Snowden: One Man, Two Systems

I wanted to publish some early thoughts on Edward Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong. I’ve broken it down into two questions: was it strange that Snowden came to Hong Kong for refuge from prosecution in the US, and how do we link that which he leaked – the National Security Agency’s PRISM program – to China?

Finding Freedom in Hong Kong

Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because the city has, “a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” Perhaps a fair comment less than week after another huge Tiananmen vigil. To which one of the best correspondants in China, Evan Osnos, remarked on Twitter that, “seeking refuge in Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech is a bit like seeking refuge in Tibet out of devotion to Buddhism.” James Fallows, in the first time I’ve disagreed with him about anything China-related, went even further by writing:

China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn’t even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the “one country, two systems” principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.

To address Evan Osnos first, it’s helpful to recall that philosophers separate two types of freedom: positive freedom and negative freedom. Positive freedom is about actualities, negative freedoms are about the removal of barriers to doing something. The US Bill of Rights is an ode to negative liberties, being a list of things the government can’t prevent its people from doing.

Hong Kong is largely a bastion of negative liberties in that the government doesn’t stop people from criticizing it or the Chinese government. For instance, there are permanent Falun Gong installations around well-trafficked Kowloon areas with gruesome photos and stories of Jiang Zemin-era torture. But on a different level, Hong Kong is arguably losing some positive freedoms. Many institutions – from newspapers to universities – seem to dread ‘rocking the boat’ too much and refrain from being too critical of China. This is to say that almost anything can be published in Hong Kong media, but some of it isn’t. And that people can, and do, protest about nearly everything.

And of Fallows comment? I’m not even sure where to begin. He seems to fundamentally misunderstand and/or misrepresent the nature of “one country, two systems.” Or he does understand, but skips ahead three steps without articulating his meaning. The principle and reality of “one country, two systems” is that all of the critiques Fallows makes of freedom in China simply don’t apply to Hong Kong because we have a separate system. China’s spying on citizens and government control of media stops at the Shenzhen border – and is exactly where Hong Kong is legally and politically separate from “China.” Fallows knows this but is – very strangely – critiquing the mainland Chinese system as if that’s the political and legal system that Snowden fled to.

Worse, one gets the impression reading what he wrote that he’s saying that, at any moment, Beijing’s Standing Committee can snap their fingers and make facets (or the entirety?) of Hong Kong’s domestic system of freedoms disappear. That two systems become one. There’s really no evidence of anything like that ever having happened at any large scale* – though Hong Kong people are, perhaps correctly, fearful of this prospect and are on a constant guard against intrusions.

Where Fallows might be correct, but is being unhelpfully inarticulate, is that Beijing can snap its fingers and make or change policy on some issues. Specifically, Hong Kong stops being “two systems” and becomes “one country” in relation to foreign policy. If China goes to war with a country, Hong Kong goes to war with them too. So while Hong Kong does have relatively autonomous relations with the outside world, those relations can change “in a pinch” if they conflict with Beijing’s foreign policy.

And that’s the correct framing of an almost certain Snowden extradition request by the US government: it’s going to be a complex Hong Kong-China foreign policy issue, not an issue of freedom in Hong Kong. This would be part of a larger conversation about extraditing Chinese dissidents back to China if this were part of a larger domestic freedom issue. Fortunately for those of us in Hong Kong, our city is far more autonomous on this issue than sovereign countries like Cambodia and Nepal.

PRISM and China

It’s worth starting with some basic points about PRISM that I think a lot of people are getting wrong. So far as the record has shown so far, it was not a “vacuum” sucking up data on everyone everywhere. The NSA does not appear to have had “direct access” to Google’s servers or those any other technology company. Everything points to this data being gathered for FISA warrants. You, fair reader, almost certainly didn’t have your data swept up and analyzed by PRISM unless you were one or two degrees of separation from a terrorism-related suspect under formal investigation.

Now let’s try to see this through the Chinese Politburo’s eyes: they too wanted data from US technology companies for security-related investigations (though we’d likely have a very different interpretation of what constitutes a threat). Learning from Yahoo‘s example, companies like Google kept servers with personal data outside of China to avoid legal requirements to hand of the same sort of data Snowden showed that they’re now handing over to the US National Security Agency.

So, in their own words, the US government used a “home-field advantage” never afforded to China, plus a loosened legal framework (see: PATRIOT Act, FAA), to gather data from tech companies for formal legal investigations. China resorted to hacking to get this data, but from Beijing’s perspective, these are fundamentally the same thing – and perhaps part of the larger theme of unfair treatment of China by Americans and their companies.

That, to me, is the crucial issue that Snowden exposed: arguably, the American government has been doing the same thing, just under formal auspices that were respected by these companies and thus were met with more success.

I think this is one argument in favor of China not pushing the Hong Kong government to extradite Snowden. But one can also frame this even larger and reach the same conclusion: in general, does China want to encourage or discourage would-be leakers at the State Department, NSA, CIA, and Department of Defense? With the amount of effort the Chinese government has put into getting data from these places, answering “no” would seem to be a tough sell…

* I grant that one exception is arguably visa policy. But that seems to be part of the larger trend I describe of Hong Kong institutions often being proactively Beijing-friendly. Denying a China critic a visa is a very different issue than denying his speech after he arrives. The positive freedom of these dissidents was restricted, which prevented them from exercising the negative freedoms they would have enjoyed in Hong Kong. 


  1. Jens said:

    Isn’t Beijing in charge of HK’s immigration laws? Once Snowden’s 3 months are up, couldn’t that be used as a convinient excuse to send him back?

    June 10, 2013
  2. deshou said:

    IMMD is largely separate, though they do of course have pressure. IMMD could extend his stay. He could do a visa run to Macau and be allowed to return that night. Or he could go to Macau for 1 mo and then return to Hong Kong. etc.

    June 10, 2013

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