Edward Snowden

Hong Kong-US relations may suffer from Snowden saga

The city and the nation have walked away from the Snowden cybersnooping episode relatively unscathed, but Washington will not be happy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2013, 7:52am

Two of the most tumultuous weeks in Hong Kong's recent political history drew to a close last night when US whistle-blower Edward Snowden's plane from Chek Lap Kok airport touched down in Moscow.

But the ramifications of the city's brief yet hugely public flirtation with the realities of super-power espionage will be deep and long lasting.

The burning question - an answer to which will only come in time - is, was it United States blundering or Hong Kong legal smarts that allowed the city and the nation to walk away from all this relatively unscathed?

Clearly, Beijing wanted to keep the situation at arm's length. But as everyone knows, there tends to be a hand at the end of most arms.

Snowden's departure - two days after he celebrated his 30th birthday in hiding here - gets Hong Kong and Beijing out of a sticky situation. Crucially, it looks to have placated Hong Kong and mainland public opinion.

The downside - and again only time will tell if it was a price worth paying - is that relations between the US and Hong Kong will suffer.

Overnight on Saturday, Washington's message was clear - give us our man or else. After years of close co-operation between the two jurisdictions, these were harsh sentiments.

What came next was equally surprising. Two hours after Snowden boarded Aeroflot flight 213, the Hong Kong government issued a statement telling - yes, telling - the United States that they had not met the requirements necessary under Hong Kong law for the city's police to detain Snowden.

Then there was the kicker. "Meanwhile", the statement went on to say, the city would be seeking US clarification of Snowden's claims that Washington has been hacking the computers of Hong Kong people and institutions as part of a global cyberspying operation. The message from the Hong Kong government was clear; we run this place according to our laws and we won't be pushed around.

Professor Simon Young Ngai-man, director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, was clearly taken aback by events.

"It's a shocker. I thought he was going to stay and fight it out. The US government will be irate with their Hong Kong counterparts and may even question whether Hong Kong was acting in good faith pursuant to their treaty obligations. I have no doubt that they were and it is quite common for government lawyers to seek more information on surrender or mutual legal assistance requests before the local process can begin. But I'm surprised here."

Jin Canrong , the mainland's leading foreign relations scholar and associate dean of Renmin University's School of International Relations, said Snowden's departure was ideal for Beijing.

"A time bomb that could threaten the Sino-US relationship has been defused, even though the saga will go on and Snowden can still make more revelations. The strategy Beijing has been using in dealing with the case was to let Hong Kong handle it independently and keep a distance from it. I believe Beijing would not proactively take advantage of the intelligence Snowden revealed, because that would provoke Washington and rub salt into its wounds.

"The broader picture of the bilateral relationship is the context where Beijing acts, and it [Beijing] would like more co-operation and less unnecessary confrontation," Jin said. "Actually Beijing made some gains from the Snowden saga, because his revelations provided Beijing some bargaining chips for future negotiations with Washington in cybersecurity; Washington has lost the moral high ground on this front."

Shi Yinhong , professor of international relations at Renmin University, said the outcome was wonderful for China.

It's the best outcome for both Beijing and Hong Kong. As for the US, it's not the best, but not the worst either.