HONG KONG — The flight of a government whistle-blower -- or possible fugitive from justice -- to the quasi-democratic Chinese enclave of Hong Kong has given this former British colony a bit of free PR. Edward Snowden, the self-proclaimed leaker of classified documents about the National Security Agency's PRISM data-collection program, praised Hong Kong for its "strong tradition of free speech" in a video posted on the Guardian's website. "I believe the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments," the seemingly unperturbed 29-year-old said. (On Monday, as the U.S. Department of Justice began preparing charges against him, Snowden checked out of his hotel. According to an interview today, he is still in Hong Kong, where he hopes to remain indefinitely.)
While noting the advantages this relatively unrestricted entrepôt offers over the autocratic mainland (Hong Kong, for instance, is not behind the Great Firewall, China's notorious web filtering system), Snowden -- perhaps revealingly -- did not suggest that it was independent from China. Indeed, despite having its own local political structure with a professional, non-politicized bureaucracy, a vocal, market-oriented media, and "long tradition of protesting in the streets," as Snowden put it, Hong Kong does not really enjoy the high level of autonomy it was promised in the Basic Law, which is the closest thing the special administrative region has to a constitution. "It is apparent that Hong Kong's autonomy is being eroded like a frog in slow boiling water," says Yew Chiew Ping, co-editor of a new book, Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule. "Some even said the water has reached boiling point."
As the world's
attention briefly turns to this tiny corner of the Middle Kingdom, it's perhaps
worth asking the question: Who calls the shots in Asia's Gotham City?
Like the gambling Mecca of Macau, Hong Kong enjoys a special status in China. "One country, two systems" is the oft-repeated mantra, first expounded by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. But the two systems Deng was referring to were economic: capitalism vs. socialism. Initially, notes Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, the idea was "politically, there should be no distinction." Yet today Hong Kong and the mainland resemble each other more economically than they do politically. Hong Kong remains an oasis of political freedom inside the world's largest authoritarian state, in part, because it is a testing ground for democratic reform and a "showcase" for Taiwan, which China also claims as its territory.
The Basic Law -- drafted in Beijing, and passed by China's rubber stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) in 1990 -- makes the central government responsible for foreign affairs and defense, but everything else is up to the local government, which operates more like a liberal democracy than Beijing -- think Singapore, for example. Unlike the mainland, where the Communist Party is supreme in all branches of government, Hong Kong has a genuine separation of powers: an appointed chief executive, a partially elected legislative council, and an independent judiciary. Yet, while the central government tries to maintain the appearance of a hands-off approach, it is still a hovering presence, speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
This unique system, so far, has guaranteed relatively robust freedom of expression, comparable with the West. As Snowden noted, there are regular political demonstrations here. Hong Kong's "Occupy Central" outlasted Occupy Wall Street by almost a year. Meanwhile, just last week, more than 50,000 people showed up for an annual vigil commemorating the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. Subjects that are taboo in the mainland are fair game here. Hongkongers have protection from a legal system Hong Kong inherited from the British. "It's not for them [the government] to decide if the court will sentence us to jail," says "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, a radical legislator known for his waist-length hair and signature Che Guevara t-shirts, and who is occasionally arrested for breaching the Public Order Ordinance by blocking traffic during protests. "It's for the prosecution. They cannot order someone to send me to jail. In Hong Kong it's different, still."