BEIJING – With Edward Snowden in Hong Kong dribbling out morsels on U.S. cyber surveillance activities to the media, Chinese authorities have several choices for dealing with him.
Their options include offering asylum to the former U.S. contractor, who says he leaked National Security Agency secrets and is expected to face criminal charges; interrogating him; or urging him to leave.
So far, officials in Beijing look to be playing it cool by doing nothing — and that, several experts said Friday, is perhaps the savviest thing they could do.
With some U.S. lawmakers calling Snowden, 29, a traitor and raising questions about whether he has a relationship with a foreign government, any moves by Beijing to contact Snowden could inflame tension with Washington just days after a summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Given that it’s unclear whether Snowden has information that would be particularly valuable to the Chinese — and whether he’d be willing to share it if he did — it’s a risk Beijing may not yet be ready to take.
At the same time, any immediate effort by Beijing to grant Snowden permanent haven or urge him to depart for another locale could raise hackles in Hong Kong.
Although the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, it retains its own Western-based legal system and enjoys greater civil liberties than the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents see the Snowden affair as a test of whether Beijing will honor its commitment to the “one country, two systems” policy or interfere before any legal process has been given a chance to play out.
Snowden revealed himself last Sunday as the source of unauthorized disclosures of highly classified U.S. telephone and Internet surveillance systems.
Hong Kong authorities are unlikely to arrest him, experts said, until Washington makes a formal extradition request, or until he overstays his 90-day tourist visa or is found to be in violation of Hong Kong law.