Smog and mirrors: Edward Snowden's escape from Hong Kong

A Chinese paramilitary policeman on the tarmac at Beijing airport Photo: REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

Trying to get to the truth about Edward Snowden's flight from Hong Kong is as difficult as seeing through the smoggy air smothering Beijing.

This afternoon the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson rejected claims that Beijing helped the US whistleblower escape from Hong Kong. Such accusations are "baseless and unacceptable," she said.

However, Hong Kong legislative council member Albert Ho has reported that he was told to pass on the message to Snowden that he should seize the opportunity to leave. The question is: Could that message have been delivered without Beijing's blessing?

Edward Snowden is wanted by US authorities and has gone on the run Credit: REUTERS/Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/Courtesy of The Guardian/Handout via Reuters/Files

There are some suggestions, hints, hanging over this whole affair that Edward Snowden may have been working for the Chinese all along. The former CIA analyst has said he's "not a traitor, just an American". He has also admitted he only went for the job with defence consultants Booz Allen Hamilton so he could get intelligence on the Prism surveillance programmes. The theory that Snowden was China's man is, to some extent, understandable given the choreography of the explosive leaks he gave to the media.

Consider the timeline. It was during his State of the Union speech, earlier this year, that President Obama revealed that hackers from a foreign power (read China) were able to get inside air traffic control and energy infrastructure. A few days later, Mandiant - a US security firm based in Virginia - published a report pinpointing the exact location of a Chinese military unit tasked with cyber espionage. There appeared to be a media strategy to build up the case against China and the state's cyber spying capabilities.

Edward Snowden's empty seat on a flight from Russia to Cuba

The Chinese official response was consistent: "China is the major victim of hacking" was the constant refrain. Now, if you believe Snowden, that was indeed the reality. The young intelligence agent has revealed that Beijing's top university Tsinghua was targeted by the US National Security Agency. So was the main internet hub in Hong Kong, as well as Chinese mobile phone data.

Then the timing of the revelations from Snowden. just days after Xi Jinping and Obama met in California. The US President had raised with his Chinese counterpart, in no uncertain terms, concerns about Chinese hacking and espionage. Snowden's secrets, spilled to the world, became China's timely and extremely useful ammunition to fire back at the US. No longer can the White House raise the issue of Chinese state-sponsored cyber spying and surveillance without Beijing simply laughing in America's face. Privately, Chinese foreign ministry officials refer to Snowden as "the gift".

Meanwhile, much to the delight of Chinese 'netizens', the US vs Snowden game of hide and seek continues. On Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, Snowden is being called a "hero". Another post says "great job" and praises the "great teamwork between China and Russia".

Chinese social media is not always in tune with the government's stance and policies, but on this issue China's public and leaders seem to be sitting back and enjoying the Snowden show.