Why Did China Really Let Edward Snowden Escape?

The PRISM saga continues as Edward Snowden becomes a first priority for the United States. The United States demanded the cancellation of Snowden’s passport which would have marooned him in Hong Kong, securing his extradition. But much to the United States’ dissatisfaction, Snowden fled Hong Kong and arrived in Moscow on June 23. Thus, an eruption of palpable tension developed between China and the United States.

“The abrupt departure from Hong Kong on Sunday of Edward J. Snowden, the American former national security contractor, with the explicit approval of the Hong Kong government, has drawn the ire of the United States,” said the New York Times. “But in Hong Kong, the focus remains on Mr. Snowden’s exposure of American intelligence-gathering operations in Hong Kong and mainland China.” Based on the criticism and dissatisfaction, the United States asserts that Hong Kong deliberately released Snowden because the latter now knows of the former’s activities in spying and data collection.  However, the East Asian city dismisses this accusation.

The documentation from the U.S. government did not fully comply with Hong Kong law, meaning that the city could not detain Snowden. However, Hong Kong requested more information from the United States about the situation, but received none. “The HKSAR Government has requested the U.S. Government to provide additional information so that the Department of Justice could consider whether the U.S. Government’s request meet the relevant legal conditions,” stated in a press release from the government of Hong Kong. “As the HKSAR Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.” Snowden’s release was based on legal regulations and foreign policies.

In addition to this discrepancy, clerical attention is another contributing factor to Snowden’s release from Hong Kong. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States did not completely pay attention to names and numbers while demanding Hong Kong to detain Snowden. “Hong Kong’s Justice Secretary, Rimsky Yuen, says that according to Hong Kong immigration records, Joseph is the middle name in Mr. Snowden’s passport,” the Journal reports. “Yet when the U.S. government submitted documents as part of a request to their Hong Kong counterparts to issue a provisional arrest warrant for the former security contractor, they specified one Edward James Snowden.  In another, they simply referred to him as Edward J. Snowden, according to Mr. Yuen.” Regardless of the latter warrant, the former warrant’s clerical error saved Snowden from extradition when in Hong Kong. The passport number for Snowden was not verified on the document, which also contributed to his release from Hong Kong.

All attempts to strengthen relations between the United States and China have been set back. The United States criticizes Hong Kong for granting Snowden passage to Moscow, whereas China demands an explanation for the hacking of its security systems.  According to the BBC, U.S. officials suspect that Beijing sanctioned Snowden’s excursion to Moscow as a precaution against any further issues with the United States. Thus, Hong Kong permitted travel for Snowden because of foreign policies and legal conditions, not retribution or acclamation for the former security contractor. This, in turn, only exacerbates the issue, as China and the United States must rebuild mutual trust if diplomacy is to thrive.