BEIJING – China interceded to allow Edward Snowden’s dramatic flight from Hong Kong, calculating that infuriating the United States for now was necessary to prevent deeper corrosion to their relationship, analysts and media said Monday.
Beijing also exploited the former spy’s revelations to put the US government on the back foot. State media called Washington a “villain” for its alleged hacking of Chinese targets, when the United States has long portrayed itself as a victim of Chinese cyber-espionage.
The Hong Kong government insisted that its decision to let the 30-year-old Snowden fly out on Sunday was governed strictly by the law, after a provisional US arrest warrant purportedly failed to meet its judicial requirements.
But for many observers, such a high-profile case — carrying the potential to destabilise Sino-US ties for years if Snowden had fought a lengthy legal battle in Hong Kong — must have provoked intense interest among the territory’s overseers.
Hong Kong political analyst Johnny Lau said he believed that Chinese representatives “must have drained him in depth and exhausted him (for intelligence) before letting him go”.
As for Hong Kong’s role, Lau argued that the local government was a pawn with Beijing guiding the pieces.
“Hong Kong is just part of a chess game. It was the same when it was part of Britain,” he told AFP.
Such speculation took an intriguing twist on Monday with Albert Ho, one of Hong Kong’s most respected pro-democracy lawmakers, revealing that he had been hired as Snowden’s lawyer and that he had relayed a message from a mystery intermediary several days ago.
The intermediary did not specify whether he represented the government in Beijing or Hong Kong, but Ho said: “I have reasons to believe that… those who wanted him to leave represented Beijing authorities.
“Bejing would not step forward to the front stage because it (would) affect Sino-US relations,” he told reporters.
“So, it would operate behind the scenes to make Snowden go. The Hong Kong government may not have had any role other than not stopping him at the airport.”
After arriving in Hong Kong on May 20, armed with laptops containing a wealth of information on National Security Agency (NSA) snooping around the world, Snowden explained his choice of destination in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
“My intention is to ask the courts and the people of Hong Kong to decide my fate. I have been given no reason to doubt your system,” he said.
But something changed over the weekend, after the United States issued its arrest warrant with a view to instituting formal extradition proceedings.
The former NSA contractor and CIA agent is now in Moscow and Ecuador says it is mulling his request for asylum.
While the Kremlin denied all knowledge of Snowden’s plans, lawmakers in Washington were aghast at the fast-moving developments and expressed strong suspicion of Chinese as well as Russian meddling.
“I had actually thought that China would see this as an opportunity to improve relations and extradite him to the United States,” Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said on CBS television.
“China clearly had a role in this, in my view. I don’t think this was just Hong Kong without Chinese acquiescence,” she said.
On CNN, fellow Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said “I have a feeling the hand of Beijing was involved here”.
Whatever the answer, newspapers both in China and Hong Kong said Beijing had no interest in allowing Snowden’s fate to fester as the new government of President Xi Jinping looks to reboot its overarching relationship with the United States after a troubled period.
“Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong will prevent the Sino-US relationship from being affected,” the mainland’s Global Times said in an editorial.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post declared in its own editorial: “There could be no better outcome for our city and China.”
Shen Dingli, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, agreed that Beijing probably took the final decision on the Snowden case.
“For such a vital national security interest, how can Hong Kong decide by itself? If we want to have good US-China relations, it benefits China” to have let Snowden leave, he said.
But Shen also expressed frustration that Beijing may have indulged in realpolitik rather than protecting the rights of a self-declared whistleblower who said he chose Hong Kong because of its respect for free speech.
“If we want to have principles, because this guy tells us how the US has threatened China, China should care for this person, to host him,” he said. “We have lost face.”