Final Call: Did Beijing or Hong Kong Decide Snowden’s Fate?

Part I: Origin Stories


I’m writing this to offer some resistance on a narrative that’s taken hold in most of the media, and done so without any evidence. It’s the narrative that Snowden’s exit from Hong Kong was China’s “call,” rather than an indepedently devised and executed move coming out of the government offices of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone. It all started with a New York Times headline: “China Said to Have Made Call to Let Leaker Depart

That’s a strong claim. Stronger still was the first sentence, “the Chinese government made the final decision to allow Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, to leave Hong Kong on Sunday, a move that Beijing believed resolved a tough diplomatic problem even as it reaped a publicity windfall from Mr. Snowden’s disclosures…” Powerful stuff, but who is the source? “according to people familiar with the situation.” I’m an academic “familiar with the situation.” Does that mean I can take a guess and have it written as fact in a headline? Of course not.

Accoring to the New York Times, this contravenes “Hong Kong authorities [who] have insisted that their judicial process remained independent of China.” And who were those people doing the contravening? Anonymous “analysts,” plus one Renmin University professor who was willing to be named.

Though I can’t find it online anymore, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) ran with this as a headline fact and sourced it to New York Times story. By the next morning, the wording and headline changed a little bit to: “Beijing made decision on Edward Snowden leaving Hong Kong, say analysts.” There was no “says analysts” in the original headline the day before. The URL of this page says “China Outsmarted US.”

Now SCMP has their own mainland Chinese analyst and no longer needs to cite the New York Times: enter Professor Shen Dingli, director of American studies at Shanghai-based Fudan University. They paraphrase him in the sub-headline as saying “Sino-US experts say Hong Kong did not have the power to determine if Edward Snowden could fly out, as it involved national security.”

But let’s take one more SCMP headline from today, though: “US failure to clarify Snowden papers tied HK’s hands, says justice chief.” So despite what these mainland Chinese professors are saying, the Hong Kong government is insisting this was a result of their decision.

Let’s take stock of where we are: nobody who works for the government of the People’s Republic of China has anonymously or publicly said that this was their “call.” The Hong Kong government is insisting they did this was an autonomous decision and nobody in their government has anonymously leaked otherwise. If they’re going to stick with academic rather than insider sources, why not Hong Kong professors from CUHK or HKU who actually specialize in the diplomatic nuances of “One Country, Two Systems”? Instead, what we have is every media outlet talking about what “China’s decision” means, including Al Jazeera (which usually gets nuances like this right), rather than inquiring into how the decision itself was made.

Part II: The Case For Beijing Leaving the Phone off the Hook


Let’s think about what did happen compared to what a lot of people were expecting to happen. Most people assumed Snowden was going to stay in Hong Kong and deal with the legal system here. Most assumed that he either would or would not get extradited, and that not getting extradited would probably require either labeling him a refugee or granting him the “political exception.”

Not extraditing him would probably require some serious meddling with the judicial system because lawyers in Hong Kong say they see extradition happen every time it is requested by the US Consulate. It would be fair to assume any such crude meddling would come at Beijing’s behest, because it would require suspending – or overriding – the local legal processes of “two systems” to defer to the foreign policy of “one country.” But our expectations were wrong, Snowden wasn’t handed back to the US and no such crude meddling was necessary.

What happened instead was an “Option C,” unlisted above or in much of the analysis before it happened. The Hong Kong government pressured Snowden to get out of Hong Kong and bought some time for him to wisen up about his dim future prospects here. It really does seem like Snowden had no good reason for coming to Hong Kong and had to be convinced not to go to jail (he couldn’t use his computer!) and face trial by a government that really just didn’t want to be part of the media circus he brought to town.

So they bought him time to come to his wits by punting on a legal technicality. Rather than immediately issuing an arrest warrant, they did what was in their rights to do – ask more questions about the case to make sure that it fit the requirements of the extradition treaty. They had a set of questions about the request for arrest that they didn’t share with the US during early, informal negotiations (which began on June 15). Instead, they waited until the formal request came on June 21, and then pounded the US Department of Justice with questions.

It is obvious that this was planned as a delaying tactic. Some of the questions were silly and could have been resolved earlier, like the mismatch between the name written at immigration during his arrival and the name of the person requested for arrest. There was a question asking how two of the three charges related to the extradition treaty. Other questions were impossible to resolve, like asking for explicit evidence of the crimes which, of course, the US wouldn’t provide because all of this was classified.

Let me further state what I think is true of Leung’s motives, none of which I think is controversial. He wanted this situation to go away. He never asked Snowden to come here. He didn’t like all the attention and international pressure his government was getting. In short, he didn’t like that the Hong Kong government was being forced into making a historic decision it never wanted to make.

The government was probably going to have to follow precedent and send Snowden back if he was arrested, which politically would have looked like kowtowing to the United States. This was particularly untenable because of the hacking allegations themselves: he would be sending Snowden back for prosecution in part for divulging information about the NSA hacking civilian server backbones in Hong Kong. But he also couldn’t push for the political exception without (a) looking like a pushover to Beijing, or (b) keeping Snowden and the media spotlight in Hong Kong.

If you agree, even generally, with the above, then you would also probably agree that just getting Snowden out of Hong Kong before a local arrest warrant was issued in Hong Kong was in CY Leung’s best interest. Beijing and Leung’s government almost certainly did talk about the situation and they were probably all on the same page. Beijing didn’t need to micro-manage or decide anything because a competent government had the same goals and was navigating their own system. Rather than it being “Beijing’s Call,” it looks more like “Beijing’s Thumbs Up.”

The “Beijing’s Call” theory requires one of two broad counter-theories. Either CY Leung’s government made a decision that Beijing said “no” to and corrected them on, or CY Leung simply called Beijing and asked for instructions. I find both counter-theories difficult to believe. First, where do Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s interest in this case diverge? For the second, this is just not how “fragmented authoritarianism” works, even on the Mainland.

Even Chinese cities and provincial governments without the benefit of “two systems” don’t kowtow to Beijing as much as is suggested here. There is a great deal of local political autonomy within the People’s Republic of China, and there is an order of magnitude more for the HKSAR. The Hong Kong government wasn’t going to do something that would really anger the Beijing government, but they’re also not puppets asking for a script.

A final point is that Beijing’s rulers aren’t known to be micro-managers. There’s an amazing story abot Hu Jintao’s political rise in Willy Lam’s “Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era,” dating back to when Hu was Party Secretary in Tibet. In 1989, when riots and unrested started kicking up, Hu called the local PLA garrison commander and told him to “take care of it,” then left his phone off the hook so he wouldn’t need to give further orders. If the PLA opened fire and a massacre was reported the next morning, Hu was in the position to say he didn’t order the massacre and then sack the commander. If the commander didn’t do anything to make he situation go away, he would be sacked and Hu would blame him for ineffectiveness and inaction. If there was no massacre and the situation was quelled, Hu could take credit for managing the situation.

The Party elite in Zhongnanhai thought it was a brilliant move. The brilliance was in its call for “make this go away” and clever partitioning of responsibility that took care of things while keeping the Party’s hands clean. A decade later Hu Jintau was on track to run the country. There’s every reason to think the same thing happened here. There was no easy answer to Edward Snowden and I doubt Beijing pretended there was one.

So they (probably) didn’t offer instructions. At most, they (probably) said “take care of it” and didn’t want to get their hands dirty with the details where they would take the blame should their plan backfire. And so it was taken care of by someone who also really wanted this problem to disappear. Why would CY Leung have been holding countless meetings to deal with this (as was reported by SCMP) if they already had instructions? Weren’t they supposed to be political lieutenants waiting for orders from on high?

If we bring in Occam’s Razor, an implicit “Beijing Thumbs Up” / “Phone off the Hook” makes more intuitive sense, fits the facts at hand, and fits the general relationship of Hong Kong and Beijing. Crucially, it is a more simple explanation. It has fewer moving parts. And it happens to be what the Hong Kong government itself is saying (except for the planning a delay part).

I think this means there might be an altogether more interesting story here that’s not being covered: the Hong Kong government autonomously handled it’s first post-Handover international crises with skill, wit, and competence. Rather than giving credit to Beijing, who probably “left the phone off the hook,” our fair city seems to have outsmarted and outmaneuvered the United States Department of Justice.

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