Why Beijing is mum on Snowden

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle blower, is 'too hot to handle' for Beijing. 

Kin Cheung/AP
A TV screen shows the news of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Monday, June 17, 2013.

Since NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed 10 days ago that he was hiding out in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has pointedly refused to say if it intends to do anything about him.

Officials here are silent for a reason, explains Zhu Feng, a noted international affairs analyst. “Snowden is too hot to handle,” he says. “Beijing would seem to have very few options.”

So far, the government has treated Mr. Snowden’s fate as anybody’s business but China’s. Beyond denying that the former National Security Agency employee is a Chinese spy, Foreign Ministry spokespeople have built a wall of “no comment” around his case.

Official government and ruling Communist Party media have ignored the question of how Snowden’s situation should be handled, though they have published many articles accusing Washington of cyber-hypocrisy. The authorities here clearly relish Snowden’s revelations of widespread official US telephone and Internet surveillance; they have taken some of the sting out of US accusations that China harbors the world’s worst hackers.

“The one party who always blames others for hacking attacks turns out to be worse than all the rest,” charged the Communist Party’s official organ, the People’s Daily, in a commentary on Wednesday. “Henceforth, who will believe those accusations?”

China could intervene

On the legal front, Beijing could intervene in Snowden’s fate if the United States lodged an extradition request with the Hong Kong authorities, even though the former British colony’s legal system is independent of mainland China.

Washington’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, agreed in 1996, allows Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to reject an extradition request if surrendering a fugitive might implicate “the defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of the central government in Beijing.

Since Beijing is responsible for Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and defense, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would be bound to take Beijing’s guidance on such a question.

But the chances that Beijing would thwart a US extradition request are slim, because of the potential fallout in China’s relations with the United States, say analysts here.

“I think there is very little likelihood that Beijing would attempt to intervene in any extradition process,” says Professor Zhu. “It would create big tensions between Beijing and Washington and China has no taste for that” just as President Xi Jinping is seeking to put the bilateral relationship on a firmer footing.

Coming so soon after the summit meeting in California between President Xi and President Obama, which officials on both sides say went well, “this issue is more of a headache than an opportunity,” says Jia Qingguo, deputy head of the School of International Studies at Peking University. “We want to move on.

“My hunch is that the government will not say anything one way or the other” about Snowden’s future, he says. “They will just respect the decision of the Hong Kong court.”

Snowden has said he chose Hong Kong as a refuge because its tradition of the rule of law offered him protection, and hinted that he intends to fight any US extradition attempt in the courts.

Hong Kong’s top official, Leung Chin-ying, said Saturday that his government would “handle the case of Mr. Snowden in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong.”

“The Chinese government is staying out of this and not taking a position,” says Su Hao, who teaches at Chinese Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. “It seems the most reasonable way to manage the issue.” 

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