Snowden Is Too Hot for China to Handle

It goes without saying that China’s government welcomes the information that Edward Snowden has provided on the National Security Agency and its snooping infrastructure. But does China actually want Snowden to stay in Hong Kong indefinitely?

The answer isn’t yet clear, but as Hong Kong’s sizable community of human-rights activists begin to rally around Snowden’s cause, one can imagine the government in Beijing is regretting that the whistle-blower showed up at all.

Of the many mysteries surrounding Snowden is why he decided to flee to Chinese territory. One of his stated reasons -- that Hong Kong has “a spirited commitment to free speech” -- is undeniably true. Yet when it comes to the subject most dear to Snowden’s heart, an encroaching surveillance state, Hong Kong falls short of the U.S. This is in large part due to a 2006 digital surveillance law approved by a legislative committee dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Snowden’s view of Hong Kong often seems ill-informed about China’s encroaching influence on the city, as when he told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in an article published today, “I have had many opportunities to flee HK, but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”

Even some Hong Kong rights activists seem bewildered by this viewpoint. Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor Director Law Yuk-kai told the South China Morning Post that, “Snowden’s positive view of Hong Kong no longer matches the reality.” This is the sort of thing a former NSA contractor should know in passing, if not in detail.

So far, the Chinese government and the leading Communist Party newspapers that speak for it have been silent on the Snowden case. In part, the reticence can be blamed on a three-day national holiday that began Monday. Yet there are hints via pro-Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong that a strong preference exists for him to leave before his seemingly inevitable court case becomes a cause in the city. On Monday, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Hong Kong’s former chief security officer and a well-known Beijing loyalist, told Hong Kong’s Daily Standard that it was in Snowden’s “best interest to leave Hong Kong.”

What’s becoming clear is that it’s in China’s best interest that Snowden leave Hong Kong -- and soon. No doubt, on Monday there was no small amount of gloating in Beijing at the thought of a former U.S. intelligence analyst contemplating asylum on Chinese territory. But that satisfaction likely gave way to a wary recognition that Snowden is an advocate for digital privacy and against the surveillance state. Whatever benefit he might serve as an intelligence asset, or as a source of national prestige, is outweighed by the prospect of the world’s most famous whistle-blower living out his days in Hong Kong with nothing better to do than turn his attention to the surveillance state across the border.

For now, it’s Hong Kong’s activists who are turning their attention to Snowden. On Saturday, 17 Hong Kong NGOs (and counting) will gather to rally in favor of Snowden, free speech and the defense of Hong Kong law. Obviously, without Snowden there would be no rally at all -- a fact that’s likely not lost on Hong Kong’s Chinese overseers. In coming days, they may not push publicly to get him out of Hong Kong. But odds are they won’t stand in the way of his car if it sets out for the airport.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

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