Global Economics

Edward Snowden Tries to Win Friends in Hong Kong


Demonstrators hold aloft a photo of Edward Snowden outside the Consulate General of the United States in Hong Kong, on June 13, 2013

Photograph by Kin Cheung/AP Photo

Demonstrators hold aloft a photo of Edward Snowden outside the Consulate General of the United States in Hong Kong, on June 13, 2013

Now that Edward Snowden has surfaced in Hong Kong, the American who revealed details about NSA surveillance is trying to win fans in his new home. “My intention,” he told the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper, “is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.” Snowden chose Hong Kong as his destination after fleeing the U.S. because the city has not only a history of protecting free speech but also “a long tradition of protesting in the streets.”

Snowden’s right: People here in the former British colony have shown they’re willing to take to the streets. When they do, however, they’re usually protesting something that directly affects life here in the Special Administrative Region. For instance, early this month, tens of thousands turned out for the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park on the anniversary of the Chinese military’s crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989. That crackdown continues to affect the political system in Hong Kong, where last year C.Y. Leung became chief executive in an election where fewer than 1,200 people got to vote.

There will be more action soon. Every year on July 1, the anniversary of the departure of the British and the return to Chinese rule, Hong Kong people march through the center of town to express various grievances against the government. Last year, the Voice of America reported that between 100,000 and 120,000 people turned out. The high point of Hong Kong street activism came in 2003, when some 500,000 people marched to protest proposed security laws by then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwah. A chastened Tung soon withdrew the proposals and in early 2005 resigned.

Whether Hong Kong people will take to the streets to protect a former CIA employee trying to escape the wrath of the U.S. government is another question. Snowden will have his first big test this Saturday afternoon, when local supporters of the former CIA employee are organizing a march to the U.S. consulate and then to the Hong Kong government’s headquarters. Speakers include pro-democracy politicians, and organizers have helpfully posted online placards for attendees to download and print in advance. “Uphold HK Law!” “No Extradition!” “Defend Free Speech!” “Protect Snowden!” On the organizers’ website, they also have some advice for would-be Snowden supporters: “Bring a whistle!”

Snowden’s whereabouts are unclear, so who knows if he’ll show up at the protest. If he does, he’ll find some interesting company. Sixteen groups are listed as co-sponsors of the pro-Snowden rally, most of them little known. The most prominent is the League of Social Democrats, a group of lefty activists that’s cool with having the letters LSD for its website. The league is led by Leung Kwok-hung, also known as “Long Hair,” a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and professional provocateur famous for his hairstyle, Che Guevara T-shirts, and  a long career annoying Hong Kong’s powers that be. He once pelted then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang with bananas from the floor of the legislature and last year, after a different protest, was convicted and fined for unlawful assembly after holding a street demonstration without police permission.

If Snowden’s strategy is to appeal to the city’s grassroots, having Long Hair on his side should be helpful. As disliked as he is by Hong Kong’s establishment, Long Hair has many fans among the population and has easily won election after election. (While Hong Kong people don’t get to vote for their chief executive, they do get to vote for some members of the Legislative Council, where Long Hair is a member.) Snowden “isn’t an offender,” Leung told my colleague, Bloomberg News reporter Simon Lee, in an interview. “He was speaking from his conscience.”

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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