Edward Snowden may have embarrassed the United States by leaking intelligence documents. But by seeking refuge in Hong Kong, the fugitive whistleblower has also put China on the spot. His case could become a high-profile test of Beijing’s policy towards the captive city-state, as well as towards its main geopolitical rival.
It’s ironic that Snowden appears to feel safer on the doorstep of a one-party regime than in a constitutional democracy like the one he has just left. He told the Guardian he chose Hong Kong because of its “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” However, the special administrative region of China also has a well-oiled extradition treaty with the United States. If Snowden remains in Hong Kong – his exact whereabouts were unknown on Monday – he will have to argue successfully that he’s a political refugee, or hope that Beijing intervenes on his behalf.
China is undoubtedly interested in Snowden. His leaks so far suggest an intimate knowledge of parts of the U.S. cyber-security apparatus, and the reporters he is working with have suggested there is much more to come. The timing of his leaks, which embarrassed President Barack Obama on the eve of his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, has sparked inevitable conspiracy theories. But vetoing his extradition would directly provoke Washington. That could prompt a bigger crisis than the defection of Chen Guangcheng, the human rights activist who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
A Chinese veto could also upset activists in Hong Kong, already suspicious about what they see as creeping intervention from the mainland. Add in the fact that China has no interest in encouraging political dissidents of any colour to view Hong Kong as a safe haven, and the odds are that Snowden will eventually find himself on a plane back to the United States.
However, China cannot guarantee that outcome. Snowden could challenge any decision to deport him in the Hong Kong courts, which could give him time to build public support. A scenario in which Snowden’s case became a rallying point for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement could cause even bigger headaches in Beijing than in Washington.