It's like a Hollywood movie: a former CIA worker leaks top-secret documents and seeks refuge on enemy soil, only to drop out of public view as the scandal heats up.
Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American tech specialist, recently revealed himself as the whistleblower who leaked details of far-reaching telephone and Internet monitoring by the US government. Snowden was in hiding for about three weeks at a Hong Kong hotel before he reportedly checked out on June 10, 2013. He is still believed to be in Hongkong but his exact whereabouts remain unclear.
The explosive revelations by Snowden coincided with Chinese President Xijinping's two-day US visit to build rapport with President Obama. Before Xi left Beijing, media speculated that the US would pressure China on the cyber espionage issue that has vexed the two nations for months. The US said China has repeatedly committed cyber espionage that targets American companies and government agencies, a charge China has resolutely denied.
The saga might help Beijing score political points, an expert was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying. In the meantime, media frenzy surrounding Snowden has created a wave of nationalism in the blogosphere in China, with many netizens seeing US government's vast snooping as a chance to strike back.
Yang Rui, anchor on the English channel of China’s national broadcaster CCTV, commented on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo:
中国政府咋办？一位年轻有良知的美国人需要帮助！BBC披露：前中情局雇员Snowden 说美政府可随意监听千万计的世界任何人的电话，监看任何人的电子邮件，美国NSA国家安全署可以进入九大网络公司服务器如脸谱，谷歌和雅虎。目前29岁的 Snowden滞留香港，他面临被引渡回国。美指责中国搞IP偷窃，它自己呢？
What should the Chinese government do? A young and conscientious American needs help! According to BBC: Former CIA employee said the US government can monitor at will millions of phone calls and emails anywhere in the world, NSA can access servers of nine Internet companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo. The 29-year-old Snowden now remains in Hong Kong, he faces potential extradition. The United States accuses China of IP theft, what about the US itself?
Zhang Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote on his Weibo account:
What Edward Snowden has done will go down the history of journalism, his coming forward in revealing what the US government [has done] should make him safer. Even under the name of anti-terrorism, the US government is not in a position to launch large-scale monitoring of citizens’ phone calls and emails, other countries should take this as a lesson.
Fan Haitao, a Chinese student at Columbia University in the US, summed up the divided nature of the debate:
US citizen Edward Snowden has made revelations that the US government has monitored phone calls, Internet and emails, the government is now facing a firestorm of constitutional violation criticism. After watching the news on TV, I found there are two factions. Members of Congress believe it’s fine for the government to undertake surveillance, it is overseen by the court and besides, the phone calls monitored contain time and duration, not names. Another faction claims that hearings should be held concerning the surveillance, so the public could decide.
Outspoken scholar Wu Zuolai came to US's defense:
Some countries use [surveillance] to counter terrorism, other countries use it to violate human rights, public information in democratic countries is rarely used to do bad things, authoritarian states instead use it to seek better authoritarianism.
Others, like Ahua de Yisaka Dao, questioned why Snowden would end up in Hong Kong:
We two discussed the case of Edward Snowden extensively, this is like plot from a blockbuster! I think it was very weird that he came to Hong Kong, didn't he know that Hong Kong is no longer a free Hong Kong, instead it is controlled by the Communist Party of China? We've only heard about Chinese seeking political asylum in the US, it would be interesting if an American sought political asylum from the Chinese government….
Lvqiu Luwei, a well-known TV journalist who has 2.7 million followers on Weibo, wrote:
For Snowden, is it really safe for him to be in Hong Kong? If he sought political asylum here, he will have to wait a long time for necessary procedures, within this time, he could stay legally, but couldn't work. Media were all looking for him, they finally found the hotel [he stayed], but were informed that a person with this name had checked out. Where has he gone? Would he be eating curry in Chongqing mansion?
The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the story of US government spying programs on June 6, 2013 without naming him as the source, but Snowden later outed himself as the person behind the leaks. In a video interview published online, Snowden said he had chosen to flee to Hong Kong due to its “commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Under the extradition treaty the island city has with the US, Snowden still risks being sent back and prosecuted. The Chinese government has yet to officially comment on his case because of a three-day holiday.
However, Chinese media outlets have picked up the juicy story, filtering out Snowden's reference to Hong Kong as a place of “free speech”. In mainland China, Internet censorship is commonplace, and legions of the so-called Internet police are tasked to monitor politically edgy content.
So it's no surprise that while many Chinese netizens praise Snowden, some say he fled to the wrong place, implying that Beijing's heavy-handed policies are exerting increasing control over Hong Kong.
Former China Google head, Kaifu Lee, applauded Snowden on Weibo:
After watching the interivew of Snowden, I admire his principles and values and I despise Prism programs of the States. But he did violate US laws( leaking State secret). So the best result probably is that he get political asylum( Iceland?).
One netizen named Fengmao Lingjiao wrote:
[He] picked the wrong place. To seek asylum in a place where humanity is declining and value being eroded, the result would only be that [he] would be used as a tool. Mainland is the boss, boss is a barbarian businessman without morals, it has traditions of slaughter and [dirty] dealings. The philosophy of “kicking out someone after service is complete” has prevailed: [The government] was once the landlord and rightist.