The White House has accused the Chinese government of deliberately allowing a fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor to flee Hong Kong, despite U.S. demands for the American's extradition.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Edward Snowden's Sunday journey from Hong Kong to Moscow on a Russian passenger plane "unquestionably" has a "negative impact" on U.S.-China relations.
The former U.S. National Security Agency contractor faces U.S. charges of espionage for disclosing clandestine American surveillance programs.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Carney said Washington believes Beijing made a "deliberate choice" to let Snowden leave Hong Kong in spite of what the spokesman called a "valid" U.S. arrest warrant.
Earlier in the day, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said there was "no legal basis" for local authorities to stop Snowden from departing while they were processing the U.S. extradition request and "asking [Washington] for further important information" on the case. Leung said authorities also did not receive any documents showing that Snowden's U.S. passport had been revoked.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing "respects" the Hong Kong government's handling of Snowden. She gave no details about any role the Chinese government might have played in the case.
Carney rejected the notion that Snowden's departure was merely a "technical decision" by a Hong Kong immigration official.
"I can say that the Hong Kong authorities were advised of the status of Mr. Snowden's travel documents in plenty of time to have prohibited his travel as appropriate. I think I did reflect our concern and disappointment in the failure to act by Hong Kong authorities, as well as the fact that we do not buy the suggestion that China could not have taken action," said Carney.
A U.S. official told Western news agencies on Sunday that Washington revoked Snowden's passport the day before to try to prevent him from traveling beyond Hong Kong, where he had been in hiding for a month since fleeing his home in Hawaii.
Leung acknowledged what he called "expressions of displeasure" from some authorities in the United States. He insisted, however, Snowden's departure from Hong Kong as a "normal passenger" on a Russian flight to Moscow was lawful.
"This is a good example to illustrate 'one country, two systems,' Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, and the high degree of autonomy that we have. It is also a good example to illustrate the rule of law that we uphold and the procedural fairness and justice that we uphold," he said.
Under the one country-two systems concept, Hong Kong has autonomy on social and economic affairs, but Beijing exercises authority over matters of foreign policy and defense.
Hong Kong anti-establishment lawmaker Albert Ho disputed Leung's suggestion that the government handled the Snowden case independently.
Ho said he met with Snowden to offer legal advice and learned that a "middleman" had urged the American to depart the city, promising safe passage to a third country. The lawmaker said Hong Kong officials declined to tell him anything about the safe passage offer, leading him to suspect the middleman acted on the orders of Beijing, leaving the city's government with little say in the matter.
Ho is a longtime critic of perceived Chinese government interference in Hong Kong affairs.
Some analysts said it appears that China orchestrated Snowden's exit to avoid a potentially lengthy legal battle in Hong Kong over the U.S. extradition request. They said Beijing wants to prevent the case from becoming an additional irritant in its already testy relationship with Washington.