Hundreds of people rallied in Hong Kong Saturday in support of former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to the semi-autonomous Chinese city last month after confessing to leaking documents on two top secret U.S. surveillance programs. To many, the case raises questions about Snowden’s choice of Hong Kong as a haven as he fights an expected legal battle against extradition, and the broader implications regarding the secrets he has revealed.
Amid monsoon rains in the city where Snowden remains in hiding, hundreds of Hong Kongers, expatriates and tourists marched on the U.S. Consulate.
Participants delivered a letter for Ambassador Stephen Young, condemning U.S. cyber monitoring activities exposed by the former security consultant who fled Hawaii May 20.
Teacher’s Union representative Tsui Hon-kwong compared Snowden’s case to that of Chinese dissident Shi Tao.
“In 2004, Shi Tao blew the whistle and told the world that the Chinese government had given secret instructions to all the press in China that nothing about June 4 commemoration [the 1989 crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square] must be reported," said Tsui. "The Chinese government got his name from Yahoo. Many Americans supported Shi Tao. I suppose it is our turn this time to support this American who is undergoing the same ordeal.”
Snowden recently told a Hong Kong newspaper that the United States has been hacking local and mainland targets since 2009.
Charles Mok is a legislator and information technology expert. Snowden’s revelations, he said, risk allowing Beijing to legitimize its Great Firewall and other cyber-monitoring activities within and beyond China.
“I hope that in the end we are not going to see people justify totalitarian regimes snooping on their own people, just because even the Americans are doing it," he said. "I do not deny that there is a certain need of security and monitoring that needs to go on, but where do we strike the balance and what is the right level of transparency?”
From the U.S. Consulate, protesters continued on to Hong Kong government headquarters to deliver another letter. Organizer Tom Grundy appeared delighted by the turnout, which he estimated at 900, in contrast to a police figure of 300.
“I think Hong Kongers reactions are a mix of bewilderment and pride that Ed Snowden chose Hong Kong. You can see we have hundreds of people here - 28 groups - which is unprecedented for Hong Kong,” he said.
Last year though, more than 100,000 people gathered outside these same offices in protest against the imposition of Chinese patriotism classes in Hong Kong. Just two weeks ago, another 60,000 gathered for the annual vigil in memory of the Chinese government's June 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Marchers blew whistles and chanted, "No Way NSA." Some, though, voiced concern that organizers had missed the broader debate emanating from Snowden’s disclosure that U.S. Internet companies have been providing the National Security Agency, or NSA, information on foreigners suspected of terrorism.
Professor Francis Borchardt has lived in Hong Kong for two years. The U.S. citizen stood in the rain listening to the speeches, his three-year-old daughter perched on his shoulders.
“I’m a little bit disappointed with the way the organizers framed the whole issue," he said. "The issue for me at least is much broader. It's about the surveillance state and about keeping tabs on how that is progressing and how it is continually intruding on our lives. Just talking about this one NSA issue, just talking about Edward Snowdon, yeah, it's is important, but it's not the whole story.”
Snowden is reported to have fled to Hong Kong because of the city’s civil and political freedoms. YK Law, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor
, questioned that decision.
The former British colony has an extradition treaty with the U.S., he explained, and in 2004 forcibly deported a Libyan dissident, allegedly at the request of U.S. and U.K. authorities.
Law also warned that since the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Beijing can legally intervene in Hong Kong matters related to national security and foreign affairs.
“So if the Chinese authorities intervene, then Hong Kong will have very little role to play [in Snowden's potential extradition]. I think China will probably see it as a good opportunity to embarrass the States, and they will be happy to see that dragging on,” said Law.
As the march concluded, Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed leader, Leung Chun-ying, released a statement promising his government would handle Snowden’s case in accordance with local law.
While the director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
, Robert Mueller, is vowing to take swift action against Snowden, by Saturday night, the U.S. had yet to initiate proceedings to extradite the 29-year-old confessed leaker. This past week, Mueller told lawmakers that a criminal investigation has been opened into the leaks, which he said have dealt a blow to U.S. national security.