Posted: July 19, 2013
It didn’t work out quite the way anyone anticipated but since no one here had ever heard of Edward Snowden until June 9 and he was gone before the month was out, expectations were not very far advanced by the time he left. Still, relief and disappointment were the chief reactions once word spread of his surprise departure around 11:00 a.m., on Sunday morning, June 23. By then, news reports were circulating that his passport had been revoked and Washington had asked the Hong Kong government to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant. But it was not his supporters here who were relieved that he got away before the net closed down around him. The people who had worked hardest on his behalf while he was here … pro-democracy advocates, politicians, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists … were shocked and disappointed to see him disappear so suddenly.
Meanwhile, those heaving sighs of relief didn’t celebrate in public and who they were is still not entirely clear. But they can be deduced by calculating who stood to benefit most from Snowden’s sudden departure, namely, the managers of U.S.-China relations in Washington and Beijing, and their on-the-spot Hong Kong government facilitators. In fact, if the truth can ever be known and despite protestations to the contrary, the Obama Administration in Washington seems to have played its part as well in finessing Snowden’s smooth exit from Hong Kong that Sunday morning.
ONE OF THEIR OWN … ?
For Hong Kong’s struggling democracy movement, the ex-United States National Security Agency contractor had seemed a stroke of much-needed good luck. Snowden arrived here as an ordinary unknown tourist on May 20. He then proceeded to make himself world-famous by using Hong Kong as a dateline to admit he was the source of recent news reports in London and Washington exposing the vast scope of the U.S. government’s heretofore secret global surveillance programs. He said initially that he chose Hong Kong because he felt the city’s rule of law and spirit of public protest would protect him from the wrath of American justice sure to follow his daring revelations. A few days later, he told the South China Morning Post he intended to make his stand here and “ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate” (June 13).
Local pro-democracy partisans recognized opportunity when they saw it. They hoped Snowden would put his trust in Hong Kong’s courts and thus showcase their endangered independence as a means of creating precedents to protect it. Not since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 had there been so much international interest in events here. Advocates then had hoped/assumed the glare of international publicity on the Sino-British agreements promising Hong Kong autonomy would serve as a safeguard. Those were the days when democracy movement founder Martin Lee made frequent trips to Europe and the U.S. aimed at keeping alive interest in Hong Kong’s fate. He no longer does so. The world soon lost patience with such a small place and its petty political troubles balanced against the weight of China’s growing global interests.
Once satisfied Snowden was who he said he was, advocates and activists were willing to take him at his word … even if he bore a dispiriting message. They live with mainland Chinese censorship of all their attempts at cross-border communication. “Big Brother” surveillance is their enemy. So it was discouraging to learn the American gold standard of free political expression they venerated had been compromised in all the ways Snowden’s documentation revealed.
None the less committed to their cause, people like Albert Ho of the Democratic Party and his firm’s team of human rights lawyers began preparing for Snowden’s defense. A Saturday afternoon protest demonstration at the U.S. consulate was hastily organized, and the Civil Human Rights Front agreed to raise “Protect Snowden” banners at its annual July First march (June 13 post).
Opinion polls suggested the public was also warming to Hong Kong’s unexpected visitor. A Chinese University poll found that 50% of the 500 respondents were against Snowden’s extradition; 17.6% said he should be; 32.4% were undecided (South China Morning Post, June 16). A similar Hong Kong University poll found 54% against extradition. Only 24% thought Snowden’s actions were wrong; 42% thought he was in the right; 34% were either uncertain or undecided (Ming Pao Daily, June 18).
But at that point, those concerned with his case were preparing for the long haul … protracted political struggle Hong Kong-style since they knew what Snowden apparently did not when he was interviewed by the Post on June 12. A bid for asylum or refugee status, pleas against return or extradition, all could take months, even years, as Hong Kong’s ponderous court procedures worked their way through multiple appeals and reviews.
Some also had little faith in the outcome even from the start and used Hong Kong’s brief moment back in the international spotlight to vent their frustration. One such was Law Yuk-kai, activist director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. He called Snowden naive and foolish for coming here. “Whether it was naiveté or just ignorance,” wrote Law in the New York Times, “Mr. Snowden’s positive view of Hong Kong no longer matches the reality.” Maybe he was guided by the “one-country, two-systems” promises Beijing had made before 1997, but that “has become a fading memory.” Law cited reports by Freedom House, Reporters without Borders, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and the United National Human Rights Committee to underscore his point about the erosion of political rights and civil liberties. Concluded Law, Snowden’s case “might at least draw greater international attention to the precarious state of individual freedoms here” (NYT/IHT, June 13).
A CONVENIENT ESCAPE HATCH
Snowden may not have been aware of the legal complexities his case entailed but from his perspective, given the mission he was bent on pursuing, he came to exactly the right place. Actually, he had few other options, as he explained during an online Question and Answer session hosted by The Guardian in London, one of the two newspapers that had published his revelations.
Given the sensitivity of his work, Snowden was not supposed to leave the U.S. without notifying his employer so he had to assume the authorities would be hard on his heels once they discovered he had gone AWOL. But he wanted to be able to continue speaking freely to the press as long as possible. Immediate interdiction would have closed down his channels of communication before his work was done. Hong Kong is a relatively quick non-stop hop from Hawaii, and once here he could count on the “cultural and legal framework” to guarantee him the media access he needed to carry on with his self-assigned crusade against indiscriminate U.S. government surveillance (guardian.co.uk, Monday, 17 June).
It was also later revealed that Sarah Harrison, the British Wikileaks associate of Julian Assange, has two well-connected sisters living and working here (SCMP, June 30). Harrison herself accompanied Snowden on the June 23 flight from Hong Kong to Moscow.
So all things considered including logistics, contacts, and safe-house accommodation, the set-up was perfect for what he came here to do. That local activists hoped he might do something for them as well was not part of his action plan … especially if it meant submitting himself to long years of litigation while his case was being argued before Hong Kong’s courts, which was what his supporters here would have liked to see.
MOVING ON … WHO BENEFITED?
Many details surrounding Snowden’s hasty departure have been widely reported. Mystery surrounds only the most important, namely, the roles played by Beijing and Washington. These may never be known but one can be assumed, the other deduced.
That Beijing had to play a major role was inevitable. In terms of legal niceties, the case was complicated to say the least. Snowden’s revelations placed him in the political category and the US-HK extradition treaty specifically bars extradition for political crimes. By its original Basic Law constitutional mandate, however, Hong Kong enjoys autonomy in everything BUT defense and foreign affairs. Additionally, under the Fugitive Offenders Ordnance, which translates the US-HK extradition treaty into local law, Hong Kong must inform Beijing of any extradition request and Beijing may intervene if the case involves defense or foreign affairs, which this one did on both counts.
As a U.S. national security cyber-spy, Snowden’s revelations were of a magnitude that ensured Washington would pursue him to the ends of the earth and beyond. Hence Beijing could not be expected to stand by with folded arms while Hong Kong courts pondered their decisions and Snowden became an international cause célèbre for the principle of free speech … with special focus on government surveillance everywhere. The case would have become an embarrassment for both Beijing and Washington, and added to growing political tensions here just as Hong Kong’s democracy movement hoped it would.
In the old Cold War days, Beijing would have wanted to keep him for use as an anti-American propaganda tool. But these are new days with multiple issues to discuss and manage and presidents who hang out together in California resorts. Reports from Beijing tell of a leading group set up immediately to monitor the Snowden case, answerable directly to President Xi Jinping himself. They also tell of a decision made early on that Snowden should depart as soon as possible … before the campaign to protect him could become part of the Hong Kong political scene and a long-term irritant in Beijing’s relationship with Washington.
Washington’s role in Snowden’s hasty exit is even more opaque. But the sequence of events suggests that whether by accident or design, Washington also helped hasten Snowden on his way out of Hong Kong. This suggestion appears from closer consideration of the immediate widely-reported details. Albert Ho and his colleagues served as Snowden’s legal counsel and were among the few locals who met him during his stay. Details of the circumstances surrounding his departure come mostly from them. They met Snowden for a pizza and Pepsi dinner on Tuesday June 18, the famous dinner where Snowden made them all stash their mobile phones in the refrigerator to prevent tracking.
According to Albert Ho’s account, they discussed Snowden’s options for two hours and it was only then that he learned he might be detained here for years while his case proceeded through the courts. By Friday morning, June 21, he had made some decisions, and asked Albert Ho to relay two questions to the Hong Kong government. The questions: was Snowden likely to be granted bail while his case was before the courts here; and would he be granted safe passage out of Hong Kong if he decided to leave town instead. If neither question brought a positive response, he wanted to contact the U.S.consul general Stephen Young for advice.* Apparently contributing to his rising concern were reports of sealed court documents in the U.S. detailing charges of espionage and theft of government property.
Albert Ho passed the questions on and heard no more. Evidently not trusting him to deliver the government’s reply entirely as intended because of his active participation in the “Protect Snowden” campaign, unnamed intermediaries relayed the answers to Snowden that same evening: bail could not be guaranteed, but safe-passage could. Snowden did not wait long to make his decision probably helped by news that the documents had been unsealed on Friday, U.S. time, and the U.S. government had applied to Hong Kong for a provisional arrest warrant against him. By Friday evening, Hong Kong time, he would have known about these developments. Coincidentally, Friday, June 21 was his 30th birthday.
He notified Albert Ho of his decision to leave. Ho sent one of his colleagues, Jonathan Man Ho-ching, to accompany Snowden to the airport … just in case he needed a lawyer/witness on stand-by if all did not go as promised. Ho later said Snowden’s number one concern on the bail/jail question was not about being in a confined space but about being deprived of his four lap top computers with all their incriminating evidence (NYT/IHT, SCMP, Ming Pao Daily, June 25).
Snowden’s window of opportunity seemed to have been closing fast. The documents were unsealed on Friday and the 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening TV news here reported that his U.S.passport had been revoked. Surprise followed the Sunday afternoon breaking news headlines that he was on his way to Moscow. How could he travel without a passport, people asked.
Washington issued angry statements blaming Hong Kong for letting him go. Poker-faced Hong Kong answered back that the initial documents it had received from Washington were not in order and Washington had not yet responded to Hong Kong’s request for clarifications. Nor had formal notification been received about Snowden’s passport. Hong Kong could not be expected to bar him from traveling on the basis of wire service news reports alone. Claiming that the clarifications had not been received even by Tuesday evening, June 25, Hong Kong authorities continued to say they had no reason to detain Snowden or bar his departure since he had committed no crimes here and was still travelling on a valid U.S. passport as of 11:00 a.m. Sunday June 23 (HK time), when he left town.
On Tuesday evening, June 25, Hong Kong’s Minister for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung gave his account of Hong Kong communications with Washington. In fact, the U.S. application for a provisional arrest warrant was received here on the afternoon of Saturday June 15 (HK time), the day of the “Protect Snowden” rally at the U.S. consulate. On Monday morning, June 17, the Hong Kong Department of Justice e-mailed Washington to stand by for questions that were needed to clarify its request, a common procedure in extradition cases. On Thursday morning, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke by phone with Yuen. On Friday afternoon (HK time), Hong Kong’s Department of Justice sent the request for more information to its U.S. counterpart … which would have arrived in Washington on Friday morning. This would have allowed one full working day to process even if no one wanted to put in overtime on the case. Yuen claimed Washington had still not replied as of June 25, evening (SCMP, Ming Pao Daily, June 26)
So either there was no communication whatsoever between anyone in Washington and anyone in Hong Kong including the U.S.consul general, warning of the possibility that Snowden might take flight, or Washington dragged its feet on purpose. Any advance intimation should have given Washington the incentive to fast track the follow-up paperwork and passport advisory over the June 21/22 period. That the case received no such priority treatment suggests that someone procrastinated for whatever reason. Some of Hong Kong’s follow-up questions might have required more time but the passport advisory could have been sent through formal channels to Hong Kong as soon as it became a news item … at least 12 hours before Snowden’s departure. And it’s hard to believe the consulate knew nothing of these developments as they unfolded here.
The result in any case allowed Snowden time to get away thus removing a likely protracted issue for all concerned … except Hong Kong’s democracy activists. They lost out yet again to the larger interests of Beijing, and in this case of Washington as well. They also lost out yet again in their struggle to focus international attention on Hong Kong’s endangered autonomy.
*Keith Bradsher’s in the International Herald Tribune, June 25. Other versions (NYT: print, online) of this same article edited out the point on Stephen Young.