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Hiding in plain sight: whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong

Edward Snowden, speaking to the Guardian. Photo: Guardian/Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras

Why would US Intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden choose Hong Kong as a refuge?

He says that he made the decision to flee to the former British colony because the people of Hong Kong have "a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent".

Certainly Hong Kong's media make British tabloids look like leafy parish newsletters.

Hong Kong's streets often echo to the sounds of noisy protest: tens of thousands turned out last week for the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square protests.

However, the US does have an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and Hong Kong has handed wanted criminals over to the US in the past. Looking at the agreement, drawn up after the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, there is an interesting clause allowing China to refuse to surrender suspects if their extradition would not be in the interests of "defence, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy".

Is Edward Snowden a useful asset for the Chinese government?

Hong Kong has autonomy under the "one country, two systems" framework agreed by the UK and China pre-handover, but Beijing has the final say in any extradition requests.

So ironically, Edward Snowden has effectively thrown himself at the mercy of the Chinese leadership, a government which routinely spies on its own people and monitors the internet on a vast scale using the most severe censorship in the world.

China's new President Xi Jinping just spent the weekend with President Obama, a weekend summit described as "constructive", now let's see if their newly forged relationship can withstand this first real tricky test.

Barack Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Annenberg Retreat. Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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