Beijing's ruling Chinese Communist Party may have had a hand in encouraging U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden to leave Hong Kong, according to a prominent democratic lawmaker in the city, as Chinese commentators hit out at the U.S. over its Internet monitoring practices.
Lawyer and Legislative Council member Albert Ho said Monday he was approached by Snowden last week and asked for advice about whether Hong Kong, which has an independent judiciary but which follows Beijing's foreign policy, would arrest him if Washington requested it under a bilateral extradition treaty.
The former Hawaii-based national security technician was later contacted by someone claiming to represent the Hong Kong government, Ho told reporters as Snowden flew to Moscow on Sunday, reportedly en route to a third country.
"[Beijing] used someone behind the scenes to get Snowden to leave," Ho said, adding that the Hong Kong government didn't play much part in what happened next.
"Its role was to receive instructions to not stop him at the airport," Ho said.
Ho said a Hong Kong government official who met with him had declined to comment at all on Snowden, who has reportedly applied for political asylum in Ecuador.
"I have grounds to believe that the Hong Kong government had no authority over this case," said Ho, who chairs the Democratic Party, which opposes Beijing's interference in the running of Hong Kong, a former British colony promised a high degree of autonomy after a 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
"That's to say the whole case was decided by Beijing," he said.
Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was elected by a political committee handpicked by Beijing, didn't entirely deny Ho's account.
"Of course we would communicate and consult with the central government on anything touching on foreign policy," Leung told reporters. "But I don't know about any middleman."
Allegations of NSA hacking in China
Meanwhile, official Chinese media reacted to allegations by Snowden that the NSA had hacked into Chinese cell phone companies to steal SMS data and had also made sustained attacks on network backbones at the prestigious Beijing-based Tsinghua University and computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of telecom service provider Pacnet.
The official news agency Xinhua said Snowden's disclosures had "put Washington in a really awkward situation."
"Washington should come clean about its record first," the agency said in a commentary on Sunday. "It has to share with the world the range, extent, and intent of its clandestine hacking programs."
The English-language China Daily quoted Jia Xiudong, a senior researcher of U.S. studies at the China Institute of International Studies, as saying that the scale and scope of U.S. monitoring of China's Internet information was "shocking" and "beyond expectation."
"The U.S. is the largest source of foreign cyberattacks on China," Jia told the paper. "Now Snowden's claims show that many such attacks may be backed by the U.S. government."
"The U.S. owes an explanation to China, and the world," he said.
China's National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team and Coordination Center recorded 13,408 hacker attacks from overseas in the first five months of this year which hijacked around 5.63 million mainframes in China, the paper said.
Of that number, 4,062 originated from control servers in the U.S., which had hijacked 2.91 million mainframes in China, it said.
Flight from Hong Kong
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that Washington would be troubled to learn that Russia or Hong Kong allowed Snowden to flee despite specific requests for his detention.
But Russian officials said Moscow had no obligation to cooperate with Washington to repatriate Snowden, who is being advised on his next move by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
A petition posted to the White House website "We the People" calling for an amnesty for Snowden had garnered more than 111,000 signatures by 1500 GMT on Monday.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Poon Siu-to said that, behind the scenes, it was unlikely that either Washington or Beijing wanted Snowden to stay in the territory, however.
"The U.S. would probably feel that it was even less secure to have a person in Chinese hands, especially if that person possessed important intelligence," Poon said. "The threat [to U.S. interests] would be much greater."
But he said extraditing Snowden might not prove an easy task for the U.S. "If there were an extradition hearing in court, then [Snowden] might reveal a lot more secrets in order to protect himself."
Poon said Beijing would likely be highly relieved to have Snowden off its hands.
"The thing they most wanted was to expose the hypocrisy of the United States, and they've already achieved that," he said.
"There was no need for them to hang onto [Snowden]."
Snowden's arrival in Moscow, which like Beijing seeks to challenge U.S. global dominance, is an embarrassment to President Barack Obama, who has tried to improve ties with Russia and China. The U.S. has also accused Russia of cyberespionage and hacking into U.S. secure systems.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has expressed "grave concern" over Snowden's allegations that the United States had hacked computers in China.
Snowden has been charged with theft of federal government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.