriate time".

It elicited some jokes about the government not managing to find out where the American is holed up under its own nose, and about Snowden choosing to hide here as we no longer have any of our own secret agents.

SB, also known by locals as "political branch", seems like a word from ancient times here in 2013, 16 years after the handover and 18 years after it was disbanded. Its duties concerned intelligence gathering and security in Hong Kong during colonial times. But in 1995 the intelligence-gathering role was eliminated and all records were transferred back to London. That was understandable as Britain had no desire to leave sensitive documents around for Beijing. The security role ended up merged into the police VIP protection unit. The winding up of SB was without doubt a political decision by London. Beijing complained to the British about scrapping the section and taking away confidential files.

However, since then, Hong Kong has become a city without a specific government agency with the power to carry out secret surveillance on civilians in the name of security - the exception being investigations concerning suspects involved in very serious crimes, where a court permit must be obtained.

Our lack of a spy network provides a new perspective from which to view the handling of the Snowden case.

His decision to leave has certainly meant Leung has got rid of a political dilemma.

Some had suggested the United States' handling of the Wang Lijun case had set a precedent for the Snowden affair. The former top aide to the disgraced former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai fled to the US consulate in Chengdu . The US did not grant him asylum, instead Wang left the premises "of his own will" the next day.

In Wang's case, the city of Chengdu played no role in the affair - Beijing and the White House called the shots. Wang was later taken away from Chengdu to the capital for further investigation by China's State Security Ministry.

Under the One Country, Two Systems policy, any possible secret China-US deal on Hong Kong territory could have undermined the legal and judicial independence of the city, a consequence neither Beijing nor Hong Kong could afford to take.

Reliable sources familiar with the case earlier told the Post that under no circumstances could the US "bully" Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong would carry out its duties in accordance with law and international protocol.

A senior Beijing official who declined to be named also said that in a case of a purely criminal nature, the rendition agreement between Hong Kong and the US works. But because Snowden's case involved diplomacy and politics, as well as the One Country, Two Systems arrangement, it was not a simple matter of Beijing telling Hong Kong what to do.

Sticking to the rule of law would have therefore been the only sensible solution. Hong Kong is all right without the SB, but not without the rule of law.

It will be very interesting to discover the reasons behind Snowden's departure. He entered Hong Kong legally as a tourist and appears to have left the same way, despite being viewed as a fugitive in Washington's eyes.

Where Snowden goes next and what legal quandaries he faces will also shape reactions to how Hong Kong handled the whistle-blower's presence.