China May Not Intervene To Keep NSA Leaker In Hong Kong

Edward Snowden, who says he revealed information about the National Security Agency's secret program to gather telephone and Internet data, has checked out of his Hong Kong hotel. He has suggested he will seek asylum in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, but many analysts believe the Chinese government won't grant him refuge, given its desire to improve Chinese-American relations. However, a problem with Hong Kong's asylum law might make it possible for Snowden to stay there for a while.

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Edward Snowden, the man who says he leaked National Security Agency secrets, is on the move - at least he's checked out of his Hong Kong hotel, according to staff there. He flew to Hong Kong last month and this weekend revealed that he was behind the recent leaks. Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because of its tradition of free speech. But Hong Kong may not provide the protection that he's seeking, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In the last couple of months, Washington has criticized Beijing for allegedly using its military to mine business secrets from American companies. Now, a man who has exposed some of America's spying secrets is seeking refuge in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. Opportunity for some Chinese payback? Most political observers here don't think so.

DR. DAVID ZWEIG: I don't think they want to ruin the relationship that they've just spent so much time and energy trying to improve.

LANGFITT: David Zweig follows Chinese politics as a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Chinese President Xi Jinping just wrapped up an informal two-day summit with President Obama in California. The meeting was designed to promote a more trusting and respectful relationship between the world's two top powers. Zweig says dragging Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant, into the mix doesn't make sense given the larger stakes.

ZWEIG: Not to knock him for what he's done. I think what he's done, in many ways, is quite valiant, but he's not a key issue in U.S.-China relations. We're talking about, you know, two states that are trying to figure out how to get along over the next 10 years and not go to a global war because China is rising and challenging the U.S.

LANGFITT: Snowden hasn't been charged with a crime. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S. So the American government could request his return if he's indicted. The territory is semiautonomous, but ultimately answerable to Beijing. Zweig doesn't think China's leaders would try to intervene to keep Snowden.

ZWEIG: If the relationship was bad or if people wanted to make it into a political issue, they probably could. But I don't think - I can't imagine that the foreign ministry will be advising anything but to let this guy go if the courts decide that he is extraditable.

LANGFITT: Snowden checked out of Hong Kong's Mira Hotel today, according to staff there. It's a stylish venue where rooms go for more than $500 a night, according to the website. It wasn't clear where Snowden went from there. With no warrant for his arrest, he's free to leave Hong Kong. But if he wants to stay, legal scholars say a recent wrinkle in the territory's asylum law might buy him time.

SIMON YOUNG: Right now for Hong Kong, there's a bit of a legal limbo.

LANGFITT: Simon Young is a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. In March, Hong Kong's top court found its asylum law defective. Judges said the territory could no longer outsource its asylum screening to the United Nations. Now, the law must be rewritten. Until that happens, Young says, asylum applicants can stay in Hong Kong.

YOUNG: Until it is implemented, anyone making a claim for asylum simply can't be returned to their place where they claim persecution.

LANGFITT: Young says it could be months before the law is redrafted. He has no way of knowing if the asylum law figured in Snowden's choice of Hong Kong. But Young says it wouldn't have been hard to learn about it on the Internet.

YOUNG: You just have to be able to search those two words, Hong Kong asylum, and I'm sure you - with a little bit of digging you'd find it.

LANGFITT: Snowden told the newspaper The Guardian that he was interested in seeking asylum in Iceland, which has been particularly supportive of Internet freedom. The country's ambassador to China said an application could only be made in Iceland, not from overseas. Reporters spent the day in Hong Kong looking for Snowden in hopes of figuring out his next move. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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