For days, we have been hearing that the leaker of National Security Agency surveillance secrets, Edward Snowden, is hiding out in Hong Kong. Or, to put it in a variety of other ways — all culled from the recent news — he has gone to ground, dropped out of sight, is in hiding, disappeared, vanished. Though he has somehow managed to continue giving interviews, from what the International Business Times describes as “a secret base” in Hong Kong. It sounds like a plot setup from that old master of spy thrillers, Eric Ambler — complete with the twist that a man who has just achieved world fame by exposing surveillance is now trying to stay in the spotlight without actually being spotted. And of course he has gone to ground, disappeared, vanished, in Hong Kong — a place I suspect is still vaguely linked in public imagination to the old romance of Asian ports, of Taipan, intrigue in the tea rooms, Suzie Wong in the bars and back alley mazes into which one can simply disappear (some of that accurate and some of it by now hallucinatory).
OK, whatever else this case is all about, if Snowden has genuinely dropped out of sight in Hong Kong, I am in awe. I lived in Hong Kong from 1986-1993, and have returned fairly often over the years since. There is plenty about modern Hong Kong that I most certainly do not know. But this much I do know. If there is one thing that is insanely difficult to do in Hong Kong, at least for a gweilo — to use the Cantonese word for folks of Snowden’s non-Cantonese ethnic origins — it is nearly impossible to truly drop out of sight.
For starters, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated enclaves on the planet. With 7 million people packed into a relatively small area, the population density is on average about 6,540 persons per square mile. In its most densely populated district, Kwun Tong, the average is 54,530. That does not mean, however, that it is easy for someone like Snowden to get lost in the throng. According to Hong Kong government statistics, 93.6% of those people are of Chinese descent. Only 6.4% are foreign nationals, and of those, a scant 29,000 or so are Americans. In other words, if you are an American in Hong Kong, and people have reasons to be curious about you, it is very hard to hide in a crowd.
So, what about hunkering down in a windowless flat, or a place with curtains drawn, and whiling away the days without ever going out? Well, he’d still have to have gotten there. Even before we get to the basics that Hong Kong is a special autonomous region of the hack-happy surveillance realms of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong is wired. It’s a city of cameras — traffic cameras, private security cameras, mobile phone cameras. Plus, try though you might to take a solitary stroll in the city shadows, with that many people crammed into that little space there just isn’t a lot of solitude. There’s almost always someone, sweeping a curb, shuttering a shop, taking an early morning delivery.