Edward Snowden

China missed chance for asylum payback by spurning Edward Snowden

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 4:44am

Nothing tells a story better than numbers. So here's one: 9,541. For all the pussyfooting by China over one Edward Snowden, this many Chinese nationals were granted political asylum in the United States last year.

According to the Asylum Trends 2012 report, the US was the world's biggest provider and the Chinese were among the top five seekers of asylum - right up there with the Afghans, Syrians, Serbians and the Pakistanis. At some point China will have to ponder the incongruity of its rising global status and the number of asylum seekers it sends and receives (zero, it doesn't entertain any) and how this mismatch reflects on the country's image.

Not very well, obviously, but that's partly the idea. Throughout the cold war, granting asylum was an important tool for scoring ideological points, and it still is. There is, after all, no argument more cogent against a competing political belief system or a geopolitical rival than its own people trying to flee it.

In The Ethics and Politics of Asylum, Matthew J. Gibney outlines how the US used the policy of mass refugee admission for Hungarians and Cubans as reward for fighting communism. "The departure of the refugees offered strong evidence of the brutal implications of communist regimes whether they came to power in Europe or the Caribbean. How could any but the most barbarous regimes create such an exodus?" writes Gibney.

The hordes of Chinese asylum seekers today reinforce a similar perception of a brutal regime even though many of them are primarily economic migrants. It's easy to see why many in China would have a legitimate fear of state persecution but difficult to imagine that their numbers would be greater than Iraqis, Afghans or Somalis in need of protection. There's a clear bias in granting asylum to the Chinese, and not all of it is driven by humanitarian considerations.

Back to numbers. The 9,541 Chinese who were granted political asylum in the US last year were picked out of 25,396 applications from Chinese nationals, a 38 per cent success rate. In contrast, only 418 Mexicans from next door were given asylum though they formed the second-biggest bloc of applicants, at 15,284 - a 3 per cent success rate.

Beijing must have had its own reasons to turn its back on Snowden but given the blow its legitimacy is routinely dealt by the welcome accorded to Chinese asylum seekers, it could surely have mustered a more forthright response rather than hide behind technicalities.