A day after whistleblower Edward Snowden was reported to have left Hong Kong for a third country via Moscow, attention turned to Beijing’s role in facilitating his departure despite an American request for his extradition.
While officials in Beijing only said they “respected” the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government’s decision to allow the whistleblower to leave, several Hong Kong lawmakers on Monday were of the view that the central government had taken the final call on the matter.
While Hong Kong has its own Constitution — known as the Basic Law — and an independent judiciary, it has deferred to Beijing on foreign policy matters since it came under Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” model.
Asked if Beijing had played a role in deciding Mr. Snowden’s fate, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointed to that model, saying the Central government had “respected” Hong Kong’s “handling of the issue in accordance with the law”.
Diplomats here said the Central government would have certainly made its preferred outcome known to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying quietly, mindful of prevalent sensitivities in Hong Kong over interference by Beijing.
It was made known to Mr. Snowden by an intermediary that Hong Kong authorities would not stand in the way of his departure. Mr. Snowden’s lawyer in Hong Kong said the former CIA employee was even accompanied by security officers when he arrived in Hong Kong airport, though he proceeded through normal immigration and security channels.
The Hong Kong government justified its decision saying the U.S. had not presented sufficient documentation to provide a legal basis for arresting Mr. Snowden.
Asking the U.S. for more information bought the SAR government some time to find a way out of an increasingly tricky diplomatic situation. A prolonged stay by Mr. Snowden would have been unappealing to both Hong Kong and the Chinese government, as it would have strained ties with Washington at a time when the new Chinese leadership has spoken frequently of crafting “a new type” of relations between the world’s two biggest powers.
The Communist Party-run Global Times, a tabloid known for its strong nationalist views, said in an editorial on Monday that Mr. Snowden’s departure would “prevent the Sino-U.S. relationship from being affected.”
At the same time, the newspaper suggested that allowing the U.S. to extradite Mr. Snowden would not have been an option for Beijing, considering the opinion of the Chinese public which has closely followed Mr. Snowden’s revelations of hacking attacks directed at Chinese mobile phone companies and universities.
“Against the current backdrop,” the Global Times said, “the pressure of public opinion will be unbearable for any government should it extradite this whistle-blower to the U.S.”