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Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists rally around Snowden

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden is reminding Hong Kongers of their devotion to the rule of law and resistance to interference from mainland China.

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Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo (l.) holds a letter to President Obama, beside a combination photo featuring Mr. Obama and Edward Snowden, during a news conference in Hong Kong in support of Mr. Snowden, Friday.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

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The Chinese government controls many facets of life in Hong Kong, the former British colony that has been a "special administrative region" of the People’s Republic for the past 16 years. But the fate of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, may not be one of them

And as Mr. Snowden prepares for a legal battle in the courts to fight off an expected US extradition request, pro-democracy activists here have seized on the fugitive as a symbol of their resistance to Beijing’s increasing involvement here.

Snowden’s presence “galvanizes the importance of the rule of law, and underlines the difference between Hong Kong and the mainland,” where the government’s word goes unchallenged, says Michael DeGolyer, who teaches politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Snowden himself told the South China Morning Post last Wednesday that “my intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”

China's options

Beijing has not made it clear how the Chinese government thinks Snowden ought to be treated.

If it wanted him to stay in Hong Kong, the central government could instruct the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to declare that surrendering Snowden would damage “the interests of the People’s Republic of China in matters of defense or foreign affairs.”

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Beijing is responsible for Hong Kong’s defense and foreign affairs, and Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the United States contains such a proviso. But China seems unlikely to risk souring relations with Washington by simply blocking an extradition request point-blank.

If Beijing wanted to cooperate with Washington, there is little it could do if Snowden challenged an extradition order, legal analysts say; legal procedures under Hong Kong’s common law, patterned after the British system, could take several years.

“The rule of law in Hong Kong is still alive and kicking,” says Alan Leong, a lawyer and legislator for the pro-democracy Civic Party in the Legislative Council. “I am still very confident in the judiciary” to resist any political pressure, he adds.

Hong Kong differences

An independent judiciary is not the only thing setting Hong Kong apart from the mainland; the media here enjoy freedom of speech undreamed of across the border, and residents regularly exercise their freedom to protest. Most oddly, perhaps, the Communist party that rules the country is still a secret underground organization in Hong Kong.

That does not stop the central Chinese government from being the most influential force in Hong Kong life. Indeed Mr. Leung, who became chief executive a year ago, has long had to deny accusations that he is a clandestine member of the Chinese Communist Party. Tsang Yok-sing, president of the Legislative Council, has never denied similar suggestions.

Since Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, opening a 50-year period when the former colony will enjoy “a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power,” according to the Basic Law, Beijing has nonetheless effectively chosen Hong Kong’s chief executive.

It has done so simply by quietly signaling its favored candidate to the 1,200 grandees who select Hong Kong’s top official. They are drawn mainly from Hong Kong’s business elite and are generally happy to follow Beijing’s suggestions.

“Most big-business men here do a lot of business in China and they don’t want to offend the Chinese government,” says George Cautherley, a businessman whose family has lived here for five generations. “They won’t speak out when they might.”

Pro-Beijing political parties also dominate the Legislative Council, with a 43-to-27 majority over a “pan-democrat” alliance, thanks to a complex electoral system, despite the fact that the pan-democrats won 55 percent of the vote in elections last September. 

Nor is Beijing afraid to openly back its favored candidates; officials from the central government’s liaison office appeared last year at campaign events run by candidates from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the main pro-Beijing party.

Resentment among ordinary residents

Beijing’s control of political and business life here, however, has hardly endeared the mainland to ordinary Hong Kongers.

A number of factors have bred resentment. An influx of rich mainlanders has pushed house prices beyond the reach of most local citizens; mainland Chinese women have crammed Hong Kong’s maternity wards in recent years, ensuring that their offspring have Hong Kong residency rights, and Hong Kong mothers have found it difficult to buy powdered milk when mainland mothers – afraid that Chinese brands are unsafe – have snapped up all the supplies here.

At the same time, Hong Kongers are developing a different identity, says Professor DeGolyer, who runs the Hong Kong Transition Project, which monitors public opinion trends. In a report issued earlier this month, DeGolyer found 53 percent of respondents said “Hong Kong’s identity as pluralistic and international” was “the most important … to see protected and promoted.”

Only 4 percent said that “China’s identity as ruled by the Communist party” was most important to them.

Young people in their 20s supported Hong Kong’s pluralistic traditions even more strongly than other groups, DeGolyer found. They made their voices heard last September, in street protests that forced the government to withdraw Beijing-backed plans for compulsory “moral and national education” courses that critics said were brainwashing.

“The Chinese government had expected that the younger generation would turn their way,” DeGolyer says. “That is decidedly not the case.”

“There is a growing perception in Hong Kong that Beijing, with the assistance of the local government and pro-Beijing supporters, interferes here too much,” says Michael Davis, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There is fallout if they are too heavy-handed, and every time they try to do something there is resistance.” 

Rule of law prized

Citizens here are especially attached to the rule of law, Proessor Davis adds. “What Edward Snowden came for is exactly what is most highly valued here,” he says. Any government effort to impinge on that tradition provokes fierce public criticism.

Last October, retiring Court of Final Appeal judge Kemal Bokhary warned that “a storm of unprecedented ferocity is gathering over the rule of law in Hong Kong.” He was responding to accusations by then-Justice Secretary Elsie Leung that judges do not properly understand Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland, and that the courts had made mistaken judgments, which Mr. Bokhary called undue government interference in court affairs.

If Snowden asks the courts here to decide his fate, says Davis, “Hong Kong will be very careful to tick all the boxes and follow the rules. They know the world is watching.”

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