HONG KONG — It’s probably for the best that Edward Snowden didn’t turn up at a weekend rally in support of him here in this former British colony. Having declared that he has faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law, and that he believes the courts and people of the semiautonomous Chinese territory will decide his fate, he might have been distressed by legislator Claudia Mo’s downbeat remarks.
“It’s quite ironic,” Mo told the crowd of several hundred in a rainy plaza Saturday, “that Mr. Snowden thought Hong Kong is truly free and we have impeccable rule of law in this city. Those who are longtime residents here know that our freedoms are being stifled almost on a daily basis on every front, and our rule of law is facing all kinds of political challenges.”
Notching up the wryness in her voice, she added: “So good luck to Mr. Snowden.”
The former National Security Agency contractor and self-confessed secrets leaker might have been even more worried if he had read a recent op-ed by Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.
“Since 1997, when the British government returned Hong Kong to China after getting assurances that this former colony’s traditions of rule of law and individual freedom would be respected, the political, legal and human rights landscape here has become ever less conducive to the protection of civil liberties,” he wrote. “Mr. Snowden’s positive view of Hong Kong no longer matches the reality.”
Snowden may not have realized it, but he has sought shelter in this city of 10 million at a particularly fraught time. A sizable contingent of residents here are fed up with their local government, which they regard as too beholden to officials in Beijing. They are chafing at what they see as mainland authorities’ interference in areas such as education policy. Complaints are growing about harassment of journalists, attempts to control the media and a trend toward press self-censorship.
A movement pushing for universal suffrage is gaining steam, with a large march planned for July 1, the anniversary of the transfer date. In the run-up to that, many here are closely watching the Snowden case as a bellwether for Hong Kong’s autonomy. Will local authorities forcefully assert Hong Kong’s right to handle the matter, or defer to Beijing? The outcome threatens to add fuel to the fires of discontent.
“I see this as a stress test for our freedom of speech, our judicial system and our legal system. The power of local society,” said Ip Iam Chong, who teaches in the department of cultural studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “We argue that this issue should be settled in Hong Kong.... We don’t want any intervention from the Beijing government.”
Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory is supposed to be self-governing except for matters of national security, defense or foreign relations. It is run by a chief executive akin to a mayor, and a legislature, which is essentially divided into two camps known as pro-establishment and pan-democrats.
Some legislators are elected directly by voters in geographic districts, and others are picked by “functional constituencies” representing business sectors like law, tourism and insurance. And the chief executive is selected by a Beijing-backed electoral college.
Direct elections are slated for 2017 at the earliest, but no firm assurances have been given. An associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong has begun organizing an “Occupy Central” movement in 2014 that would take over a key district of Hong Kong to press the matter.
The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, came under fire last week for his hesitancy to discuss the Snowden case, earning him the moniker “Mr. No Comment” and leading some critics to conclude he was waiting for marching orders from Beijing.
In front of Leung’s office Saturday at the Snowden rally, retired teacher James Hon bellowed hoarsely, “In this important case, he dared to say he has no comment. He is so incompetent. How can we allow him to rule Hong Kong?”
Late Saturday, Leung issued a statement saying that if extradition is requested, the Hong Kong government will “handle the case of Mr. Snowden in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the government will follow up on any incidents related to the privacy or other rights of the institutions or people in Hong Kong being violated.”
Chan Ka Wai, executive director of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, said that if the Hong Kong government bungles the Snowden case and “the general public doesn’t believe Leung, this will create more public discontent.”
“The July 1 March is coming,” he added. “This is a hallmark to see the degree of discontent with administration. It seems like more and more people see it as rehearsal for ‘Occupy Central,’ the core of which is civil disobedience.”
But others note that the Snowden case could be a boon for the powers that be.
“Surely Snowden’s praise for our city’s freedoms can be turned into a slap in our pan-democrats’ face if the Beijing loyalists play their cards right,” commentator Michael Chugani wrote in the South China Morning Post.
“The democrats have long labeled Hong Kong as a society of shrinking freedoms under Chinese rule, hence the ‘Occupy Central’ movement for true democracy. But now an ex-CIA spy says we’re freer than the U.S. Let’s see how the loyalists are going to milk this.”