Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2017, 15:16 GMT

Flight to Hong Kong muddies hacking waters

Publisher Radio Free Asia
Publication Date 10 June 2013
Cite as Radio Free Asia, Flight to Hong Kong muddies hacking waters, 10 June 2013, available at: [accessed 19 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Edward Snowden gives an interview to The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.Edward Snowden gives an interview to The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013. AFP PHOTO / THE GUARDIAN

Now that U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have wrapped up a "shirtsleeves" summit amid pledges of closer ties, leaks about Washington's own domestic surveillance of telephone and Internet data could hamper U.S. political pressure over cyber-espionage originating in China, commentators said Monday.

While cyber-security was presented by Washington as a pressing issue at the informal summit between Obama and Xi, U.S. bargaining power on the issue could be weakened in the short-term as speculation mounts about the fate of former security contractor Edward Snowden, who is currently in Hong Kong.

At the weekend summit, Obama showed Xi specific evidence of intellectual property theft the U.S. says is coming from China, but the Chinese president repeated Beijing's stock response, that it is itself the victim of hackers.

However, overseas Chinese students and political activists who spoke to RFA during the meeting said reports of hacker attacks on the webmail accounts of overseas scholars, journalists and activists were now commonplace, and that such attacks were believed to be politically motivated and orchestrated from China.

"We have seen hacker attacks originating out of China, many of which target Chinese dissidents living in the U.S.," said Caltech postgraduate student Chen Wen, who was petitioning over transnational cyber-attacks during the summit.

"In fact, this is already a form of transnational oppression of Chinese people, which is totally unthinkable," she said.

Another U.S.-based victim of hacking attacks, Ye Ke, said emails from his Gmail account had been automatically forwarded to an unknown email address during a hacker attack on his account.

"I don't even know how many emails were forwarded [before it was discovered]," he said. "I didn't find out about it until the account they were using filled up to its maximum capacity and started sending emails back to me."

Zhu Feng, an expert on China-U.S. relations at Peking University in Beijing, told the Associated Press that Snowden's flight to Hong Kong – where a media man-hunt was under way to track him down on Monday – would weaken Washington's case, even with plenty of evidence to show Chinese officials.

"This case will hurt the U.S.' bargaining power and dishonor its own credibility in charging China for cyberattacks," Zhu said.

"China will likely tell the U.S., 'Don't be too high profile, and don't take the moral high ground.'"

Extradition treaty

Snowden's flight to Hong Kong from his former home in Hawaii on May 20 has sparked widespread speculation over his fate, with some consulting the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong negotiated during Bill Clinton's presidency.

There is little precedent for handling such cases in Hong Kong, where courts will agree to an application if they are convinced that any charges against the whistleblower are purely criminal in nature.

There is provision in the U.S.-Hong Kong treaty for extradition of people to face charges of "unlawful use of computers," the Hong Kong Standard reported on Monday.

The paper quoted Julian Ku, international law professor at Hofstra University, as saying that Snowden would need to convince a Hong Kong court that he was at risk of political persecution.

"Obviously, he's in a better position than if he had committed murder, but [the legal strategy] is not necessarily a winner for him," Ku was quoted as saying.

"My best guess is that if the U.S. government makes the request and they're smart about it, the courts have a hard time finding it as a political offense," he said.

Snowden – a former Booz Allen Hamilton employee who worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency – says he is the source of leaks about a phone records monitoring and Internet data mining program.

Snowden was working as a contractor in an NSA office in Hawaii until he left for Hong Kong on May 20, the Guardian reported on Sunday.

Consulting Beijing

While Hong Kong – a former British colony – enjoys relative autonomy and runs its own judicial system and immigration affairs, the territory is unlikely to move without consulting Beijing in this case, analysts said.

According to David Zweig, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Beijing was likely to want to preserve the gains made during the weekend summit, during which Obama and Xi took a relaxed stroll through the desert, inspecting a California redwood bench that Obama gave Xi as a gift and chatting about personal interests.

"The 'shirt sleeves' summit looked nice and they looked like they really were trying to kick back, put up their feet and talk about where they saw the countries going," Zweig told the Associated Press on Monday.

"I can't imagine that after all this effort, they're going to let this one thing make a mess of it."

Snowden's media interviews have sparked a huge wave of online support for him, and calls for his protection in the interests of free speech.

However, his flight to Hong Kong has earned him the epithet the "reverse Wang Lijun," in reference to the Feb. 6, 2011 flight of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, and his subsequent handover to the Chinese authorities.

Chinese netizens were already reacting in astonishment at Snowden's arrival in Hong Kong, with some questioning his judgement.

"This guy was a beneficiary of the American dream, and now he has turned around and attacked the U.S. government in the name of freedom of speech and run to Hong Kong seeking asylum," wrote user @aoliweiya on the popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo Monday.

"His thinking is really messed up!"

But user @Vyansongting disagreed, tweeting: "America's conscience! He should be protected."

@Lareina_olina agreed, adding: "This person is very courageous."

Reported by Xiao Rong for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Link to original story on RFA website

Copyright notice: Copyright © 2006, RFA. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

Search Refworld