Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who provided secret NSA documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post, has been doing so while holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong.
Snowden, who worked in IT for Booz Allen Hamilton, a defence contractor based in Hawaii, publicly outed himself as the leaker in Sunday’s Guardian.
After copying the documents he would later leak to the Guardian and the Post, Snowden made his way to Hong Kong, where he has been since May 20.
Snowden explained his decision to go to Hong Kong, telling the Guardian that
“they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” and “Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People’s Republic of China.”
Unsurprisingly, there are already many on the internet who speculate that Snowden may be planning to seek asylum in mainland China in a Cold War-esque move.
In a video interview filmed days before Snowden’s identity was made public, Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who wrote many of the stories based on Snowden’s leaks, asked him how he will respond to the speculations that he is planning on defecting to China.
Snowden responded by denying that China is an enemy of the US, pointing out that China and the US are each other’s biggest trading partners. Snowden also pointed out that if his goal had been to harm the United States or make money, he could have sold secrets to Russia or other enemies of the US.
Snowden says that he hopes to seek asylum in a country that respects internet freedom, such as Iceland.
In his time in Hong Kong, Snowden has mainly stayed hidden in his hotel room, where he takes added precautions to protect himself, such as placing a large hood over himself and his laptop when he types his passwords, in case he is being watched by cameras. And, according to a tweet by James Ball, a Guardian journalist who has also worked on this story, Snowden has left his hotel room only three times since he’s been in Hong Kong, and has left a bottle of soy sauce behind the door each time, as spilled soy sauce is difficult to clean up.
Snowden’s choice of Hong Kong is being questioned by some, and not just those who fear he is a Chinese double-agent or planning on defecting to China.
Hong Kong does have an extradition treaty with the US, though the treaty does grant exceptions in cases of political offences, according to the Guardian. Additionally, the central government of China has veto power over an extradition if it believes that it would harm the “defence, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of China.
Though Snowden is right that Hong Kong is comparatively much freer than mainland China, as we have noted before, in the years since Hong Kong returned to China, its civil liberties and democracy have been eroding slowly. As Amy Davidson in the New Yorker points out, “Skyscrapers and bookstores are good signs, but they can be deceptive.”
Why Snowden would out himself before reaching a genuine safe haven, such as Iceland (or Ecuador), is still a mystery.
Update 09:55 CST: Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has perhaps the best analysis of why Snowden might have chosen Hong Kong:
He says in the article that his highest hope is get asylum in Iceland. I can pretty much guarantee you that that’s not going to happen. A small country that wants to be close friends of the United States is not going to do that. I could see arguments for Russia or Venezuela or perhaps Iran. But of all the places where you might have a shot at not getting extradited, China’s not a bad choice. Hong Kong might even give you the best of both worlds, hosted by repressive government which is a US rival and yet living in a city with Western standards of openness, wealth, etc.
But the decision to go to China inevitably colors his decision and sets up what could be a very uncomfortable diplomatic stand-off. I’ve seen people linking to the current US-Hong Kong extradition treaty. Call me naive but I think this is going to come down to how Beijing wants to play this. If they don’t want a fight over this, Snowden’s toast. If they like the optics of it, I don’t think it matters what that extradition treaty says. China’s a big enough player and the US has enough other fish to fry with the Chinese, that the US is not going to put the bilateral relationship on the line over this guy. And the Chinese might relish granting asylum to an American running from the claws of US ‘state repression’.
[Image credit: The Guardian]