HONG KONG — Out of all the places Edward Snowden could have chosen to hide, he selected this city, with its towering buildings, glittering nightscape and reputation for protecting free speech.
But some in Hong Kong aren’t sure what the man who has admitted leaking information about a top-secret U.S. surveillance program is doing in this semi-autonomous jurisdiction, which has a strong extradition treaty with the United States.
“Hong Kong is definitely not a safe harbor for him,” said Regina Ip, a current legislator and chair of the New People’s Party.
The U.S Department of Justice has said it is in the first stages of investigating the unauthorized disclosure of classified information about the surveillance programs, and some U.S. lawmakers are calling for Snowden, the self-declared source of the leak, to be prosecuted.
If Snowden, 29, remains in Hong Kong and the U.S. government seeks to arrest or question him about the leak, the former NSA contractor’s fate would depend on a 16-year-old treaty that guarantees extraditions between the United States and Hong Kong except under rare circumstances.
The treaty says that Hong Kong can refuse to transfer a suspected criminal to the United States if the person is a People’s Republic of China national and giving up that person “implicates” the “defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of the PRC.
Experts said because Snowden doesn’t fall into that category, if the United States wanted to charge him with breaking espionage laws, Hong Kong was likely to transfer him to U.S. custody.
“This agreement has been enforced for at least 10 years,” said Ip, who said Hong Kong has also benefited from the U.S. government’s assistance with fugitives over the years.
The treaty with Hong Kong says that any request to extradite must originate from the U.S. Department of Justice, and would be channeled through the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. A spokesperson for the consulate declined to comment, deferring questions to the Justice Department in Washington.
Snowden has not revealed to reporters exactly where in Hong Kong he was staying, although he told The Washington Post he was holed up at a hotel near the CIA base at the consulate, which is located in the heart of Hong Kong island.
A receptionist at the Mira Hotel, in a neighborhood just across the harbor from the main island, said a guest named Edward Snowden had been staying there, but checked out Monday. Citing guest privacy rules, the receptionist declined to say how long Snowden had stayed in the hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, which is known for a popular promenade overlooking the harbor and offering gorgeous night views.
In an e-mail to a Washington Post reporter on May 24, he said he would consider applying for asylum in Iceland or some other country “with strong internet and press freedoms,” although “the strength of the reaction” to the leaked information “will determine how choosy I can be.”
Hong Kong has its own legislative and legal systems but ultimately answers to Beijing, under the so-called “one country, two systems” arrangement, established when oversight of Hong Kong was transferred from the British to the Chinese in 1997. The extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the United States was established at the time of the British-Chinese handover, since the treaty also needed the blessing of Hong Kong’s new sovereign rulers, the Chinese government.
Given the touchy nature of China’s relationship with both the United States and Hong Kong, however, experts said the Chinese government was likely to stay in the background with Snowden’s case.
“I don’t think the central government will deal with this incident directly,” said Jin Canrong, professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China. Jin said the government would probably let Hong Kong handle Snowden, although he said the Chinese might still have the final say, given its power over the semiautonomous city.
The situation is tricky since Hong Kong residents easily chafe at any perception that Beijing is encroaching on their rights. Every year, thousands of residents hold a candlelight vigil on June 4 to mark the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. At this year’s event, gatherers called for Chinese President Xi Jinping to expand democracy.
Given this legacy, a few in Hong Kong cheered Snowden’s selection of Hong Kong, saying it was flattering to the city.
“I’m not surprised because Hong Kong is famous for our freedom of expression and our defense of press freedom,” said Alan Leung, a legislator who heads Hong Kong’s Civic Party. “We should take [Snowden’s arrival] as complimentary.”
Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.