Fallows isn’t the only one to wonder why Snowden sought refuge in Hong Kong (the young contractor explains his choice above):
Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China — a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn’t even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the “one country, two systems” principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.
I don’t know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.
I have to say that Snowden’s apparent dumbness in picking Hong Kong surprised me. Does he not have access to the web? Did he really believe he’d be safe there? Alex Seitz-Wald studies Snowden’s present options:
There are plenty of other countries that have arguably better records on freedom of speech than Hong Kong, and some that might resist extradition. Iceland, which has been favorable to Wikileaks, comes to mind and, indeed, a member of country’s parliament who worked closely with Jullian Assange has already offered assistance to Snowden. But the country’s ambassador in Bejing told the South China Morning Post that under law, a person has to be in Iceland to apply for asylum.
Snowden told The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald that he does not plan to defect to mainlind China, but that would be an obvious option. The PRC has no extradition treaty with the U.S. and his cryptographic and intelligence knowledge could be hugely valuable to Beijing in its ongoing cyberwar with the U.S. Hong Kong is just a short ferry ride from the mainland and it would probably be easier for Snowden to slip out via boat than through the international airport.
Osnos doubts the Chinese authorities will leave him alone:
It is doubtful that Beijing sees a net advantage in holding on to Snowden as a bargaining chip. Neither side likes exogenous ingredients in complex diplomacy. When the persecuted blind laywer Chen Guangcheng sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, in 2012, it caused nearly as much agitation among American officials as did it among their Chinese counterparts. Xi Jinping has just returned to Beijing from a summit with President Obama, in which both sides sought to downplay differences and emphasize an attempt to accommodate each other’s interests, up to a point. Beijing spends much of its time trying to persuade other governments to send back former or current government officials who have fled abroad.
Without my making any judgment on the virtues of Snowden’s actions, the U.S. government perceives him in much the same light that the Chinese government perceives its cadres who flee abroad in order to publicize wrongdoing or to escape debts or prosecution for corruption. The Chinese state media frequently describes diplomatic efforts to “pave the way for the return of hundreds of government officials wanted for graft” and it has crowed about gaining greater coöperation from the United States.
Josh Marshall spotlights a TPM reader based in Hong Kong who agrees:
There is no political upside for Beijing in allowing Snowden to stay here. They would see him as an incitement to human rights defenders and whistleblowers, a foreign troublemaker who would prompt awkward questions from Chinese citizens about their own heavy domestic surveillance. Barring a scenario in which Snowden escapes Hong Kong and somehow makes his way to, say, Ecuador, I expect the Communist Party will allow the extradition court case to run its course through the Hong Kong legal system and declare that it demonstrated once more the matchlessly smooth workings of ‘one country-two systems’. Diplomatically it can win some brownie points with the Americans.