Are Hong Kong’s Edward Snowden chickens finally coming home to roost?
As China and the US square up on almost every front in the fight to shape a new global order, Niall Fraser argues that the day Hong Kong turned David to Washington’s Goliath has never been forgotten
Despite not realising it at the time – it was more than 30 years ago – the most important piece of professional advice I ever received came from a giant of a man in every sense of the word, my first mentor, Donald MacDonald.
Donald, who was a physically imposing and impossibly likeable American of Scottish descent who earned his journalistic stripes covering the violent turmoil of the civil rights movement in the United States’ Deep South almost 70 years ago, told me: “Never, ever, be afraid to ask a stupid question.”
His golden tip, which requires vast reserves of low self-esteem and hellish moments of deep embarrassment and ridicule, has been proved correct countless times, and Hong Kong’s recent involvement in the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage got me thinking about its value again.
Not too long ago, I asked a hard-boiled operative of international law enforcement not unaccustomed to the murky world of spooks and stooges one of my many stupid questions. I inquired if perhaps he had forgotten about a criminal target of considerable vintage he had yet to apprehend.
“We never forget, and don’t you ever forget it,” he barked, spraying my face with spit before draining his drink and leaving the bar. As I wiped the saliva and embarrassment off my face in the bathroom, the Donald MacDonald effect got me thinking.
As newly incumbent justice secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah suffers a reputational meltdown of Chernobyl proportions, are we witnessing the coming home to roost of chickens her predecessor Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung sent flapping all the way to Washington almost three years ago?
In June 2013, after consulting Beijing as he is constitutionally required to do, Yuen did something you don’t see every day. To cut a long story short, he put the brakes on an urgent US Department of Justice request to arrest NSA whistle-blower-in-chief, Edward Snowden, who was hiding out in the SAR at the time.
The you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up justification Yuen gave was that the feds got Snowden’s middle name wrong in documents they submitted seeking his arrest.
Given the heat surrounding Snowden at the time, Yuen might as well have given the middle finger to Uncle Sam.
Within days, and before the paperwork was up to Yuen’s exacting standards – the man the US government wanted to silence with every fibre optic of its being, was on a plane outta here to sanctuary in Moscow. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the immediate aftermath of this momentous snub, the diplomatic doublespeak gene kicked in and officials on both sides made all the right kiss-and-make up noises.
But a quick look at what has happened on the ground in the years since suggests the role of both special administrative regions – Hong Kong and Macau – as centres of intrigue and espionage is only just beginning.
In September of 2015, barely three months after Snowden exited Hong Kong, on the same day President Xi Jinping landed in the US for a landmark state visit, US federal agents swooped to arrest Ng Lap Seng, the billionaire Macau businessman with strong connections to both the Bill Clinton White House and Beijing, charging him with bribery at the highest levels of the United Nations of which he has subsequently been convicted, but tellingly, not yet sent to jail for.
Almost exactly a year later, when Barack Obama made a return visit to the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, the US president had to depart Air Force One by a side door – without a red-carpet welcome – in an unprecedented incident which both sides played down but everyone knew was a snub.
Fast forward a couple of years, Patrick Ho Chi-ping, Hong Kong’s former home affairs secretary, was arrested and is facing trial in the US on charges – which he denies – that he bribed African officials on behalf of a major mainland company. Sound familiar? The case against Ho comes from the same wider probe into Ng and UN corruption.
Last but not least, this month, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA agent who was employed as security at Christie’s auction house in Hong Kong for a number of years, was arrested by the FBI in New York on suspicion of being linked to leaks which led to the collapse – and in some cases the killing – of Washington’s network of intelligence agents in China.
A string of coincidences or part of a wider connected picture? We will probably never know. But you can be sure, the great game is only going to get greater for the foreseeable future.