Beijing will look into the Edward Snowden case to determine whether he is an asset or liability to China's national security, mainland observers say.
But it will be handled in a low-profile manner to avoid upsetting the Sino-US relationship and being seen as meddling in Hong Kong affairs.
Snowden's revelation, that the US government had been hacking into Hong Kong and mainland networks for years, had put Beijing in an awkward position, observers said. On the one hand, it hoped to extract intelligence from Snowden, but making high-profile comments was deemed inappropriate because Washington had not made any formal request to Hong Kong for Snowden's extradition.
China state television CCTV reported on the Snowden case for the first time last night, saying the whistle-blower "risked his own life to expose the US hypocrisy".
China Daily noted the irony that the US' surveillance programme was exposed just as it began ramping up pressure on Beijing, saying the exposure "is certain to stain Washington's overseas image and test developing Sino-US ties".
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying reiterated yesterday that China was one of the biggest victims of hacking attacks, but gave no details about Snowden.
"I have no information to give you on this [extradition] at present," Hua said.
A senior researcher at a central government think tank, who specialises in Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said Beijing could only justify intervening in the matter on diplomatic grounds if the US put pressure on it to secure Snowden's extradition.
The researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Beijing could not deliver official instructions to Hong Kong as this would be deemed inappropriate under the "one country, two systems" principle.
But the researcher said Beijing and Washington could hold secret discussions on the case, and both sides would want to maintain a calm atmosphere at the moment. Washington would be concerned if Snowden appealed to a Hong Kong court to overturn an extradition order because more explosive details could emerge at any court hearing.
Professor Wang Fan , of Beijing Foreign Affairs University, said Beijing would prefer to communicate with Washington via diplomatic channels to verify Snowden's claims, but would not want to damage positive sentiment for bilateral ties in the wake of President Xi Jinping's two day summit with Barack Obama last weekend. But other observers said Beijing would want to examine the intelligence obtained by Snowden, and it was possible to get that done through a meeting between the Hong Kong authorities and Snowden.
"The most effective way is through Hong Kong because this will avoid Beijing being seen as directly meddling in the affair, which would upset the US," said Professor He Qisong , a defence policy analyst at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Beijing would prefer to extract as much information from Snowden as it could, as early as possible, and then leave the matter to be settled through Hong Kong's judicial system, He said. Peking University international relations professor Jia Qingguo said Beijing would prefer that Snowden stay in Hong Kong for the time being, so that it could verify his intelligence and determine whether it posed a threat to China's national security.
Beijing could overturn a decision to extradite a person to the US if the case was related to the nation's diplomacy and national security.
"The matter seems related to national security, but Sino-US relations are also important for Beijing," Jia said.
Shi Yinhong , a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said Snowden's revelations had given Beijing the upper hand in cyber security negotiations with Washington, especially during the Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue next month.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou