Alleged NSA leaker Edward Snowden has been holed up in a luxury hotel room in Hong Kong, where he fled from his home in Hawaii a few weeks ago, but what comes next is unclear. Snowden says he rarely leaves the room, assumes he's being spied on, and expects to never return home again.
Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because of its "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." Indeed, Hong Kong enshrines free speech in its laws and constitution and just last week, the island region saw massive annual protests marking the Tiananmen Square massacre, something that would be strictly prohibited in the mainland. But in the past decade, meddling from Beijing, which took control of the island region from the U.K. in 1997, has undermined those freedoms. Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO that studies and ranks countries' liberty, calls Hong Kong only "partly free," warning that, "In recent years, Beijing’s influence over the news, publishing, and film industries has increased, prompting greater restraint on issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese central government."
As Evan Osnos of the New Yorker put it, “seeking refuge in Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech is a bit like seeking refuge in Tibet out of devotion to Buddhism.” The implication being that regardless of the region's historic respect for freedom of speech and dissent, Beijing now calls the shots.
Meanwhile, the governments of the island region and the U.S. have a robust extradition treaty that would make it hard for Hong Kong or even Beijing to avoid turning Snowden over to American authorities if indicted. The treaty has exemptions for political crimes, which Hong Kong could potentially invoke, but the U.S. government would likely anticipate this and proceed with charges like "offenses involving the unlawful use of computer" that are explicitly mentioned in the treaty. That's the charge NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake pleaded guilty to in 2011.
Regina Ip, a Hong Kong legislator and former security secretary, told the Wall Street Journal that Snowden’s choice of location seemed to be "based on unfortunate ignorance.” A lawyer who has worked on numerous extradition cases in the region told the paper that “Hong Kong is the worst place in the world for any person to avoid extradition, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom. Still, it could take months for the U.S. to convene a grand jury to press charges against Snowden, which could also include violations of the Espionage Act or stealing classified documents, crimes other NSA whistle-blowers have been charged with.
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 the country's parliament who worked closely with Julian 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 mainland 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.
In any case, Snowden seems to have accepted that he will very likely end up in jail -- or worse -- and is prepared for whatever Washington or Beijing may send his way. An employee at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong told CNN that somebody by the name of Edward Snowden had checked out this morning, so maybe he's already on to the next leg of his journey, or maybe it's a diversion.
UPDATE: The Global Post's Benjamin Carlson points out that by a fluke of timing and legal proceedings (or perhaps careful calculation on his part) Snowden may get a break in Hong Kong, at least for a moment. The region's high court ruled in March that the government needs to revamp the way it assesses political asylum seekers. Until it does, all proceedings are frozen, meaning Snowden could buy himself some time in Hong Kong if he applies for the status, even if the U.S. submits a valid extradition request. Still, Ip is now telling the whistle-blower to flee, saying, “It's actually in his best interest to leave Hong Kong.”