Edward Snowden may have to count on the people of Hong Kong to save him from being extradited to the United States.
Hong Kong occupies a unique place when it comes to human rights. Under the "one country, two systems" model by which China governs it, inhabitants of the territory have far more freedom than the mainland Chinese. Their rights are meant to be guaranteed under law in an arrangement set up when the British started the process of handing over the colony to China.
In reality, however, Chinese officials have veto power.
"Hong Kong authorities appear unwilling to deviate much from pro-Beijing interests," states Human Rights Watch in its 2013 report. "They have not moved towards universal suffrage as mandated by the territory's mini-constitution, and have shown weakness in safeguarding the territory's autonomy, civil and political freedoms, and the rule of law."
To make matters more perilous for Snowden, Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States, and has eagerly cooperated with U.S. intelligence in the past. (In that sense, Snowden's fate may ironically depend in part on the willingness of Chinese communist bosses to intervene on his behalf.)
"Certainly the reputation of Hong Kong as a place where free speech is defended has decreased in recent years," Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian. "There is no reason to believe that the very close relationship ... between the intelligence agency in Hong Kong and the CIA has changed in a significant way ... and that Snowden would not be at risk from extradition from Hong Kong."
But the people of Hong Kong have in the past shown a special zeal for taking to the streets to safeguard their freedoms and may be willing to do so again for an international cause célèbre like Snowden.
"If you measure democratic liberties by the willingness of the population to fight for them, then, at least for now, Hong Kong remains a rare and inspiring model," writes Emily Parker for the New Republic.
As Parker chronicles, in 2003 an astounding half a million people came out on the streets to protest a proposed security law that would have mandated long jail terms for people convicted of "sedition." The government buckled, and the law was shelved. Last year Hong Kong residents came out in droves to demonstrate against the planned introduction of a Chinese nationalistic curriculum in schools. Astonishingly, the government yielded.
In keeping with this tradition, human-rights activists are already planning a protest on Snowden's behalf.
"We are yet to agree on the theme of the march but basically we want to express concern about the personal safety of Snowden here," organizer Damon Wong Chun-pong said. "If the U.S. makes an extradition request, the Hong Kong government should not yield to pressure. It should confirm Snowden as a political asylum seeker and give him protection."
Such demonstrations will be channeling a spirit that has long animated Hong Kong.
"The fire of democracy was ignited in the dying days of Hong Kong as a colony," politician and campaigner Martin Lee told the New Republic. "That fire, once ignited, cannot be quenched by an iron fist."
Edward Snowden will have to rely on this blaze to defend his freedom.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).