On June 9, from a hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Edward Snowden, an American former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), came forward as the whistle-blower in one of the biggest internal leaks in U.S. intelligence history. He exposed Washington's secret big-brother global surveillance programs that, through information obtained and stored from telecom and Internet companies, can track any person anywhere at any given time.
These totalitarian-leaning allegations are shocking enough, but the location from which Snowden revealed his identity and is currently seeking political refuge from is also surprising: Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of none other than the People's Republic of China (PRC).
That Snowden chose Hong Kong as the place to leak American state secrets when the island is under the jurisdiction of a nation less known for free political expression and more so for severe punishment in lieu of such liberal countenance may seem ironic and even nonsensical to Westerners.
In fact, there have already been speculations that Snowden is a spy for the Chinese government. Washington officials last week made public their concerns of the possibility of Snowden defecting to PRC with American secrets in exchange for asylum.
However, Snowden scoffs at these accusations and claims they are part of a political smear campaign by the American government to discredit him. He seems to have complete and total trust in the Hong Kong political and judiciary system:
"Hong Kong has a strong tradition of free speech. People think China, Great Firewall … but the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting on the streets, making their views known … and I believe the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments."
In its century under British rule, Hong Kong flourished into an international port city that infused Eastern and Western cultures — and that union is evidenced all over Hong Kong today. Low-level shopkeepers show excellent proficiency in Chinese and English, mosques litter Central, Hong Kong’s main business district — but what sets Hong Kong SAR apart from Switzerland, Australia, and Ecuador, the nations from which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought political asylum during his international manhunt?
To understand Hong Kong's unique political and social standing — and why Snowden may be of political importance to both American and Hong Kong natives — the island's colonial legacy must be understood.
One Country, Two Systems:
As a former British colony, Hong Kong functioned under English common law traditions for 100 years — traditions that Hong Kong refuses to give up even after the 1997 handover that put them back under Chinese sovereignty. These include rights to due process, freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to refuse to extradite individuals persecuted for their political views, the last of which Snowden may be most reliant on.
Hong Kong's judicial and constitutional culture is protected until 2047 by the "One Country, Two Systems" principle, outlined in the island's Basic Law mini-constitution. Established in 1997 as a part of the handover agreements between the UK and the PRC, Beijing promised that Hong Kong's "way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years."
Despite the 2047 mandate, Beijing has already started infiltrating Hong Kongers' daily rituals — politics, economy, educational system — and Hong Kong is watching the PRC like a hawk. With no universal suffrage and with a government that is slowly being taken over by Beijing's hand-selected officials, Hong Kongers use all-too-frequent mass popular street protests to resist any PRC-leaning policy changes.
While this may seem like a guerrilla approach to changing legislation, in Hong Kong it works. American university students spend their weekends going to bars and curing hangovers, Hong Kong university students — my own cousins included — spend their free time rallying for an autonomous Hong Kong. It was a series of protests and a 10-day hunger strike last year that prevented the implementation of a mandatory Beijing-oriented civic education curriculum for all students in all grades that many Hong Kongers viewed as pro-Beijing propaganda.
Until Hong Kong is granted full unfettered autonomy of their own livelihood and universal suffrage, the Hong Kong native mentality of fighting against big government and their watchdog policies will continue. And where will Snowden find more support and protection than from an island filled with angry demonstrators, protesting in the name of political freedom and expression?
Already, Snowden is receiving support from natives despite the fact that his case has nothing to do with Hong Kong policies, other than the fact that he and the island natives are fighting under the same principles. On June 15, an estimated 300 to 900 protesters marched from Hong Kong’s central district to the U.S. Consulate General to the Hong Kong government headquarters, denouncing "big brother" government surveillance and Snowden’s extradition.
Snowden: Hong Kong Hero:
Snowden needs Hong Kong, but the island may need Snowden just as much as well. His appearance comes at a pivotal time, when the Hong Kong-Beijing standoff may finally be reaching a tipping point. Hong Kong loyalists — or pan-democrats — are planning for a massive demonstration — Occupy Central — for next summer that seeks to debilitate the international port city's economic epicenter unless they are given universal suffrage. Analysts fear that if such a protest takes places, chaos and violence reminiscent of Tiananmen Square could ensue.
With such high stakes locally combined with the international media spotlight on Snowden, pan-democrats have even more of a reason to protect Snowden — any concession to big government at this point in the conflict will be a sign of weakness. Whether he likes it or not, Snowden has become a symbol of freedom from watchdog governments not just in America, but in Hong Kong as well.