A lot of people in the US media are asking why America’s most famous whistleblower, 29-year old Edward Snowden, hied himself off to the city state of Hong Kong, a wholly owned subsidiary of the People’s Republic of China, to seek at least temporary refuge.
Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US, they say. And as for China, which controls the international affairs of its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while granting it local autonomy to govern its domestic affairs, its leaders “may not want to irritate the US” at a time when the Chinese economy is stumbling.
These people don’t have much understanding of either Hong Kong or of China.
As someone who has spent almost seven years in China and Hong Kong, let me offer my thoughts about why Snowden, obviously a very savvy guy despite his lack of a college education, went where he did.
First of all, forget about Hong Kong’s extradition treaty. When it comes to deciding whether someone will be extradited, particularly for a political crime, as opposed to a simple murder or bank heist, the decision will be made in Beijing, not in a Hong Kong courtroom. Second, Hong Kong has a long history of providing a haven to dissidents — even to dissidents wanted by the Chinese government. Consider, for example, the Chinese labor movement activist Han Dongfang, who was the subject of a massive dragnet after the Tiananmen protests, but who successfully fled to Hong Kong before the handover of the place from Britain to China, and is continuing to monitor Chinese labor strife and protest from his home on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island. Hong Kong also has a public that is very supportive of democratic values — certainly more so than the majority of American citizens. Hong Kong people may not be paying too much attention to Snowden’s situation right now, but if the US were to actively seek to extradite him, I am confident that the place would erupt in support for him, including the local media.
As for China, while the issue that has Snowden on the run — exposing an Orwellian spying program targeting the American people and run by the super-secret National Security Agency — is certainly not one that the Chinese like to discuss in terms of their own locked-down society, you can bet that the folks in the Propaganda Bureau in Beijing, and in the inner circle of the government, are rubbing their hands with glee both at the incredible embarrassment their harboring of Snowden causes the hypocritical US, and at the trove of intelligence information he has, which they may be able ultimately to lure him into disclosing if they treat him well.
Then too, there is the matter of the Confucian concept of gift-giving and mutual obligations. It was, I am sure, no accident that Snowden chose the weekend that President Obama was hosting a summit in California with China’s new president Xi Jinping to disclose his identity as the NSA whistleblower who exposed the national spying program to the Guardian and the Washington Post. In doing that, he gave President Xi an incredible gift — the chance to hold the upper hand in his negotiations with a hugely embarrassed and compromised Obama over issues like Chinese computer hacking of US corporate and government secrets, and theft of intellectual property. For of course it is clear that the NSA is at least as active in hacking Chinese computers and spying on Chinese communications.
Such a gift as that is not easily ignored or forgotten in Chinese culture. President Xi owes Snowden a lot, and I believe he will honor that debt by seeing that Snowden is protected from any threat that might be posed to him by a vindictive or frightened US government.
But Snowden isn’t relying solely on Chinese cultural values to protect himself.
He was also careful to send a powerful message of warning to the US officials in the videoed public interview he gave outing himself. As he told interviewer Glenn Greenwald, “I had access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all over the world. The locations of every station, we have what their missions are and so forth. If I had just wanted to harm the US? You could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon.”
That one line at the end had to make the folks in Langley and at NSA headquarters sit up straight or to head to the bar for a stiff one! And indeed he could. And I will guarantee you, Snowden being as smart as he is, that he has already taken that information and dispersed it to a number of trusted people, perhaps including Greenwald, with instructions that they should put it all out on the Web if anything happens to him, such as his being kidnapped or disappeared or terminated. It’s a wonderful insurance policy and one that would not have escaped him. Nor would he have bothered to discover that he had all that information available to him if he hadn’t thought that he might need it.
It would be a relatively easy matter for the high-tech spooks at the NSA to retrace Snowden’s electronic trail to see if he really did download all that super-secret information and really could blow up the entire US spy machine. If they find out that he really has that information, he’s basically untouchable.
The real question is not what they are going to do to Snowden. It’s what we Americans are going to do now that we know how truly insane and totalitarian our government has become.
Will we go back to watching our sports teams and our reality TV programming, and forget about the fact that we no longer have any privacy in our lives, that our elected leaders and our judges are operating on the assumption that if they get out of line the fascist machine at the NSA that works in service of the corporate elite will blackmail or destroy them with its access to all their communications. Or will we rise up and demand an end to this high-tech tyranny in the name of a fraudulent “War” on Terror?
Snowden exiled himself and gave up a great job in Hawaii in the hope that we would rise up when we learned that our democracy has been hijacked.
Let’s hope he’s right.