Hong Kong still without answers one year after Edward Snowden saga

HK still awaiting answers on spying claims, but observers say that by standing up to Washington it proved it is not just another Chinese city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 9:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2014, 4:08am

Relations between Hong Kong and the United States took a big hit with the Edward Snowden saga, and while they appear to have warmed since then, the long-term impact is harder to assess.

The ramifications of the city's brief encounter with the realities of superpower espionage had an immediate effect on the city he chose as his first "safe harbour".

Attempts by Washington to have Snowden extradited sparked street demonstrations in support of the former NSA contractor, and the public generally seemed to back the young American's crusade.

We will probably never know if Hong Kong's Justice Department was just being scrupulous or was practising a diplomatic sleight of hand conceived in Beijing when it rejected Washington's request for Snowden's arrest. But we do know the events of a year ago this month allowed the city and the nation to walk away relatively unscathed.

"We know that when Snowden left, Hong Kong-US relations were probably at an all-time low," said Simon Young, barrister and law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"There are no obvious signs that relations have been restored or warmed much in the past year, especially with Chinese-backed criticisms of US intervention in Hong Kong's political reform process."

The US knows [we] will not necessarily bend over backwards to assist

A few days after Snowden broke cover in Hong Kong via a 12-minute video on The Guardian website on June 10, justice officials in the US asked Hong Kong to detain him.

But when the US failed to get their man, a war of words broke out between Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung and the US Attorney General Eric Holder, prompting Yuen to release details of the events leading up to Snowden's departure.

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 15, Washington issued a request for the provisional arrest of Snowden.

Two days later, Hong Kong justice officials responded by e-mail that they were preparing a list of questions to clarify the request.

A few days later, Holder called Yuen and told him of the urgency of the request.

By the Friday, Hong Kong was still seeking clarification about Snowden's middle name. The US was asking for the arrest of "Edward J Snowden" and "Edward James Snowden", but Snowden's middle name is Joseph.

The perhaps pernickety request was enough for Snowden to walk into Chek Lap Kok airport two days later and board a Moscow-bound flight.

According to lawyer and columnist Glenn Greenwald, who spearheaded the publication of the national security leaks, Hong Kong was the "perfect backdrop" for the revelations.

"I remember early on, a week after we identified him, The New York Times and The Washington Post tried to mock the choice on the grounds that Hong Kong is subservient to the US and would easily turn him over the minute the US asked," Greenwald said.

The Brazil-based Greenwald was referring to comments at the time by former security chief and pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee that Hong Kong would not protect Snowden. On June 10 - three weeks after Snowden arrived in the city - she told The New York Times: "He won't find Hong Kong a safe harbour."

"She became the kind of go-to source for these newspapers to say if Edward Snowden thinks we're going to protect him, he made a terrible mistake," Greenwald said. "As it turns out, he made the right choice because the Hong Kong government did let him go and defied the US demands that he be turned over."

It should have shown the world that Hong Kong is not just an ordinary Chinese city

Ip later moved to a more neutral position by saying there would be "no lack of human rights lawyers who are happy to help him''.

Yesterday a spokesman for the US State Department said: "Our significant disappointment over Hong Kong authorities' failure to respond positively to our extradition request a year ago is well known.''

But the spokesman said the US valued its relationship with the city: "Hong Kong's open society, rule of law, press freedoms and free market are based on principles that Americans and Hong Kongers share."

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Department of Justice this week said the Snowden case was handled "strictly in accordance with the laws of the Hong Kong SAR and the relevant agreement concerning surrender of fugitives with the US government".

"From our perspective, we maintain a normal working relationship with the relevant US authorities on matters relating to mutual assistance in criminal matters," the spokesman said.

Law professor Young said that cooperation on criminal matters "have probably continued and will continue very much as business as usual".

"It is only in politically sensitive cases that the US now knows Hong Kong and China will not necessarily bend over backwards to assist, especially if it may mean deviating from standard legal procedures," he said.

"Sadly, the same will probably be the case if Hong Kong or China seeks urgent criminal law assistance from the US, unless mutual political interests are perfectly aligned."

A few days after Snowden revealed to the South China Morning Post that the US had been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland, hundreds of protestors took to the streets, waving placards and shouting: "Save Snowden, Save Freedom."

While public opinion in Hong Kong appeared to be supportive of Snowden, Young said the leaker's decision to leave Hong Kong was a smart move given the long and drawn out process he may have endured as an asylum seeker in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong can still be proud of being a strong rule of law society but in the end it was not a rule of law environment that Snowden needed; what he needed was a politically friendly environment," Young said.

"Russia on the other hand saw political advantage in granting him temporary asylum so he wouldn't have to worry about a protracted and uncertain legal process."

Snowden's revelations also heightened concerns about cybersecurity in the city and last July, while Snowden remained trapped in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, staff at Hong Kong University detected a massive cyber attack on their internal systems, with data such as personal student records and grades potentially compromised.

More than 3,600 university e-mail accounts and 259 administrative accounts were hacked.

The Snowden leaks also led to a rare moment of unison among the city's lawmakers, who joined together to voice their anger at Washington over Snowden's hacking claims.

Last July, Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing sent a strongly worded letter to US President Barack Obama.

"People in Hong Kong are appalled by the alleged surveillance of and intrusion into Hong Kong's communications networks by the US administration," he wrote on behalf of all lawmakers.

At the same time, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said the government was disappointed Washington had not replied to Snowden's claims.

He continued to urge the US to give a "complete and thorough reply".

Then-US consul-general Stephen Young said the US did not owe any country an apology and that many of Snowden's allegations seemed to be self-serving and sympathy-seeking.

This week, the government confirmed it had still not received any response to those letters.

Simon Shen, co-director of the International Affairs Research Centre with the Hong Kong Institute of Asia Pacific Studies, said the saga had put the spotlight on Hong Kong's place in global relations in a way not seen since the 1997 handover.

"It should have shown to the world that Hong Kong is not just an ordinary Chinese city," Shen said, adding that it showed the city was still an important player on international matters.

Hero or traitor? What Hongkongers think of Edward Snowden

Jocelyn Ho, 32, primary school teacher

"I think that actually every citizen needs to know their privacy has been violated and to what extent. I think these are things that citizens need to know - then they can express their own opinions."

Rickey (identified only by first name), 45, lifeguard

"To take the facts, the truth, and shout them out loud is a pretty good thing. He needed to inform the public, to let people know that this is going on. He needed to expose his country's methods - to let everyone know that his country is actually like this."

Vivian Law, 25, unemployed

"He is a traitor to his own country. I think that actually, from the perspective of other countries, what he did was beneficial. He revealed some secrets that no one knew about. But from the perspective of his own country, he has betrayed himself. He should not have done that."

Simon Watts, 33, teacher

"I don't think about him enough to judge whether he is a hero or a traitor. Maybe [he came to Hong Kong] because there's not as much of a pro-American stance here as there is in other places."

Sino Leung, 34, dental technician

"Kind of a traitor thing, I think. I have no comment on what he did, because it's about his country, not about ours. Just like my family, if my family had done a bad thing, I wouldn't want everyone to know. I think we should have protected him, because he's human."

Louis Ko, 64, business director

"I think a lot of people in Asia are very interested in Snowden. I understand American culture and I believe Snowden is a real American - patriotic and also there to say something when there is injustice. It would be more interesting if [Snowden's trial] was under an international court, with judges of different nationalities. Because it's a story that affects everyone, using the internet, using websites, using phones."

Cecilia Hernandez, 41, housewife

"I don't want to say he's a bad person. But it's very complicated, because you have to know the situation. I think he made a mistake. If you trust in someone that's [doing] a specific job, you have to show your face. I didn't understand why he chose Hong Kong. That is very strange. Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan city. Maybe it's much easier to hide, maybe he has friends here. It's very easy to hide in Latin America; behind a tree, even."

Anson Chow, 16, student

"[We haven't been keeping up with his story] because it's not related to us. Spying on other countries has actually lasted for a long time. It's pretty normal; Edward Snowden just raised awareness on the issue."

May Cheung, 35, beautician

"These are things that no one would normally be able to reveal, and have the guts to reveal. He knew that the consequences may not be good, but he still chose to reveal what his country did, which I think is quite incredible. He is being protected by other countries. I think if he came here again, Hong Kong should too."

Alvin Hui, 41, IT engineer

"He is a traitor to the US but a hero for the world. He's given us more transparency. We suspect that there's always someone watching our every single move - he's telling us that basically it's been like this for a long time."

Denise Tsoi, 17, student

"I think he's a traitor because no matter what the nation does, we should always be on the side of our nation. For me it's good [what he did], because I'll know more about the bad things the US is doing. The United States shouldn't be always judging other countries."

Kazaf Ip Man Chun, 18, student

"I think he can be counted as a hero, because he helped reveal negative things about his own country and reminded the American people that this is happening. We should protect him - by coming to Hong Kong, he was able to tell us what the American government is doing, let us have a different opinion of America."


Jessie Lau and Michelle Toh