Hong Kong May Have Been Ed Snowden's Biggest Mistake

Edward Snowden went to great lengths to cover his tracks and avoid the long arm of U.S. law, but the NSA leaker's decision to choose Hong Kong as a potential safe haven may have been his biggest misstep. Snowden says he chose the city-state because of its "commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent," except, well, its citizens also care very deeply about something else: the rule of the law. That's why one lawyer said that, with the possible exception of the U.K., "Hong Kong is the worst place in the world for any person to avoid extradition."

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According to The Wall Street Journal's Chinese bureau reports, lawyers who live and work in Hong Kong's legal system are "baffled" that Snowden believes he could be safe there. Not only does the city have a working extradition treaty with the U.S., they've always done their best to honor it. Usually for violent criminals and drug offenders, but still: The city's experts say they can't recall instances in which the agreement has been challenged in political circumstances.

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Hong Kong's citizens do value the right of protest greatly and have exercised it often when the Chinese mainland has threatened restrictions or censorship. (The photo at right was a memorial for the victims of Tiananmen Square last week. Such events are banned on the mainland.) However, those protests are as much about protecting Hong Kong's autonomy as they are about free speech. A lack of censorship is more than just a sign of openness and free expression; it's what separates Hong Kong from the more authoritarian forces in Beijing. That independence was fundamental to the agreement that returned the area from British colonial control at the end of the last century and what has it allowed it to become an international center for banking and business. If China can violate that whenever it wants, then nothing in Hong Kong is really free.

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It's possible that many of Hong Kong's citizens would sympathize with Snowden's cause, but their own cause of law and order in the face of China's more arbitrary system is more important. If they won't respect the treaty with the United States, then why should the U.S., its companies, or anyone else respect their rules in the future? Any extradition process may take a long time, but that's just more evidence their legal system plays by the rules and takes them seriously.

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Obviously, this case is different, both in the nature of the crime, and the scope of the publicity. And the rules do still allow Beijing the authority to supersede any ruling on an extradition requests. But many experts seem to think it's very unlikely that they would so on Snowden's behalf. Put aside the complications it would create with its relationship with the United States or even the hypocrisy it would require to demand the return of its own dissidents in the future: the political headache it would create with Hong Kong would just be too great. Whatever they would hope to gain by protecting Snowden just isn't worth upsetting the balance of things in its own backyard.

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(Inset photo: Tens of thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil under rain at Victoria Park in Hong Kong Tuesday June 4, to mark the 24th anniversary of the June 4th Chinese military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing. Photo by Kin Cheung/ AP)