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CAST your mind back to the summer of 2013, when a brave young American, Edward Snowden, was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel hounded by the US authorities for whistleblowing on the activities of the United States National Security Agency (NSA), where he had worked as a contractor.
Deciding that he had to expose what he considered to be the “criminal” nature of much of the NSA’s work, Snowden fled his home in Hawaii and made for Hong Kong, where he told his story and shared documents with a number of media outlets, including Britain’s Guardian.
The US charged Snowden with theft of US government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person.
Snowden sensibly slipped out of Hong Kong before the US completed its extradition formalities and made his way to Russia, where he remains in exile.
What makes this particular piece of history so relevant today is that it beautifully combines the central issues that have rocked Hong Kong over the past 12 months — the issue of extradition and US interference in the southern Chinese territory.
The US, then under the leadership of President Barack Obama, maintained it had a perfect right to bring back Snowden to the US under the US-Hong Kong extradition treaty, signed in 1998. In the end, these claims were never tested in Hong Kong’s British-style legal system.
Yet Hong Kong’s now abandoned attempt to extend similar extradition processes to other territories, including mainland China, Taiwan and Macau, faced synchronised protests from anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threats from Western powers, with particularly strong backing from the United States.
Washington’s anger against Snowden’s temporary refuge in the city was compounded by Snowden’s revelations that Hong Kong itself was a target of the NSA’s activities.
In an interview given to Hong Kong’s main English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, at the time Snowden revealed that the NSA had begun an extensive cyber-espionage programme, codenamed Prism.
This surveillance and hacking programme had tens of thousands of targets worldwide. They included civilian, business and academic institutions in Hong Kong as well as mainland China.
Prism was designed to give the NSA access to vast amounts of internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies such as Facebook and Google.
According to the Post, Snowden said that the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and in mainland China since 2009. None of these documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems.
Among the targets in Hong Kong, according to Snowden, were Hong Kong Chinese University, public officials, businesses and students in the city. The documents also pointed to hacking by the NSA against multiple mainland targets.
Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
Snowden explained how Prism works.
“We hack network backbones — like huge internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one” (Edward Snowden: US government has been hacking Hong Kong and China for years, SCMP June 13 2013).
This was a story that the US did not want the world to hear, especially as Obama was portraying Russia and China as uniquely involved in cyber-espionage. The details that academic sites and businesses were targeted likewise spoils the US portrayal of itself as the victim of scientific and corporate spying.
The story has yet another ironic twist.
During Snowden’s period of refuge, some anti-government parties and individuals actually called on the central government in Beijing to demand that the Hong Kong authorities protect Snowden.
The South China Morning Post reported that: “Outspoken legislator Leung Kwok-hung said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before his case gets dragged through the court system. Leung also urged the people of Hong Kong to “take to the streets to protect Snowden.”
“Another legislator, Cyd Ho, vice-chairwoman of the pro-democracy Labour Party, said China ‘should now make its stance clear to the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government’ before the case goes before a court” (Hong Kong govt silent on Snowden’s fate as lawmakers call for China to decide, SCMP June 22 2013).
How times have changed. The calls for Beijing to politically interfere in a Hong Kong extradition case would today be howled down by the maverick ex-Trotskyist Leung (known to friend and foe alike as “Long Hair)” and Ho. The latter has been vocal in pushing for US intervention in Hong Kong affairs.
A fascinating counter-view was added by then Civic Party legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah (himself a lawyer). Tong argued that: “Because Article 23 [Hong Kong’s Basic Law clause relating to national security legislation] was not passed [by the Legislative Council in 2003], the ordinance only prohibits leaking national secrets of Commonwealth countries” (SCMP, 22 June 2013).
For the anti-China camp, China has no right to protect its national security on a part of its own sovereign territory — but Hong Kong is still obliged to defend by proxy the “national security” of the very Five Eyes nations (the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) which are spying on it.
China’s insistence on ensuring that its national security laws apply in the Hong Kong SAR as they already do on the mainland and in the Macau SAR is therefore hardly surprising in the light of the Snowden experience.
The US position on extradition and the national security laws are to ensure that Hong Kong remains in some post-colonial limbo. It is part of the cyberwarfare and propaganda campaigns that US agencies have been waging against China using Hong Kong as an access point. China is now shutting a back door that until now has been left ajar.
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