When Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong, the 29-year-old former CIA analyst responsible for the biggest leak of American secrets since the WikiLeaks diplomatic cable dump, leveled a challenge for the government and its people.
“My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate,” Snowden told the South China Morning Post. “I have been given no reason to doubt your system.”
At 3pm Saturday, as Snowden likely continues to hide out an undisclosed location somewhere in Hong Kong, at least 600 people will march on the U.S. consulate and local government buildings to prove him right.
“I’m sure he won’t be able to miss it on the news” Tom Grundy one of the events’ organizers told the Daily Dot. “I hope we live up to his expectations and the optimism he had for Hong Kong, That at least with the Hong Kong people we are standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity.
“He can take some solace in that at least”
Grundy and other organizers worked at a feverish pace to organize the rally. On Saturday, the Guardian newspaper revealed Snowden as the source for the leaks, which detailed a secret National Security Agency program allowing it to snoop on private data collected on foreign nationals by nine popular U.S. websites. By Wednesday, Grundy’s Support Snowden group had already garnered the support of 20 local Hong Kong organizations, from the China Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Christian Institute, and lined up five high-pofile speakers, including Albert Ho, former leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.
Beyond showing support for Snowden, the group hopes to pressure the state. “We have to say something to the Hong Kong government,” Grundy said. “It’s to make a point to the local government that they should act in accordance to the rule of law in Hong Kong, not make this guy suddenly disappear.”
But Snowden’s decision actually puts the Hong Kong government in an awkward position, one it has never quite faced before. He’s agitating the already taught relationships between both China and Hong Kong (the so-called “one country two systems”) and China and the United States.
Indeed, in a New York Times op-ed published Tuesday, one of the rally’s key speakers threw a wet blanket over Snowden’s optimism.
“Whether it was youthful naïveté or just ignorance, Mr. Snowden’s positive view of Hong Kong no longer matches the reality,” Law Yuk Kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, wrote. Government watchdog group Freedom House, law noted, recently ranked Hong Kong only 71st in the world for press freedom, just one spot below Guyana.
In 2004, as part of a backroom deal with American and British intelligence services, Libyan agents forced dissident Sami al-Saadi to board a plane in Hong Kong and return home. He had been seeking asylum in Hong Kong and claims Libyan authorities tortured him upon his return. He’s suing both the U.K. and Hong Kong governments.
In Snowden’s case, it may be harder to so brazenly eschew the rule of law, thanks to the penetrating attention of international media. And that may benefit him.
To be extradited under Hong Kong’s treaty, the U.S. would need to prove that Snowden’s alleged crimes were also crimes under Hong Kong law. But America’s byzantine national security laws may not have any clear parallels in Hong Kong. And, moreover, if the alleged crimes are considered political—that is, they are “not recognized in other countries save in the United States”—Hong Kong again would have no compelling reason to extradite Snowden, according to city legislative council member Ronny Tong.
On Thursday, Snowden claimed in an interview with the South China Morning Post to own proof of widespread clandestine U.S. hacking attacks against the Chinese government and its people. While Beijing has no direct control over Hong Kong courts, it does cast a very long shadow over most facets of Hong Kong government and society.
Politicians in the mainland are surely salivating over an unprecedented and, for the U.S., embarrassing switch in roles: An American, bearing top-secret documents that reveal extraordinary government overreach, is seeking political asylum in China.
With this move, Snowden, who has acted deliberately every step of the way, may have thrown one more wrench into whatever case the U.S. is building against him.
Illustration by Jason Reed