What’s the Deal with Hong Kong?

June 9, 2013 12:06 p.m.

Having given some initial reactions to the Snowden revelation below, let me say a bit more about Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong.Let’s start by saying that the US has very long arms when it comes to seeking the extradition of people who’ve broken the laws at quite Snowden’s scale. But Hong Kong is a really, really curious destination. In the Guardian interview Snowden said he chose Hong Kong in part because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” There’s some truth to that, certainly in the context of China. But he also seemed to downplay that repressive nature of the Chinese government.

In his interview Glenn Greenwald seemed to want to help Snowden preempt the idea that he is somehow putting himself under the protection of America’s enemies to evade the consequences of his actions. I’ve always been basically a dove on the subject of China. By which I mean that broadly speaking I don’t buy that China is our enemy or – certainly in military terms – presents much near term threat to the United States. But just as clearly China is a key, probably the key, geo-strategic competitor to the United States in the world today.

So let’s face it. Even though I’m tentatively willing to accept Snowden’s claim that he is doing this only because he thinks it’s right, he still seems to be hoping to evade the criminal consequences by defecting to China, a key US rival and one that comes up rather short of being the kind of libertarian and transparent society Snowden apparently believes in.

Look, I get it. He doesn’t want to go to prison. I don’t blame him. He says in the article that his highest hope is get asylum in Iceland. I can pretty much guarantee you that that’s not going to happen. A small country that wants to be close friends of the United States is not going to do that. I could see arguments for Russia or Venezuela or perhaps Iran. But of all the places where you might have a shot at not getting extradited, China’s not a bad choice. Hong Kong might even give you the best of both worlds, hosted by repressive government which is a US rival and yet living in a city with Western standards of openness, wealth, etc.

But the decision to go to China inevitably colors his decision and sets up what could be a very uncomfortable diplomatic stand-off. I’ve seen people linking to the current US-Hong Kong extradition treaty. Call me naive but I think this is going to come down to how Beijing wants to play this. If they don’t want a fight over this, Snowden’s toast. If they like the optics of it, I don’t think it matters what that extradition treaty says. China’s a big enough player and the US has enough other fish to fry with the Chinese, that the US is not going to put the bilateral relationship on the line over this guy. And the Chinese might relish granting asylum to an American running from the claws of US ‘state repression’.

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