Hong Kong May Save Snowden Yet

Hong Kong May Save Snowden Yet
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Hong Kong has taken Edward Snowden to its heart. That could complicate American efforts to formally extradite him back to the U.S. to face espionage or other charges. Anything that smacks of treason or carries severe penalties will play badly in the territory and stiffen its resolve to protect him.

Last week, a couple hundred people representing various civil liberties groups demonstrated outside of the American Consulate bearing signs such as "Defend Free Speech" and uphold "Hong Kong Law." A recent poll taken by the South China Morning Post reported that 50 percent of the respondents do not want to see Snowden sent back to the U.S.

Snowden told one of his interviewers that his intention is "to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide" his fate. That initially seemed touchingly naïve, but on reflection is beginning to look pretty shrewd. It is not known if this was serendipitous or calculated; either way, public opinion in the territory seems to be solidifying behind him.

Hong Kong has its own legal system separate from China. There are no provisions in its code for the kind of charges that Snowden is likely to face. The reason goes back to a seminal event in Hong Kong's post-handover history. On July 1, 2003, some 500,000 people, out of a population of only seven million, turned out to protest implementation of laws they thought would undermine civil liberties. It was the largest anti-government popular demonstration in Hong Kong since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

At issue was legislation to enable implementation of a provision in Hong Kong's post-1907 charter which requires Hong Kong's government to "enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, subversion against the Central People's Government or the theft of state secrets ..."

That massive public show of resistance turned even normally "pro-Beijing" legislators from the business community against the proposed new law. Faced with imminent and embarrassing defeat, the government quietly shelved the law. It has never been revived.

How does this relate to Snowden?

Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the United States, but any attempt to extradite Snowden would have to cite offensives that violate the laws of both countries. Money laundering, yes; insider trading, sure; corruption, no doubt.

But espionage? In a territory with no armed forces and no independent foreign policy? Had that demonstration not taken place nearly ten years ago, laws prohibiting "the theft of state secrets" would now be in force, and Snowden's goose may have been cooked.

Hong Kong does have an Official Secrets Ordinance, enacted in June 1997, just a couple days before the handover. Some provisions might be pertinent to Snowden, but it could also be argued that it is aimed at preventing exposing details of specific on-going criminal investigations rather than the general architecture of surveillance.

Snowden supporters have more than mere abstract concerns. Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, complains that China snoops on Hong Kong communications in an even more intrusive way and shares any embarrassing or damaging information they find about Hong Kong's Democrats with pro-Beijing publications.

It may be that the relatively small turnout Saturday will be all of the effective moral support Snowden gets. However, the July 1 anniversary is fast approaching, and it is certainly conceivable that it could turn into a massive anti-government and anti-Beijing rally with "freedom of speech" thrown in for good measure.

Ever since 2003, July 1, a date that is supposed to commemorate the glorious return of Hong Kong to China after 140 years of colonial oppression, has turned into a day to protest against the government and Beijing (the fact that it is a holiday and the weather is usually good doesn't hurt).

Last year's demonstration was the largest since the epic 2003 march. The annual vigil to commemorate the dead in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown has also been growing instead of receding into memory, even though it is now almost a quarter century after the event.

All of the elements that made 2003's demonstration so huge are at play this year: a hugely unpopular local chief executive (chosen last year by a stacked college of 1,200 electors), plus growing irritation with Beijing, widening income inequality and other grievances. We can now throw the Snowden affair into this volatile mix.

After all, what better way to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2003 demonstration for free speech than to hold another massive protest for free speech? One can almost envision Snowden as the grand marshal of the parade.

It is, of course, possible that Beijing will take the Snowden affair out of Hong Kong's hands and declare it is matter for the central government, which by treaty has the right to handle the territory's foreign affairs under the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

Yet Snowden presents Beijing's leaders with a problem they would probably prefer to do without -- to be sure, the Chinese media will have fun exposing America's "hypocrisy" in criticizing China's own surveillance programs, but it's a confrontation with Washington that Beijing would likely prefer to avoid at this time.

But if Sino-U.S. relations are testy at the moment, so too are Beijing's relations with Hong Kong. If Beijing decides to dig down into Hong Kong to extract and then return Snowden to U.S. authorities -- overriding Hong Kong law and flying in the face of growing local sympathy -- it may find its actions spark even more unrest, and not just on July 1.

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