Believe it or not, China likely allowed Snowden’s exit as a favor to the U.S.

June 24, 2013

Hong Kong's skyline as seen from the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon. (Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)

Who could imagine a greater embarrassment for Washington: NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden, wanted for espionage and hiding in plain sight in Hong Kong, quietly ushered onto a flight for Moscow to avoid honoring a U.S. extradition request. Worse yet, both Reuters and the New York Times report that Snowden's quiet escape was engineered by the Chinese government in Beijing, which has final authority in Hong Kong.

Lost in the bizarre episode and subsequent outrage in Washington, though, is the fact that this decision, if made in Beijing, was most likely intended not as a slap to the United States but a favor. That it was instead construed as an insult – as well as Beijing's apparent belief that it might well be thanked – are a reminder of the unique ability of China and the United States to speak past one another when it matters most.

White House spokesman Jay Carney lambasted the Hong Kong government for apparently aiding in Snowden's flight to Moscow, saying that the "decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship." He added, "The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust, and we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback." And many have taken this as evidence of distrust. As one prominent journalist put it on CNBC, for example, "Clearly the Chinese hate us to even let him out of the country."

Take a moment, though, to consider how this might look from Beijing. Typically, when the United States and China argue about transferring a high-profile and politically sensitive individual between their custodies, it's a Chinese dissident whom the U.S. wants to grant asylum. Those cases are often perceived as deeply embarrassing for China, although Beijing has increasingly learned to live with them.

Perhaps Chinese authorities saw this as a rare reversal: an American political dissident looking for asylum in Hong Kong, which despite its special status is a part of China. In the Chinese government worldview, granting asylum would have been the real slap to the United States.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong had two bad choices. Extraditing him would likely infuriate Hong Kong's citizens, who support Snowden, as well as risk appearing to bow to the Americans. Sheltering him, though, would have enraged Washington and risked Hong Kong's reputation in the West as a law-abiding city distinct from mainland China.

In the end, the government in Hong Kong, whose current chief is seen as close to Beijing, appears to have declined to grant Snowden the protection he sought. In the absence of a clear solution that would balance competing interests from Beijing, Hong Kong and Washington, the Snowden problem was simply jettisoned.

In the U.S., of course, we tend to assume that our extradition claims as well as our offers of asylum are rooted not in geopolitics but in the rule of law. In China, though, the grander interests of the state tend to override such matters, and courts are officially subservient to the Communist Party, which is perhaps why Beijing tends to assume that such international legal disputes are actually all about diplomatic relations.

In that thinking, then, when the Chinese government declined to shelter Snowden, perhaps it believed it was communicating that it would not humiliate the United States in the same way that the United States humiliates China by granting asylum to political dissidents. The fact that this gesture took the form of allowing Snowden to flee to Russia has understandably offended Washington. But what we saw as a statement of "America can't tell us what to do" may well have been meant instead as, "America, this Snowden guy is bound to cause problems between us, but we value our relationship so we're getting rid of him."

An editorial in China's state-backed Global Times, spotted by Washington Post Beijing bureau researcher Liu Liu, declared, "Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong will prevent the Sino-U.S. relationship from being affected." It added, "A secure Sino-U.S. relationship requires good will from both sides."

"They see this more like the internal affairs of the U.S.," Jia Qingguo, professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University, told The Post's Jia Lynn Yang. "China has already fully considered the American interest, and didn't make any high-profile public accusations to the U.S."

Given how frequently China and the U.S. criticize one another, the fact that Chinese state media limited themselves to using Snowden to deflect American criticism of China-based hacking is not an insignificant gesture. Of course, if Beijing really did believe that Snowden's departure would be taken as a gesture of goodwill toward the U.S., then it would seem that Chinese leaders are not much better at reading their far-away counterparts than are their American counterparts.

Alas, this mutual misunderstanding is not a new problem. It's a sign of how challenging the U.S.-China relationship can be to manage that even rare efforts at compromise can be seen as setbacks.

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Max Fisher · June 24, 2013