Snowden: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Hong Konger?

Edward Snowden, the American who just revealed the extent of his government's cyberspying activities, has a touching faith in the commitment of Hong Kong's government and courts to free speech and judicial process.

At least this is what he said in extensive interviews with The Guardian from Hong Kong, where he is assumed to be still staying since May 20, originally at the Mira Hotel in Tsimshatsui district and now at an unknown location.

The media, local and foreign, are abuzz with speculation about whether the courts will order Snowden extradited to the US, if requested, or if China will use its sovereign power to override whatever decision the Hong Kong authorities may make.

However, such speculation may be jumping the gun. At this stage the most salient fact may be that Snowden is not a resident of Hong Kong, nor has he ever been. He is assumed to be on a tourist entry permit obtained on arrival, which is probably valid for two months. Such permits can be renewed but decisions to do so are entirely within the remit of the Immigration Department.

If Snowden's is not renewed he would be required to find another bolt-hole, preferably one where US citizens do not need a visa and which could be accessed directly from Hong Kong. A significant number of countries fall into that category - Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, the UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Finland, Canada and New Zealand. However, which one of these would allow him to land is another question now that his name will be on every immigration watch list in the world.

The question is whether he would able to use their courts to stave off any extradition attempt. Popular opinion in some countries, such as France and perhaps the UK, would likely be favorable but courts may take a different view. UK courts in particular have been receptive to US extradition requests.

If he cannot find another such destination when his tourist permit expires, he will face deportation - to the US. While he might be able to seek judicial review of any Hong Kong deportation order, the chances of success are limited given his lack of prior connections with the territory. He could still apply for refugee status which would likely delay deportation but his case would be unlikely to succeed.

The US thus need be in no hurry to launch extradition proceedings against Snowden. Although proceedings seem inevitable at some time and in some manner, the US authorities have time on their side, including the ability to judge public opinion in the US and hence the level of charges to be made.

Snowden's Hong Kong flight may reflect well on Hong Kong but suggests that he did a limited amount of homework on its past history. Not long ago the territorial government was party to a deal with London for the secret 2004 rendition to Colonel Gadhafi's Libya of an alleged Islamic extremist, Sami el Saadi. He subsequently emerged as a hero of the Libyan revolution. He sued the UK government which paid him £2.2 million in compensation as settlement. A suit against the Hong Kong government is still active.

The judiciary in Hong Kong may be independent compared with that in China and many other entities, but it is not above making decisions based more on political than legal considerations. Most recently in pursuit of a political agenda, it twisted the meaning of the phrase “ordinarily resident” to deny the right of domestic helpers under any circumstances to acquire permanent residence.

The courts have also a history of agreeing to extradition requests from most western countries out of respect for their legal systems and in expectation of reciprocity.

Possibly in this case the politics might favor Snowden if Beijing sees an opportunity to further embarrass Washington by supporting his freedom of speech and human rights. However, the US is already mightily embarrassed and Beijing may not want this to become an issue given its other priorities in relations with the US, and its own blanket use of cyber surveillance to silence, not just spy on, its citizens.