Snowden Flight to Hong Kong Stirs Debate

The revelation that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has fled to China's Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong is stirring up discussion among Chinese about Internet freedom and the measures governments take to monitor online activity in the name of national security.

Although state-media in China have given the case limited coverage, many people are busy commenting online about Edward Snowden's flight to Hong Kong and what he has exposed about U.S. Internet surveillance programs.

Some praise Snowden, calling him a hero for standing up to the U.S. government and compare him to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.  Another calls the case another slap in the face of U.S. democracy.

Blogger and columnist Michael Anti writes about Internet issues in China.  He said many people online in China are surprised that the U.S. is doing the same thing the Chinese government does.

"I do not think the Chinese government will [be] embarrassed by the case because Xi Jinping and Obama and talk about, the top issue is cyber security, so this case come out, it made the argument made by the American government about cyber security is less convinced [convincing] to the public," said Anti. "So I think this story benefited the Chinese government."

Anti said there are still contradictions between the leaker's statements and companies such as Google and others who have denied involvement, but the case could have a serious impact on Internet freedom in China.

"The [Chinese] government will say, 'We told you, every government does the same thing about Internet control, and all the criticism you [the U.S.] once made to us about Internet freedom, basically is very hypocritical," Anti noted.

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong on June 11, 2013. /Reuters Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong on June 11, 2013. /Reuters

University of Hong Kong legal scholar Simon Young agrees. "Like in many human rights debates that the U.S. and China have, this might well be an issue that fortifies the mainland authorities in rebuffing the U.S. in saying, 'Well you are no better than us, and look at how you defend these practices and policies so hence, what's wrong with what we are doing, in the mainland'," he said.

As the debate about the case goes global, U.S. officials have given no indication they might scrap the program, despite the backlash. Critics said the program is a threat to privacy protections and it exceeds the limits set by laws on American intelligence set up to thwart possible terrorist attacks.

U.S. President Barrack Obama is coming under increasing pressure to take action in the case and possibly seek the extradition of Snowden. U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Diane Feinstein says Snowden has committed an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.

But Young said getting to that point could take a long time. Extradition or request for surrender, as it is called in Hong Kong, would involve both a lengthy court process and approval from Hong Kong's chief executive.

"Throughout this process it is possible to challenge the various decisions made in the higher courts and ultimately on appeal to the court of final appeal, if leave is granted.  It would probably be definitely months and possibly even years if he tries to exhaust all of his appeal routes," stated Young.

Young adds residents in Hong Kong are likely to be sympathetic with Snowden's efforts to safeguard citizens privacy.

"I think these issues are largely about what you think about secrecy in government, interference in one's private life, and whistleblowing essentially, and in many respects Hong Kong's values in this area are probably very similar to Western values," said Young. "I mean, Hong Kong is an international city and like the United States we have constitutional protection against interference with privacy."

But just as much as the case is a legal matter, it is also political and diplomatic.

The revelation that Snowden was in Hong Kong came a day after U.S. President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held their first informal talks in California and focused on improving ties.

Political analysts say how they handle the matter could be the first major test Obama and Xi face in the effort to open a new chapter for U.S.-China ties.

VOA News / Jun. 12, 2013 08:19 KST